You’d think that the last thing anyone would want to do in this infernal heat is stand over a hot grill flipping slabs of meat.
But that’s human nature for you. We’re as willing to sweat over a fire in 98-degree weather as we are to do a few early morning backstrokes in a frozen lake in the dead of winter. Logic? We toss that out with reams of sauce-stained paper towels while decrying everyone else’s wasteful ways. After all, it’s barbecue, and Americans love their barbecue as much as they love their freedom to do whatever they damn well please, logic or no.
Summer barbecueing has long been a favorite American pastime; you might even call it a seasonal obligation. But a hot summer is one thing; this blazing weather is something else entirely. While we’re sure that your grill skills are a force to be reckoned with, we encourage you to wriggle free from the sun’s searing grip and let these bona-fide barbecue joints do the cooking for you.
Memaw’s B-B-Q (600 E. Eau Gallie Blvd. in Indian Harbour Beach; 779-9670; www.memawsbbq.com), one of the earliest arrivals on the local barbecue scene, opened in the late ’80s and has enjoyed a rabid following ever since. Current owner Bill Johnson, who purchased the eatery from the original owners in 2007, chalks Memaw’s success up to their made-from-scratch approach. “We are what you call a scratch kitchen,” he says. “With very few exceptions, everything we serve is made from scratch. We grind our own sausage and grind our own hamburgers from New York strip and ribeye steaks. All of our seasonings, including our sauces, are made from our own recipes.”
Memaw’s also pit smokes freshly every day over hickory and oak. “This is not the case with all barbecue places,” Johnson says. “The secret to good barbecue is not to rush anything. Only smoke and time will provide customers with our delicious meats.” Johnson also made it his mission to change nothing when he took over. “It’s risky to mess with success. Our recipes haven’t changed since the business originally opened. We have added some new items, but all of our core products are proven and successful.” Some of the more popular items here are their ribs and sliced pork, both served with sides and bread. Another favorite is their “Feast” entree, which consists of ribs, pork, chicken, beef, potatoes, beans, slaw, and garlic bread. It gives customers a good sampling of their meats and also happens to be a great value. “We consider our barbecue style to be Southeastern and for the most part, original,” Johnson explains. “Customers tell us that they’ve never tasted barbecue exactly like ours, and we attribute that to the fact that we take so much time in preparation and buy only quality products.”
Almost directly across the street, Charlie & Jake’s Bar-B-Que (445 E. Eau Gallie Blvd., Indian Harbour Beach; 777-7675; www.charliejakesbbq.weebly.com) draws an equally devoted crowd. Begun by native Alabaman Charlie Johnson in 1989, Charlie & Jake’s is now managed by Charlie’s daughter, Lindsay Richer. Lindsay has been working here on and off since she was a kid, but she took over full-time six years ago so her father could retire. In keeping with Charlie’s original vision, this well-attended spot prepares true Alabama-style barbecue according to recipes handed down by Lindsay’s grandmother. “That means no sauce except what you put on it,” Lindsay explains. “We put a nice dry rub on the ribs and pork, and everything is smoked with hickory wood, much of it from North Carolina. All our meat is fresh and cooked on one of the two rotating smokers out back; it takes from a few hours to all night to cook our meats.”
Charlie & Jake’s also differs from many other barbeque joints in that it doesn’t serve sliced pork. “My Dad doesn’t believe it’s a good piece of meat to serve to our customers,” Lindsay says. “We do have a vinegar-based sauce, which makes it thinner than other sauces. Charlie believes that if you cover your barbecue in sauce you’re missing the point.” Regulars return for big sellers like pulled pork, crispy garlic toast, and fried pickles, but they also come back for the great service. “We are truly blessed by our employees,” Lindsay tells us. “Many of the ladies out front have been there for over five to six years. As for the cooks, they’re amazing. Long hours in a hot kitchen doesn’t appeal to many, but our guys are great.”
In private, some might dismiss Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q (2005 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach; 868-1000; www.sonnysbbq.com) for its franchise status, but that doesn’t stop devotees from coming in droves for consistently stellar examples of barbecue. With restaurants across the southeast, Sonny’s blends a little from all the inclusive regional styles, but operating owner and general manager of this location, Ronnie Emmons, describes it as “just good Southern barbecue.” When we ask him to name a dish that sets Sonny’s apart from the rest, Emmons has a hard time pinning down just one. “Our pulled pork is very good, and we recently added a new sliced beef brisket, which has become my favorite. And everyone loves the baby back ribs; they fall off the bone. Not to mention the sweet sauce… That stuff makes anything taste better.” As for Sonny’s barbecue method, they smoke their meat for hours in their own basting sauce according to a technique that’s made them one of the most trusted names in the business.
But people also like the family-friendly atmosphere of Sonny’s. Emmons started working here when he moved to Cocoa Beach in 1993. “My mother owned the store at that time,” he says. “I met my wife here; she was a server. In 1998 we moved to Stuart, where we managed two Sonny’s, one there and the other in Port St Lucie. In 2001 we moved back to Cocoa Beach and bought this store from my mother.” Emmons cooks and handles all the day-to-day operations and his wife manages the front of the house, while each of their four children works here in some capacity. “Our son is a kitchen manager at night, our oldest daughter worked for us until just recently, our other daughter still works for us waiting tables, and our youngest daughter has spent some of her summer break bussing tables. We are truly a family establishment,” Emmons says proudly.
Slow & Low Bar-B-Que (306 N. Orlando Ave. in Cocoa Beach; 783-6199; www.slowandlowbarbeque.com) has earned far-flung praise for its succulent barbecue since opening in 2004. Meat prepared by its titular method — snail’s pace cooking time at a low and steady temperature — is counted by many to be some of the tastiest in the area. Owners Joel and Nicole Smith specialize in hickory-smoked pork, chicken, beef, and turkey, as well as St. Louis-style ribs, so called for their more uniform cut. “Most ribs taper off when cut traditionally,” Nicole explains. “Our baby backs and slabs are more even, which gives you more bulk and meat than you might be used to.” Thanks to two constantly operating smokers — one 1,000-pounder and another 500-lb. capacity — Slow & Low has the ability to cook 1,500 pounds of meat a night, if needed. As for their overall style, Nicole categorizes it as Alabama-influenced. “That means that we use a lot of hickory and vinegar-based sauces,” she says.
Slow & Low is known for its excellent pulled pork and baby back ribs, but they’ve also earned a reputation for being community-minded and very family oriented. Wednesday Family nights feature dinner specials, a magician, face painting, and a visit from their porcine mascot. Slow & Low is also the only barbecue joint in the area that offers a full-liquor outdoor bar and live entertainment. But a compelling lure is their recently instituted 6-lb. Crazy Pork Challenge, a challenge only three have accepted (and failed at) thus far. If you can eat a special 6-lb. sandwich comprised of pulled pork, coleslaw, onions, cheese, and pickles slathered in their special cold white barbecue sauce, it’s free of charge and your photo will grace their currently blank Wall of Fame.
All of these places all have mastered some tried-and-true techniques, and they just might teach you a thing or two about how to modify your own barbecue method. So get out of the sun and give them a try. As different as each place is, they all share a common respect for this sacred and very American culinary art. They’ve also got ice-cold air conditioning.