Ten Misconceptions About Barbecue:
1. Grilled and barbecued foods are ideal for summertime.
I don't think so. I mean it sure doesn't feel ideal standing over a hot outdoor grill in simmering midsummer Miami. In fact it feels pretty gritty and more than a little insane. And fatty, smoky, heavy meats don't seem particularly well-suited for a brutally humid afternoon. The reason we're stuck on this discombobulated schedule is that most folks around America have to barbecue (or, more accurately, grill) in summer; the rest of the year Dad is too tired from commuting home on icy roads to even consider turning wieners while standing in snow drifts and getting whipped by high winds. We Floridians are more fortunate, and now that things are cooling down a bit, the notion of nibbling on ribs seems a sounder proposition — downright alluring actually. Because I don't own a smoker or pit, barbecue in our household implies taking a drive — and for the real McCoy, a somewhat long drive (especially when traffic is factored in).
2. You can't get the real McCoy in South Florida.
This is just something Texans like to say because they are bitter about having to live in Texas. Who wouldn't be? Permit me to present two resounding refutations: Shiver's Bar-B-Q on U.S. 1 (South Dixie Highway) in Homestead, and Tom Jenkins' Bar-B-Q on U.S. 1 (South Federal Highway) in Fort Lauderdale. The latter began in 1996 as a roadside trailer stand run by Florida A&M students Harry Harrell and Gary Torrence (nephew of the late Mr. Jenkins). Six years later they moved across the street into the current location, a log cabin eatery with picnic table seating for 40 (and a few outdoor tables behind the parking lot too). Many a suggestion has been made to me concerning places "better than Jenkins'," but such tips never pan out. When a couple of friends recently asked whether I agreed that Shiver's pork ribs compared favorably, I sheepishly admitted I'd never been, and took the drive down a few days later. Shiver's certainly has the edge in experience; it has been in the same spot since 1950 (though ownership changed hands 20 years ago). The requisite weathered, log cabin/picnic table-and-bench décor is in place, too, along with obligatory cattle horns and horseshoes on the walls. And the ribs are indeed comparable. More about this later.
3. Hot dogs and hamburgers are America's favorite barbecued meats.
Might as well clear up a major misunderstanding right now: Hot dogs and burgers are America's favorite grilled meats. Grilling is what most Americans do on, say, Labor Day. It means placing small cuts — like steaks, chicken breasts, shrimp, and the aforementioned duo — directly over fire- or gas-fueled coals, and cooking quickly to achieve a smoky flavor and slightly charred exterior. Barbecue is about taking large pieces of animal — like racks of ribs, whole chickens, briskets, and pork butts — and cooking indirectly, via heat and smoke from wood chips, for an extended period of time. Shiver's uses traditional American hickory, which has a robustly smoky flavor that's generally regarded as the best-suited for pork. Jenkins' foods are slowly imbued with a blend of hickory and red oak, the latter preferred by Europeans for its clean, distinctive, but not overpowering smoke.
4. Lots of smoke means good barbecue.
Barbecuing meat is different from smoking it. A long, steady, controlled heat with little smoke yields the best result. An efficient pit, using only seven logs, can in 14 hours cook up to 700 pounds of meat. About that much seemingly gets pulled each day from the glorious brick pit at Tom Jenkins', its multiple tiers of pork, chicken, and beef glistening in sunlight that streams in via the furnace's rooftop aperture. Smoke does shoot up that chute, but not nearly as much as you would imagine. Shiver's tosses pretty much the same meats into a pair of smokers, but the magic is performed out of sight. You can sure smell the burning hickory, though, particularly from the parking lot — which, tellingly, is not engulfed in smoke.
5. Barbecue sauce is what makes barbecue barbecue.
Brushing a chicken with Open Pit-ish sauce and cooking it on the grill might very well produce a tasty bird. When real pit masters are at work, however, sauce is something that gets served in plastic squeeze bottles on the table — or, occasionally, applied with a traditional mop-style baster toward the end of cooking. Shiver's showcases a quintet of scintillating sauces: red-hot; a chunkier, smokier red-hot; sweet brown molasses-based; mildly spicy mustard-based; and hickory-heavy "Shiver's Sauce." Jenkins' offers a side cup of fairly piquant tomato-and-molasses-driven sauce and one communal squeeze bottle of more fiery liquid.
The meats at both joints, for the most part, come out so fully imbued with flavor that sauces are superfluous. Ribs are clearly Shiver's strong suit, especially the spare ribs — among the tastiest and tenderest I've had. Best bet for first-timers might be the sampler, with heaping helpings of beef, pork, baby-backs, and two sides. Jenkins' spare ribs rock as well, but the baby-backs are dry. Shiver's desiccated brisket and pulled pork are likewise exceptions to the "no sauce needed" claim. On the other side of the spectrum, Jenkins' chopped pork is a masterpiece of moistness. The chunks of meat, some spotted with alluringly charred crusts, others swirled with pink smoke rings, are available either piled onto a plate or plunked into a sandwich.
6. Potato salad and coleslaw can't be beat as barbecue sides.
Sure they can: baked beans, collard greens, and corn on the cob. Jenkins' greens taste fresh (the potato salad and coleslaw are also good), but its baked beans are too similar to the ones from a can of Heinz. Shiver's tenders a wider array of choices, including black-eyed peas, fried okra, and a couple of items you don't often see pulled from a fryer — like corn on the cob, and mac 'n' cheese, which brings breaded, quarter-size discs of cheddar and noodles. (If McDonald's ever comes out with Cheese 'n' Mac Nuggets, they will look and taste like these.) Jenkins' more traditional version gets the nod.
7. There are numerous wines (Argentine Malbecs, Super Tuscans, Zinfandels, and so forth) that pleasantly pair with the assertively smoky flavors of the grill.
This is actually true. But beer goes better. I don't know why; it just does. If you must, a $3 glass of house wine is offered at Shiver's. What kind is it? At that price it's best not to ask — and better still not to drink. A pitcher of Bud is only $7.95, but if you want that fancy imported stuff the city folk prefer, there is Corona, Heineken, Amstel, and the like. Jenkins' doesn't serve beer or wine, but the fresh-squeezed lemonade cuts against grease in a most refreshing way.
8. Desserts are part and parcel of a great barbecue dining experience.
Yes and no. And no. Yes for Jenkins' luscious, buttery-crusted sweet potato pie. No for its peach cobbler, made with canned fruit and too much cornstarch (available only Fridays and Saturdays after 5:00 p.m.). No at Shiver's, with the possible exception of a housemade peach cobbler that was unavailable when we visited. Other desserts such as pecan pie and coconut custard pie sounded fetching but were prefab wedges of pedestrian quality.
9. Not all African-Americans are great barbecue chefs, but all great barbecue chefs are African-American.
Not true, although the guys working the smoker at Shiver's are, indeed, African-American. So are the guys manning the pit at Jenkins'. But there are quite a few barbecue masters of Caucasian persuasion, one such fellow being Mike Mills of 17th St. Barbecue in Marion, Illinois. That said, if you're looking for worthy barbecue in an unfamiliar city, better to ask around in a black neighborhood than garner recommendations from the scrawny white desk clerk at your hotel.
10. Shiver's is just as good as Jenkins'.
Nah. Its ribs are equal, maybe even better, but Jenkins' chopped pork smokes anything at Shiver's. Sides are slightly better, too, and then there is that sweet potato pie. Prices at the two are similar, meaning $10 will fill your tank, and $20 will fill you with regret for having eaten too much.
I've heard it said that Shiver's has slowly slid downhill over the decades. Truth be told, this latest trip to Jenkins' didn't impress as much as it used to, either. Still, these are two of our best barbecue joints, so if the mood for seriously, smokily delectable fare should strike, just follow this simple formula: When up north, jaunt to Jenkins'. When south, seek Shiver's. Then just eat. And chill.
An efficient pit can in 14 hours cook up to 700 pounds of meat.
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