Thursday is pastrami day at Blue Willy's Barbecue in Pompano Beach, and the place is packed.
The line takes you in front of owner Will Banks, as he chops, slices and carves, while chatting with adoring customers. They're here for the pastrami sandwich ($9.99): thick, juicy slices piled on onion rolls and topped, if you want, with a squirt of Banks' house-made mixture of mustard and horseradish.
This is what pastrami was meant to be before restaurants started buying it in plastic bags from factories. You want lean? Banks gives you lean. You want fatty? He'll be sure you're happy.
Banks is a barbecue artisan. He handles his lunch crowd with masterful finesse, offering samples and slowing down the line with a longer kibitz when the bare-bones, 50-seat dining room is too full to handle another body.
If Blue Willy's sounds familiar, maybe you've spent time in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where, for three years, Hanks parked his food truck across the street from the Broward County Courthouse. About seven weeks ago, he gave it up for permanent digs in what was once a sausage shop.
Banks grew up in Tyler, Texas, where his grandfather owned a butcher shop that morphed into Al Green's Barbecue. When Banks was 14, the family moved to Queens, N.Y. Barbecue became something grandpa did in the back yard for family and friends, with brisket being the result of Texas meeting New York.
Banks has always been a barbecue hobbyist, but for more than two decades, he had a corporate career in the electronics end of the defense industry. About five years ago, he had what he calls a "corporate meltdown" and "made a quality-of-life decision" to "go back to his roots."
Thankfully, he is no longer miserable, and he is making this restaurant critic very happy with his Texas-style brisket ($10.99 with two sides), Carolina-style pulled pork ($9.99 with two sides) and pork ribs ($12.99 with two sides) that borrow heavily from dry Memphis tradition. I can't forget the chicken ($8.99/quarter with two sides, $10.99/half with two sides), which is for many barbecue restaurants an afterthought. Not so at Blue Willy's.
Banks uses hickory, oak and pecan to give his meat a subtle smokiness that's never overdone. He doesn't overdo his rubs. From brisket to pork, the meat at Willy's is never dry. It's so moist, you'll be tempted to disregard the sauce. But Banks makes five varieties, each on display in oversize, old-fashioned chemist's bottles.
There's a basic, crowd-pleasing tomato and vinegar and a yellow-sweet mustard and vinegar. He makes a peculiar white sauce — with just a bit of mayo — that he calls Bob Gibson's White Barbecue Sauce, an homage to a famous Alabama barbecue. Ask, if you don't see it, for the extra hot sauce. The fifth sauce has been on hiatus, but it's called Espresso Brisket Juice. "People in Texas used to use coffee for everything," he says.
Banks serves four sides: mustardy smoked beans; meaty collard greens; mac and cheese made with rigati instead of elbows; and Aunt May's cornbread, nicely crumbly and not overly sweet. Along with sweet tea and soda ($1.75), there's Coors Light ($3) and Old Milwaukee ($2.75). But the real surprise is finding Dale's Pale Ale ($3.50), Native Lager ($4) and a half dozen other craft beers.
When I tell Banks that he's single-handedly advanced the state of South Florida barbecue, I can almost hear him shrugging over the phone.
"There's no magic to it," he says. "It's just uncommercialized."
1386 S. Federal Highway, Pompano Beach
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11:30a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: D, V, MC
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot