Texas Barbecue Addiction and the Equivalent (or Lack Thereof) in South Florida

Photos by Robert Sietsema
This is where the barbecue addiction begins.
Right around 9 o'clock last night, a cheer was raised in the kitchen. The overworked FedEx folk had finally delivered the barbecue.

It was Texas barbecue, and for one of the ten individuals staying in our home for the holidays  -- Lance, he's called -- this is fable food, memory food. It came in a massive cooler from a legendary Texas meat temple called the Salt Lick. We got 30-some-odd pounds of the stuff. Ribs, brisket, enormous links of sausage, along with the necessary accouterments. Salt Lick hot sauce is somehow creamy, tart, and spicy at the same.

I loathe barbecue, but in the years I've known Lance, I've come to love Salt Lick. All of Salt Lick's meat is astounding. The brisket's especially so, achieving a synthesis of fat and muscle  that's almost unique. You see the stripe of fat, running almost an inch thick midway through the brisket's bulk, but you cannot distinguish it in any particular bite. The brisket's commingled meatiness and fattiness and smokiness overwhelms the mouth, and then it's gone -- too tender to last more than a chew or three.

Lance spends most of the year in Singapore, which is surely one of the world's great food meccas. But despite their facility with chili crab and sambal stingray, the uncles who run the city's hocker stalls have yet to master Texas barbecue. As Lance travels the globe on his business circuit, sampling the manifold deliciousnesses of Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Dubai, and Cairo, there is a part of his mind that says, at all times: "Yes, that's lovely -- but where's the beef?"

Last night, the beef was in the hall, in the oven, and then on his plate, and though my eight roommates and I dug into the stuff enthusiastically, there was a uniquely beatific smile on Lance's face. It was the smile of homecoming.

Salt Lick has been run by the same family for generations, in a one-stoplight Texas town called Driftwood, about an hour south of Austin. Austinites regularly make the pilgrimage. Lance moved to Driftwood almost half a century ago, and he left not a decade later. But he keeps going back. Some moneyed ex-Texans fly into Austin's airport, visit the Salt Lick kiosk (Austin's airport offers concessions only to local businesses), and then fly out again, sated. Lance never gets that crazy. But when he's in the States for any kind of special occasion, he calls the place up, and Fed Ex goes to work.

salt lick plate.jpg
Salt Lick's $11.95 barbecue plate.

Last night, as the roommates talked and laughed and drank beer, Lance sat, quiet and happy, gazing indistinctly at the wall. I watched him and thought: What's the Salt Lick equivalent for a Fort Lauderdale boy like me?

There's not much. When I was a kid, the most delicious meal in town was a sandwich and ice cream at a place on Las Olas called the Chemist Shoppe. The Chemist Shoppe was an atavistic endeavor even then ("then," in this case, being the late '80s and early '90s) -- a pharmacy and random-goods store, full of walking sticks and umbrellas, clocks and tchotchkes. There was a sandwich shop on a raised platform in back of the place, and there they served something called the Tudor. This was a hand-whipped ice cream concoction served in a tall, narrow glass. There was vanilla ice cream in there and fudge and marshmallow sauce and little nuggets of bittersweet chocolate. The key to its awesomeness was in the hand-whipping, which gave the thing a thick, silky texture I've never experienced elsewhere and that I haven't experienced at all in almost two decades. The Chemist Shoppe closed in the mid-'90s and was replaced by an aggressively orange store selling overpriced objets d'art.

Then there was Pomodoro, a high-end Italian joint next to a boot store on Commercial Boulevard. I'm pretty sure Pomodoro's proprietors were the first to bring thin-crust, brick-oven pizza to South Florida. The handsome pizza maestro, who didn't speak English and didn't have to, stood beside the oven at the front of the bar, kneading, flipping, and charring the dough, filling the front of the house with miraculous smells. On the menu was something called "Quattro Formagi" -- a pizza that combined mozzarella, goat's cheese, and I-can't-remember-which-other cheeses with a dusting of basil. At 9 years old, I was convinced it was the best pizza I'd ever eaten. And it was still the best pizza in town until 2008. But the owners, whoever they were, sucked at advertising, and people stopped coming. As diners by the hundreds gobbled up inferior pies at California Pizza Kitchen just a mile and a half away, Pomodoro was serving five, six tables a night. It closed quietly. I don't know exactly when.

There have been other great dishes from other great cooks in South Florida, but save for a few lucky and probably overrated meals that have become famous -- the burger at Le Tub, Michele Bernstein's fried chicken -- most are gone forever. I truly believe no one will ever understand what's cool about SoFla until they try Kilmo's gumbo from the now-defunct Alligator Alley. And the greatest dessert ever served in Fort Lauderdale was, I'm convinced, the kaffir and lime-leaf flan from the now-defunct the Four Rivers -- an avant-garde Thai place that was too weird for the Floridian palate but that would have become world-famous in Greenwich Village.

I'm pleased to have grown up in South Florida and even a little proud to have been part of the first generation to have done so on a large scale. (Most Floridians more than three or four years older than me grew up someplace else.) But watching Lance eat last night, I wondered and worried, not for the first time, if maybe I hadn't lost something by growing up in a city without a memory, in a place with tastes as transient as its snowbirds. 

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Great article & the barbecue looks fabulous! And memories of the Chemist Shoppe, are certainly the sweetest.

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