It took nine years, but Jeremy "Jay" Armstead has found the perfect spot for his Texas Hold 'Em BBQ.
Earlier this month, he opened the doors of the quirky A-framed cottage on Federal Highway just south of Oakland Park Boulevard that has housed everything from Green Fish to Shuck's on the Water. Yes, it backs up on the Middle River and Armstead is right now readying dockside seating.
Armstead first opened Texas Hold 'Em in 2004 on Sunrise Bouleward west of Andrews. Five years later he moved to downtown Fort Lauderdale, leaving last year after his landlord went into foreclosure. He'd also opened a second location back on Sunrise that proved to be difficult for his customers to get to. It closed in January just as the so-called "tepee house," as some call it, became available.
"It's a good fit for what we do, more of a neighborhood feel," he says. "The place on Federal (and Sunrise) was built out as a lounge and it felt that way when you were in it. It didn't have the intimacy."
Barbecue is made in a big smoker out back. Armstead uses oak and a bit of charcoal. When he can find it, he'll throw in hickory.
From that smoker comes spare ribs (4-bone dinner/ $11.95, 6-bone dinner / $15.95), baby backs (4-bone dinner / $14.95, half-rack / $18.95), chicken ($7.25-$14.50), pulled pork (6-ounce dinner/ $8.50, 1 pound dinner/ $14.95) and Armstead's most popular meat — brisket (1/2 pound dinner/ $13.95, 1 pound dinner/ $16.95).
Both the baby backs and spare ribs are nicely chewy and have a true natural smoky flavor. The brisket may be my favorite with its tender, fall-apart quality. Tomato-based barbecue sauce is made in house. The only other sauces served are Frank's Red Hot and house-made spicy vinegar, perfect on greens.
Dinners are served with two sides, all prepared in-house. They include collard greens made with a bit of garlic by cook Rick Montgomery, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw and baked beans.
Some diners swear by the pulled pork sandwich ($6.75) while others like the wings (10-piece/ $11.75), which he and his "Cousin Jeff" — who still helps out — first started selling out of a trailer that sits behind the restaurant. That trailer is now used for big catering jobs.
Armstead grew up in Queens, where his Alabama-born father kept his country ways barbecuing venison, squirrel and raccoon. Armstead, 47, worked at McDonald's as a teen and in better restaurants while studying business and economics at State University of New York at Fredonia. He honed his barbecue skills in Austin, Texas, where he traveled to learn the ins-and-outs of brisket.
Two of Armstead's unique creations are among the most popular menu items. Grilled stuffed bell pepper ($6.75) is filled with either pulled pork or brisket and then topped with crumbled blue cheese. The Full House Texas Potato ($7.50) is a large baked potato stuffed with pulled pork, chicken or beef topped with melted cheese, sour cream, jalapeno peppers and chives.
Armstead spent some serious money redoing the interior of the 60-seat restaurant. It was filled with sail fish and crab cages, which he replaced with artifacts related to Texas, railroading and poker that he has collected over the years. (He says he owns the poker chips that Henry Flagler used in a game celebrating the end of Prohibition.)
There's a nice comfortable bar plus seating outside.
Folks who live nearby might not know it yet, but Texas Hold 'Em BBQ is on its way to becoming a neighborhood institution.
Texas Hold 'Em BBQ
2528 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Only for parties of eight or more
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: High chairs, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot