Barbecue is a truly geeky pursuit. Think about it: Here you've got grown men and women obsessing over an antiquated and inefficient cooking method, one that's been effectively replaced in popular culture by push-button smoke ovens and prepackaged sauces. These are people who trumpet tradition over innovation, bemoan the spread of faux barbecue chains, and give you a preachy earful if you critique their pastime. Barbecue geeks even have their own vernacular: words like bark and smoke ring and rub. And when two said aficionados get together to talk shop, the result can just about clear a room of sane and normal folk.
I count myself among the geek crowd simply because I find barbecue — like most good things in life — to be worth the extra time and effort. That, plus being a self-righteous barbecue nut is so much more fun than being obsessed with, say, comic books. With barbecue, you get to taste the results. The proof is quite literally in the pulled pork.
Or chopped pork, as in the chopped pork sandwich I tried at Sheila's Famous BBQ, Conch, and More a few weeks back. I ordered the sandwich from Sheila's takeout window and grabbed a seat at one of the tiled, stone benches under the building's shady overhang out front. The sandwich, overflowing with hunks of pink-tinged pork, was barely contained in its small paper tray. I took a bite and bits of smoky meat toppled out, landing in the tray with a glop thanks to the generous helping of rich tomato-based sauce. It was delicious, a sandwich after my own geeky heart.
The praise for that slow-smoked pork belongs to Sheila's co-owner, Sam Johnson. Johnson and his wife, Dania, run the bright-yellow barbecue and seafood shack at 12th and Dixie Highway in Lake Worth. The 2-month-old place is little more than a single-room kitchen with a takeout window and a barrel smoker parked out back. It shares nothing with the fancy, new barbecue restaurants popping up all over South Florida these days. Instead, its barbecue (and Bahamian-style seafood) is completely legit.
How the Johnsons arrived there is a little bit of a trip. Sam is from Fort Myers originally, Dania from the Bahamas. Both were raised in big cooking families, but it wasn't until the housing market collapsed that Sam left his career in real estate behind and decided to open the original Sheila's as a concession trailer in late 2007. For three years, they dished out their home-style food from Okeechobee and Military Trail in West Palm Beach, Sam leveraging his grandparent's award-winning barbecue recipes with Dania frying up tender, Bahamian-style cracked conch. By the time the property was sold, Sheila's had built a decent enough following to take a gamble on this location in Lake Worth.
Not only do I love the Johnsons' rustic food, but I think it fits perfectly in their new restaurant. It's the picture of an authentic roadside 'cue shack, the kind of place you smell long before you see (a telltale sign of true barbecue if there ever was one). The tiny building is completely ensconced in the scent of wood smoke. Out front is a takeout window and a modest outdoor seating area composed of about five benches and a few stone planters decorated with fishing nets and wooden signs pointing toward Nassau and Key West. Adding to the mix is a decidedly island vibe enhanced by the thrum of island music emanating from the roof. Look up and you'll notice that it's coming from a portable boom box tied to the ceiling with rope. It doesn't get much more roadside than that.
Sheila's menu is hung on a big plastic sign right by the takeout window. All that time spent cooking in a trailer must have taught the Johnsons how to turn out a big selection from a small space. In addition to the fried fish, chicken, and several varieties of conch, there's plenty of barbecue to choose from, including chopped pork, boneless rib tips, and meaty spare ribs. Each is served as a meal with two sides or by the piece — yes, if you want to order only two ribs, you can do just that. (Chris Rock fans will note that you, sadly, cannot order just one rib.)
Sam owes his barbecue knowledge to his grandparents, whom he says frequently entered into and won competitions all along Florida's West Coast. From an early age, he learned there's a right way and a wrong way to handle 'cue, and those traditions have stuck with him. He uses a mixture of charcoal to get his smoker started and then tosses on oak wood to give his pork its distinctive, mellow flavor. Then, he says, he lets his meat cook low and slow for up to five hours, breaking down all the fat and connective tissue until it's tender and moist.
All that sounds great in theory, but pulling off that kind of precision in a restaurant can be tricky business — especially when you factor in long cook times with variance in customer demand. That's why a lot of barbecue fans make the distinction between competition 'cue — the kind you'll find at barbecue throwdowns — and restaurant 'cue, which usually makes some concessions with the formula.
Still, Sheila's manages to perform that balancing act nicely. I think that's because the restaurant doesn't keep its barbecue in warming trays like so many others. Case in point: When I ordered a four-piece rib meal, I watched as the barbecue cook pulled a rack right off the smoker and brought it into the kitchen to cut. When he reappeared with a tray of ribs for me just moments later, I knew they would taste great before I even tried them.
As a result of that philosophy, though, Sheila's can sometimes run out of things. For example, the place serves a host of sides to go with its barbecue meals, a mixture of Southern recipes like mac 'n' cheese and collard greens and Bahamian ones like pigeon peas and rice. But I never got a chance to taste Sheila's mac 'n' cheese because they were out of it every time I went. When I asked about it, Johnson told me over the phone that he'd rather risk running out of something because it's fresh than make up quantities to last for days.
If that's the price one has to pay to achieve pure barbecue geekery, then so be it. Besides, if Sheila's is out of one thing, well, that's just all the more reason to get adventurous and try another! I suggest pairing your 'cue with some of Dania's wonderful cracked conch or fresh-made conch salad. The latter, I've recently decided, is about the best friend a chopped pork sandwich has. There's just something about the way that chewy conch soaked in peppery lime juice sets off the rich barbecue. Or maybe it's how the slivers of red-hot Scotch bonnet peppers inside make you want to swipe your finger through that sweet sauce just to cool off your mouth.
That combo is where the real fun is at Sheila's. There's plenty here for hard-core barbecue nuts like me to appreciate, but there's also that easy island setting and home-style Bahamian food to appeal to a wider crowd. It's why the place has been filling up regularly with families all chomping on doughy conch fritters with tangy mustard-mayo sauce, their kids running around the stone tables as they dine. The Johnsons even hope to parlay their success into a second location by the early next year. I can see them converting people into barbecue nuts all over South Florida. Which is fine by me. More folks that I can talk shop with.