In the barbecue latitudes of the Deep South, the lines of distinction between regional variations can be about as narrow as Hank Hill's urethra. But over in the Republic of Texas, where dalliances in grilling experimentation are generally frowned on, a tried and true formula is followed ' hot-smoking, aka slow-cooking over a wood-fired haze.
And Floridians have Cecil Reaves to thank for bringing the Lone Star brand of 'cueing to the Sunshine State. His smokehouse is a simple brick edifice on the Boulevard of Barbecue Dreams (South Orange is home to three other joints ' Conway's, O'Boys and Blackwater Bar-B-Q), where the waft of some critter being cooked to perfection two-steps its way into your nostrils the moment you get out of your car.
Inside, amid the country kitsch and Texas paraphernalia, a simple and orderly protocol is followed: Stand in the 'cue queue, place your order deli-style, get your plate of hand-carved meat, then proceed around the counter and get your fill of sides. Meats such as pulled pork, ham, chicken and ribs are offered individually, though your best bet is to go with a 2- or 3-meat specialty plate ($10.95; $12.95), both of which come with a slice of Texas toast and two sides. But if you're talking Texas-style barbecue, you're talking beef brisket and sausage, and the brisket done here is dang near perfect. Velvety strands of pink under a char of epidermal smokiness are the result of 16 hours of slow-searing over hickory wood. Once cooked, briskets are sheathed in plastic wrap and kept in a warming drawer to retain their juicy flavor.
Puncturing the resplendent skin of the hot links produced a perfect snap with every bite and yielded superbly moist flesh underneath. Both the pulled pork and the pork ribs were infused in a smoky essence, but devoid of moisture. I enjoyed the smoky succulence of the turkey breast and the perfumed meat of the chicken though, again, the latter was a tad dry. Enter the sauce bar, where hot, mild and sweet sauces are kept warm in crocks. A word of warning, hoss ' repetitive dunks in the fiery-hot version will have you squattin' on your spurs.
What really places Cecil's a country mile ahead of the competition are the 16 available side items, like jalapeño mashed potatoes, not too spicy, but blended with a ton of butter. I couldn't get enough of the sweet potato soufflé, an ideal complement to the brisket, and the breaded fried okra. Black-eyed peas, sautéed in a ham, butter and onion sauce, were true to form, and the jalapeño chili beans were hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch.
Desserts are a bit of a luxury, as free soft-serve ice cream comes with all dine-in orders, but if you're bringing a Texas-sized appetite, creamy banana pudding ($2.50) with crumbly Nilla wafers is the way to go. Conversely, like one of Dubya's State of the Union addresses, the peach pie ($2.50) was pretty hard to digest.
Cecil's has raised the bar of BBQ bodacity in this city, and you have to applaud their commitment to slaving over meats for hours on end ' no nuking, parboiling, pre-cooking or quick-broiling here. And I hope to be kicked to death by grasshoppers if that ain't the truth.
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