Thursday, May 5, 2005

FAT BOYS … AND GIRLS

Posted on Thu, May 5, 2005 at 4:00 AM

We all know that safety deposit boxes are places of personal treasure – diamonds, gold, family heirlooms. But index cards? Not exactly the family riches. Unless, of course, you're Todd Keller.

Keller, of Keller's Bar-B-Q, has pulled his father's recipes out of lockdown once again to bring authentic barbecue to a new University Boulevard location. Coming from a long line of barbecue masters, Keller learned from his father, the creator and king of the famed Fat Boys' Bar-B-Q. Keller decided to follow his parents' smoke trail and opened his own barbecue joint in 1994 in Lake Mary. He's had his hands in the barbecue world ever since.

Not much has changed since the first Keller's opened or the second location in Altamonte Springs; the food is still as delicious as ever. The difference at this third place is that Keller partnered with a childhood friend and neighbor, Kemp Anderson. The barbecue is still some of the best you'll find in these parts, and I brought my own personal barbecue expert to testify. My husband, Gregg, is from an area of Kentucky where three of the top 100 barbecue restaurants in the world are located. (There's such a reverence for barbecue in his family that his father used to say to him after eating three helpings of done-right pulled pork, "Son, I'm proud to be eating with you.") And my expert gives Keller's his mark of approval.

Keller's is a bastion of fun in an outparcel building set in an otherwise dismal parking lot. Loud vinyl cowhide tablecloths on the outdoor tables scream (moo?) from across the lot. Inside, the lights are bright, the music loud. Murals of idyllic farm animals look out on the small dining room. On another wall, there's a mural of the original Fat Boys, a reminder of where those animals end up. Friendly is the only word to accurately describe the service. Everyone is treated like a regular, in the spirit of a country café.

Sweet corn nuggets ($3.99) are as delightful as ever, especially when dipped in mountain honey. The Brunswick stew ($2.99) is one of the recipes from Keller's safe. The shredded pork, chicken and beef thicken a rich, peppery stew packed with country sausage, lima beans, corn and crushed tomatoes. We skipped the salads, adhering to the philosophy that there is no reason to nibble on iceberg when one can save more room for something of the smoked order. But if salad is your thing, I hear their smoked-chicken version is good ($7.99).

Gregg ordered the sampler platter ($13.99), a meat-lover's dream with sliced pork, beef, one-quarter chicken on the bone and ribs. Although there is no open pit in sight (the fault of EPA regulations and strip mall kitchen specifications), Keller's has managed to capture the charred flavor of an open-pit smoker with help from a top-of-the-line commercial smoker and Keller's savvy from a lifetime of barbecue experience. The meat was tender and infused with the robust flavor of pure blackjack oak.

I got smoked turkey on garlic bread ($6.59) and drenched it in sweet sauce. The smoky meat and buttery toast was a match made in paradise. I ate every last bite, then reached over and stuffed a few pieces of Gregg's sliced pork between stray garlic bread. No barbecue meal would be complete without mention of sauces, and Keller's has three – "original" mustard, spicy tomato and sweet tomato.

Of the sides, the baked beans, another time-tested recipe from the vault, are made fresh, with smoked meat for flavor. The green beans are loaded with bacon and, thankfully, are from a can. (Fresh green beans don't go with barbecue.) Skip both the cole slaw, a flavorless clump of shreds, and the Sysco-delivered dessert. Even Keller admits these aren't strong points.

My advice is to save as much room as possible for meat. After all, it's the stuff that heirlooms are made of.

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