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Review: Billy Jack's Shack in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is a tasty place for fun with finger food | Video

 

★★★

Attention, vegans and health-food proponents: Billy Jack’s Shack is not for you. The restaurant’s slogan is “Beef, bacon, beer, bird,” and most items are fried in peanut oil, grilled on a flattop or smothered with ooey, gooey fat. At first glance, I thought Billy Jack’s Shack would not be for me, either, because it does things that I ordinarily oppose on principle. Typically, I do not like gimmicky burgers, particularly ones smothered with peanut butter, bacon and cheddar cheese. And typically I do not like a place where the servers do not ask what temperature you want your burger, because the smashed patties get cooked to a crusty, medium-well done no matter what.

And yet I liked Billy Jack’s Shack. Perhaps it was because I went in not expecting much, and I was pleasantly surprised that most food tasted good and was capably prepared. Perhaps it was because the eatery, near the eastern terminus of Commercial Boulevard in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, was fun and relaxed, with a comfortable and casual beach vibe. Or perhaps it was because amid this sea of grease, the first platter that came sailing my way was a gorgeous array of pristine, raw oysters from Maine and Canada.

These plump and briny mollusks needed no chili, cheddar, peanut butter or even cocktail sauce. They were expensive ($36 for a baker’s dozen) and worth it, cool and delicious with just a squeeze of lemon and a drop of Tabasco. The larger ones were Pemaquids from Maine, the smaller ones from Raspberry Point on Prince Edward Island. The seafood lovers at my table appreciated the light start, and it was an indication that the team behind this fledgling chain respected quality and had more game than just slinging burgers.

That also was evident from the next platter to arrive, a dish dubbed “redneck nachos” ($11.99), which was the culinary antithesis of raw oysters. This one could be called a hot mess, or a steaming pile, but a funny thing happened on my way to dismissal. It was delicious. Instead of tortilla chips, the base was housemade potato chips, and they were covered with well-seasoned pulled pork, cubes of Nueske bacon, cheese, jalapenos, sauteed onions, sour cream and globs of chili and mac and cheese.

As finger food, it was messy, because some chips got soggy and wilted from plate to mouth. Once forks became involved, it was fun to assemble bites with bits of everything. This will sound strange, but it was the most balanced plate of cheese-chili-pork-bacon-onions-macaroni-jalapeno kettle chips I’ve ever eaten (OK, the only ones). It was salty, sweet, spicy, creamy and crunchy.

The other finger food that later arrived was also mostly good, including those smashed, crusty burgers, a Nashville hot chicken slider, and crinkle-cut, sweet-potato fries.

Presiding over this exercise in tasty comfort food is chef-owner Todd Zimmer, a Fort Lauderdale native with a surprising fine-dining background. Zimmer previously was executive chef of tony and trendy Prime 112 in Miami Beach, a celebrity steakhouse, and he also worked for James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Militello at Mark’s at the Park in Boca Raton.

Going from Prime 112 and the South Beach scene to Billy Jack’s Shack is like going from $36-a-dozen oysters to redneck nachos, and Zimmer later explained to me that he grew tired of the high-end scene and wanted to own and run an eatery with simple yet satisfying fare. Zimmer, partner John Hart and former partner Yuri Tsyganov (who has since left) opened Billy Jack’s Shack in May, a franchised spinoff of the Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint chain, which has dozens of locations throughout the South, and the second Billy Jack’s Shack. The original opened seven years ago in Harrisonburg, Va.

Zimmer says he intends to open another in Davie next year. The beach location suits the honky-tonk decor fine, with reclaimed-wood booths and padlocked lockers lining the bar and kitchen area. The grill of a 1967 Chevrolet serves as a backdrop above the bar. Live music is featured most nights, which can make things loud, but the acoustics still allow for conversation. The bar features 70 craft beers, 10 on draft, and full liquor.

Zimmer is not trying to reinvent the wheel here, and he keeps prices modest. Instead of making everything from scratch, he does what he calls “one-offs,” taking commercially prepared sauces and dressings and jazzing them up with his own twists, such as Frank’s Buffalo Wing sauce with Worcestershire and sriracha to go along with nicely battered popcorn shrimp.

The menu features salads that can be topped with proteins for those who want to go to the lighter side, such as the “wedgie” ($7.99), a wedge of iceberg lettuce with bacon, chopped tomato, fried onion strings, blue-cheese dressing and a vinaigrette glaze that is surprisingly good. Zimmer says he used the same product at Prime 112.

The menu also features a daily fish special, cobia ($24) on the day I dined. “I’m a fisherman by passion and hobby,” Zimmer says, and he has developed relationships with fishing vessels from the Keys to Jupiter. He likes to showcase fresh, offbeat fish, and when prices go down and the supply picks up, he says he will start offering stone crab and grilled Gulf oysters (both have been impacted by Hurricane Michael).

Burgers made from an American Wagyu blend from Snake River Farms in Idaho are the big sellers, and Zimmer offers them plain or double-stacked in five styles. Although they are cooked beyond my usual desired medium-rare, they were juicy and tasty.

I have seen peanut-butter burgers on local menus lately, but had never tasted one until my visit, and when I posted a photo of the Elvis burger ($11.99) on the Let’s Eat, South Florida Facebook group page, the response was polarizing (and mostly negative).

It was smothered with creamy peanut butter, strips of applewood bacon and cheddar cheese, and it was simply too rich for my liking. It needed a sweet/spicy element to cut the fat, perhaps some jalapeno jelly, and perhaps a defibrillator on the side.

Much better were the traditional burger pairings such as the Hunter S. Thompson ($13.99), which featured mushrooms and onions sauteed in Jameson Irish Whiskey and Swiss cheese, and El Chupacabra ($12.99), which featured goat cheese, sweet-bacon jam and arugula.

For dessert, we had a surprisingly creamy and refined fried Oreo ($3), battered and served with a scoop of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream. It seemed a fitting finish for a meal that is probably best enjoyed after running a half marathon.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Billy Jack’s Shack

218 Commercial Blvd., Suite 102, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea

954-990-8671 or BillyJacksShack.com

Cuisine: American

Cost: Inexpensive-moderate. Appetizers and salads cost $4-$14, burgers and sandwiches $6-$15, entrees $12-$24

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday; 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday

Reservations: No

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full liquor with 70 craft beers in cans and bottles, 10 on draft

Noise level: Can get loud with live music

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Metered street and nearby garage

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