Thursday, November 29, 2001

Friendly fire

Posted on Thu, Nov 29, 2001 at 4:00 AM

If you want to start an argument at a table full of men, don't bother questioning religious beliefs, views on women or slamming the local football team. Ask them about the best way to barbecue.

And we're not even talking about Korean bulgogi, Indian tandoori or Spanish churrasco. No, this debate is between Texas brisket and Memphis pulled pig, Kansas City spareribs or North Carolina pork, wet cooking or dry rub. When the Wild-horse Saloon at Disney was focused on food, the chef was a dry-rubbed fanatic, which made for eye-rollingly superb food. Now that Wildfires has opened downtown, it looks like we have a winner again.

The corner place on Washington Street used to be an Out of Hand Burrito Stand, which took over for the similar Chez Jose. Now a group led by Rosario Poma (Pacino's, Wise Guys of Chicago, Key W. Kools), who was connected with the XS Orlando restaurant when it first opened, has brought smoke to Thornton Park, and where there's smoke ...

You won't be terribly shocked by the menu, although a few things go beyond ribs 'n' bird, like smoked portobella sandwiches ($5.95) and fried shrimp ($8.95). Please avoid the chicken crostini appetizer: While the meat is fine, the bread, which by definition should be crunchy, is so limp that a fork is mandatory.

But you don't go to a kosher deli and order a ham sandwich, and you don't go to a smokehouse for bread -- you go for ribs! From a half-rack for $6.40 to the rib, chicken and pork "sampler" for $11.95, these babies are a good definition of barbecue. Dry rubbing takes hours before the slow heat and dense smoke cooks the meat, leaving a crust of spices and a mellow, dark taste. Don't smother them with sauce, even though it's available.

If you're not interested in meat, there are a couple of fish items on the menu. The oak-grilled mahi ($12.95) is a tasty bit of tender, juicy fish, but you will look over at the servings of your more carnivorous tablemates and wonder what you did wrong: They have massive, overflowing portions and you have a sliver of a meal by comparison. The corn and tomato salsa that accompanies the fish is an unfortunately boring choice, lacking both flavor and interest.

But if you order the chicken, you'll know you're on to something. The firm and juicy meat is sweet from smoke -- almost apple-tasting -- and falls apart in your hand ($7.95 for a half bird).

There's live jazz on weekends, and I'm told more Orlando locations are in the works. Go, grab some well-crafted 'cue. There's no bones about it.

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