I like the vibe at Fat Boyz Barbecue in Deerfield Beach, a cramped red building the size of a double-wide mobile home with a mom-and-pop feel. And I like the back story of founder Jarael Holston, an Ely High graduate and U.S. Army veteran who five years ago started doing barbecue fundraisers at his Fort Lauderdale church. He and wife Yolanda Holston, who quit her job at the post office a few years back, now have a fleet of three food trucks and their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, which opened in February 2017.
Unfortunately, I didn’t like much of the food at Fat Boyz on a recent visit. The Texas-style brisket ($9.99 sandwich, $13.99 plate with two sides) was OK, tender pieces edged with proper fat and a faint smoke ring. The burnt brisket ends ($11.99 sandwich, $16.99 plate) were good, the only item with a flavor profile I liked, featuring an apple-cider vinegar rub that cut the sweetness of the barbecue sauce. The green-apple coleslaw was decent. Most everything else left me unfulfilled.
The spare ribs ($13.99) were attractive but soggy, with no exterior crunch. The smoked pastrami ($13.99) was too salty and more like corned beef, with no pepper, coriander or clove around the edges. The half chicken ($11.99) looked gorgeous but wasn’t salty enough and lacked smoke flavor. The pulled pork ($10.99) was a mushy bland mess, a brown heap tinged with Carolina mustard sauce that lacked vinegary punch. It looked like some of the Irma debris sitting on my block. The brisket-flecked baked beans were too sweet for my liking. The candied yams tasted weird and metallic. The cornbread seemed underdone with no exterior texture. The macaroni and cheese was overcooked to glue.
When I spoke with Jarael Holston a few days after my visit, he took my criticism in stride, with a turn-the-other cheek cheerfulness befitting his past as a church pastor. He prides himself on the mac and cheese, a blend of Velveeta, provolone and Mexican cheeses that is supposed to have a crunchy, golden-brown top layer. It is a big seller and used as a topping for novelty meat sandwiches, including the Big Daddy ($12 with pulled pork, brisket). He said another customer complained the day of my visit about the macaroni batch, which was left at too high a temperature on the steam table. Holston also explained that the head cook, his brother, was out last week dealing with Irma damage at his home.
I suppose that partly explains the wide gulf between my experience and that of the adoring public, which has been packing the place for months. Fat Boyz has Google and Facebook ratings of 4.9 (from more than 300 reviews) and a Yelp rating of 4.5 from 180 reviews. There can be long lines and scarce parking spots. “Most of our customers are very understanding,” Holston says. “We’re a small place.”
The inside seats only 35, and there are a few picnic tables on the patio. On Saturdays, Fat Boyz typically serves more than 400 customers. The restaurant does not serve beer, partly because Holston doesn’t want people to linger. That I understand. But I don’t get why Fat Boyz serves only sweetened iced tea. A dining companion wanted unsweetened and was told it is not available. Holston says the restaurant offered unsweetened at the beginning, but it didn’t sell and they ended up tossing most of it.
Holston employs a dozen relatives and friends, including his 16-year-old son, Tykari Higgs, who mans the chop block when Holston isn’t around. Yolanda works the front register, taking orders from a small window. The restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays, giving time for a breather while the food trucks still hit the road.
Holston uses hickory to smoke, and he says his barbecue philosophy is to cook low and slow. He says he grew up around grills and smokers in Pompano Beach, and he picked up his brisket- and meat-rub technique from Texans he met in the Army and in Kuwait, where he worked for a private contractor. He also picked up Carolina and Georgia influences from his time at Fort Benning, Ga. The church cookouts at the Life Transformation Center in Fort Lauderdale led to his first food truck in 2013, which he parked at a gas station on Atlantic Boulevard and Powerline Road in Pompano.
His trucks, which serve hybrid comfort food such as pulled-pork egg rolls and brisket nachos, stake out events from Wynwood to Jupiter, and have gained a strong following from regular lunch encampments near the Broward County Courthouse, universities and corporate parks. The trucks give the restaurant a marketing boost. The truck’s menu items are also available at the restaurant, located at the former site of Lil’ Ole Caboose burger.
Barbecue is inherently subjective. Some people like the tomato twang of Kansas City meats, others the dry-rubbed spice of Memphis ribs. In South Florida, our melting-pot influences leave us all over the map. Holston says he had to tramp down bold vinegary flavors from the Carolinas that he likes after getting negative customer feedback. It explains the muted flavor of the pulled pork and collard greens, which I jazzed up with a commercial vinegar-pepper sauce found on tables.
A lack of a signature regional style can be liberating yet challenging for local smokers and pit masters. They aren’t bound to any particular philosophy except winning over customers. On this front, I suppose Fat Boyz Barbecue is a homegrown success. The line can form without me.
Fat Boyz Barbecue
204 S. Powerline Road, Deerfield Beach
954-415-4810 or FatBoyzBarbecue.com
Cost: Inexpensive to moderate. Lunch specials cost $6.99, sandwiches $7.99 to $13, platters $10.99 to $21.99, sides $2.75 to $5.25
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
Credit cards: All major
Noise level: Conversational
Handicapped access: Ramp from parking lot to patio and side entrance