Thursday, July 3, 2003

Different smokes

Posted on Thu, Jul 3, 2003 at 4:00 AM

I've had the pleasure of being around champion barbecue chefs several times in my life, and I can tell you that they all have two things in common. First, they smell like smoke, always. If you're standing somewhere and suddenly think the building is on fire, there's probably a competition barbecuer standing behind you, exuding hickory or apple-seasoned aromas. Second, most of them are crazy.

I didn't get to meet the man behind (or in front of) the smoker at Blackwater Bar-B-Q, but there were at least a couple nutty customers when I went in, so maybe it's contagious. The new joint is immediately next to longstanding French restaurant Le Coq au Vin on South Orange. So you can spend $100 on a meal for yourself at the former, or feed a dozen folks on the same C-note simply by walking a few feet to the latter. Ah, America.)

In cafeteria style, carnivorous diners order meat from one station while side items get ordered down the line at another. The choices include baby-back and St. Louis-style ribs (the larger, meatier-but-chewier kind), sliced smoked turkey, shredded "pulled" pork shoulder, whole chicken and sliced beef, plus enough sides to keep things interesting.

"Stop standing around looking at the menu," the guy behind me (who might have smelled like smoke) bellowed. "You don't come here for a hamburger -- it's the ribs!" And indeed it is. The meats come out of a huge industrial smoker looking pink and tasting like prize-winning delights. Even a half-slab of ribs is huge (Mr. Impatient polished off a full slab by himself), and each morsel is tender and charcoal-y. These are good ribs, with a hard-to-locate dry rub, part slow-cooked Memphis and part black-pepper spicy Texas.

The regional differences of 'cue are what keep life interesting at cook-offs, and Blackwater claims a 5th-place win at a recent Tennessee competition (out of more than 100 entries) by drawing from the best of those differences. The chicken tastes like it's straight from the Carolinas, slightly pink and juicy with a kick behind the gooey sauce; the thick-sliced turkey is so smoky it almost tastes like ham.

All items are available as sandwiches ("Samies" here; $5.45 to $9.50) or full dinners with a choice of two sides ($6.95 to $18). I recommend the chewy and simple cornbread and the crisp and multicabbaged slaw. I'm not a fan of overcooked greens; and the pork and beans looked like molasses-laced bean paste.

But you don't come here for the beans, as my friend would yell. It's the ribs!



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