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A tale of two pastramis at South Florida barbecue joints

Pastrami at barbecue joints? Blue Willy's has a pretty sandwich, but Smoke BBQ's is as good as Katz's in NYC.

What do you call pastrami sandwiches that come from South Florida barbecue joints and not New York-style Jewish delis?

In the case of Blue Willy's in Oakland Park, which has achieved cultlike status with its Thursdays-only pastrami lunch special ($12.99), I call it a pretty sandwich, a tasty sandwich, but also something of a misnomer. To me, it's more like spiced corned beef than pastrami.

But in the case of Smoke BBQ near Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale, where pastrami is offered every day ($11.99), I call it the sandwich of my dreams.

Housemade pastrami that takes eight days to prepare is sliced by hand, piled onto seeded rye bread that's a little thicker than usual (to better sop up the fat) and topped with a squirt of spicy deli mustard. It looks gorgeous, the black edges of the ruby-red meat coated with pepper and coriander, the fatty interior glistening and almost translucent.

The first bite was unlike anything I've ever had. There was the familiar melt-in-your-mouth texture, moist connective tissue dissolving into meat butter on the tongue. But the flavor was something new, an explosion of the traditional brining and spice rub with the unconventional barbecue elements of hickory and oak smoke.

I took another bite. And another. And then, it was gone.

This was brisket gone wild. And as soon as the last bite hit my belly, I started texting all my New York friends.

"I just had a pastrami sandwich better than Katz's," I wrote.

Blasphemy? Perhaps. But as someone who grew up in Brooklyn and has eaten at all New York's renowned delis (and most of South Florida's), this fresh take on a classic had me gushing like Meg Ryan in that famous scene at Katz's from "When Harry Met Sally ... ."

But my food-gasm wasn't fake.

"It's all about getting the right balance," says Mike Porcari, the chef who makes the pastrami at Smoke BBQ.

Porcari used to work at Blue Willy's, and he credits Blue Willy's owner, Will Banks, for teaching him the finer points of smoking and barbecue. But he says the pastrami at Smoke BBQ, which opened its Fort Lauderdale location in December, has a different recipe and process than the one offered at Blue Willy's.

Banks, for his part, isn't thrilled that a former employee has gone off to work for a barbecue competitor that's now serving pastrami. But I say the more the merrier when it comes to good smoked meats. Banks, a native Texan who spent a few years in Queens in his youth, can take pride in the fact that he offered his pastrami first and that he still has crowds lining up on Thursdays at his new Oakland Park location.

After nearly three years in a small Pompano Beach storefront, Banks moved to larger digs in June. He says he offers his pastrami only once a week because it's so labor-intensive, with a five-week process that includes curing offsite. The restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m., and usually all the weekly pastrami (20 to 25 whole briskets, roughly 200 to 250 pounds total) is gone by 4 p.m.

The Thursday-only strategy creates a cultlike buzz that draws people from around the region, including old-timers from New York, who can get a bit cranky when told there are no pickle bowls. Banks says this is a barbecue joint first and foremost, so customers just have to make do with delicious smoked beans or collard greens as side dishes.

There's no Dr. Brown's soda, but there are bottles of Boylan's black cherry and cream soda. The hand-sliced sandwiches come on packaged rye (Arnold's when I sampled it) or onion rolls, and can be topped with housemade spicy mustard and cole slaw. Blue Willy's limits takeout orders to three sandwiches per customer.

"They're delicious," says regular Arnold Hecker, an attorney from Plantation and native New Yorker, among the first in line on a recent Thursday. "I've got six lawyers in downtown Miami waiting for me to bring them lunch."

I've eaten two Blue Willy's sandwiches over the past month (one on onion roll, one on rye), and both times the texture and flavor profile of the meat seemed more like corned beef than pastrami, even when I took Banks' advice and asked for a fattier "moist" cut.

At Smoke BBQ, there are no long lines and no once-a-week scarcity, just some of the boldest pastrami around. But there are limited quantities, with Porcari only having a few finished briskets every day. He soon might have to boost production.

Porcari starts with 7-to-10 pound Angus beef brisket, brines it for five days in a refrigerated bath of kosher salt, pink salt, pickling spice and juniper, and lets it dry out for a day. Then, he coats it with a spice rub that includes pepper, coriander and clove, smokes it for 12 hours, wraps it in foil and lets it rest overnight. It's then warmed up and ready for slicing, a thick hand-cut similar to Katz's in lower Manhattan.

Smoke BBQ doesn't offer pastrami at its original Delray Beach location, but co-owners Scott Kennedy and Steve Chin decided the vibe was right at the Fort Lauderdale location, a small-barebones spot which opened last December with wooden picnic tables where the ribs and barbecue is served on lunch trays with butcher paper.

Kennedy, a former accountant from Canada, and Chin, a New York-born web entrepreneur of Asian heritage, met playing golf. Porcari is Italian. And Blue Willy's owner Banks, a former corporate executive, is half Italian.

"You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye" is an old ad slogan from New York.

These days in South Florida, you don't have to be Jewish to make some killer pastrami.

Smoke BBQ is located at 3351 NE 32nd St., in Fort Lauderdale. Pastrami is offered daily in limited supplies. Call 954-530-5334 or go to EatBBQNow.com.

Blue Willy's is located at 1190 E. Commercial Blvd., in Oakland Park. Pastrami is offered Thursday for lunch only. Call 954-224-6120 or go to BlueWillys.com.

Read Mike Mayo's dining blog at SouthFlorida.com/eatbeat. mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Instagram: @mikemayoeats.

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