A South Florida guy, LeBron James included, could learn a few things in San Antonio, says Jay Armstead, hoops fan and barbecue whiz.
Armstead is the owner and master of the parking-lot smoker at Texas Hold ’Em BBQ, which opened recently in a new waterside location on Federal Highway after several years down the road near Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Theatre.
Texas Hold ‘Em’s signature brisket didn’t come naturally to Armstead, a Queens, N.Y., native and a 20-year Fort Lauderdale resident. When he opened his first location on Sunrise Boulevard near Powerline Road, his reputation stemmed from his way with spareribs. The name of the place (from the card game, Armstead says) began to draw visiting Texans who expected a certain style of meat and something with more heat than the tomato-based, Kansas City-style sauce he was serving.
“When you’ve got a barbecue place with Texas in your name, you’ve got to come correct,” he says.
So Armstead decided to switch to Texas-style barbecue, and went straight to the source, making several trips to Austin’s famed Salt Lick and Rudy’s in San Antonio, where chefs invited him into the kitchen to gather tips on how to choose and prepare brisket.
Texas Hold ‘Em’s brisket spends 14 to 16 hours in the smoker, manned by Armstead himself, before it reveals what he calls “that nice bark, that charry crunch” that distinguishes Texas barbecue.
Armstead’s success story follows a trail of barbecue sauce that would do Horatio Alger proud. He began more than a decade ago with a smoker in the parking lot of a Shell gas station at Sunrise Boulevard and Powerline Road, then moved the smoker a few blocks away to a Sunrise brick-and-mortar he called Texas Hold ‘Em BBQ.
After some success, Armstead moved to a spot downtown off Andrews Avenue near Hardy Park, then to the north side of the Sunrise curve across the street from the Gateway Theater. He did three years of decent business there, he says, before turnover in the center (Wolf Camera and We Take the Cake departed) and its awkward geography took its toll.
Old fans have followed Armstead to the new location (“Memorial Day was insane. Insane,” he says) at 2528 N. Federal Highway (look for the A-frame with the longhorns painted on it). The parking lot backs onto the Middle River, where a newly upgraded dock has been drawing brisk boater business. The interior of the former Chowder Heads has been brightened up and now includes Texas Hold ‘Em’s familiar jazz and blues album jackets (Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Rollins and Willie Dixon).
You can expect the Heat to be on the flat-screen behind the bar on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” says Armstead, a reformed Knicks fan who follows the Brooklyn Nets. “Tim Duncan, Parker, Ginobili — that’s a lot of experience. They have a coach that’s won it four times. I’m not saying the Heat can’t do it, but they could find some trouble.”
Texas Hold ‘Em is open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Info: 954-527-4115.
STEERS AND BEERS
Texas Hold ‘Em’s old space across from the Gateway Theatre sits in a knot of roadway where Sunrise and Federal Highway unspool. “A tricky location,” Armstead calls it.
Drivers headed east on Sunrise or north on Federal have to make U-turns to reach the strip center, and motorists rounding the bend from Federal onto Sunrise going west could miss the turn into the parking lot entirely if they aren’t paying attention. It was too much hassle for many people, Armstead believes.
But if there is anyone who can create a restaurant that makes you want to slow down and take notice it’s Elliot Wolf, who just added the meat-centric Red Cow to a portfolio that includes Coconuts on Fort Lauderdale beach and Foxy Brown on Broward Boulevard.
Opened two weeks ago where Texas Hold 'Em used to be, Red Cow is as bright and beautiful as you’d expect (with tractor seats at the bar), and the menu includes welcome moments of Wolfian intrigue (fried quail and waffle appetizer; jalapeno cheddar sausage; “pork-strami”).
The bar also has its treasures for the beer lover, with 11 drafts that include the hoppy Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, Green Flash West Coast IPA (San Diego) and Boynton Beach’s own Due South Caramel.
Red Cow is at 1025 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Info: 954-652-1524.
T's FOR YOU
WRMF radio's Party in the Park, featuring the Plain White T’s, will kick off Boca Raton’s new Summer Sunset Music Series at Mizner Park Amphitheater (590 Plaza Real) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The series of pop, jazz and classical shows scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 11 will be free, but the kickoff concert with the Plain White T’s (“Hey There Delilah”) is $20 (general admission, standing room only). The T's will perform songs from a new EP, "Should've Gone to Bed," along with the memorable hits "Hey There Delilah," "1, 2, 3, 4" and "Rhythm of Love." If you really need to sit down, chairs can be rented for $5. Tickets: FrontGateTickets.com. More info: 561-544-8600, MiznerAmphitheater.com, DowntownBoca.org.