A few weeks ago, I heard about a new Texas-style BBQ spot opening at the Beaches. “Hmph,” I arrogantly interjected to myself. “I’ll be the judge of that!” So I made the trip down Atlantic Boulevard to ABBQ just days after it opened. I sat down with pit boss Blake Joyal—the man behind the meats—to talk ‘Q, sample his fare, and decide for myself if it passed muster. Suffice it to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
A veteran of Chicago and New York’s fine-dining scenes, Blake Joyal is not your typical pitmaster. He earned his chops not in the smokehouse but in Michelin-starred restaurants before heeding the call to a simpler, more-zen form of culinary expression. While the story of how he went from white tablecloths in Chicago and New York to no tablecloth in Jacksonville is an interesting one, Joyal is the kind of guy who would rather talk turkey (and brisket) than rattle off his kitchen bona fides. And for what it’s worth, the man’s meats speak for themselves. Allow me to translate.
It doesn’t seem to matter where you are or what style of BBQ joint you visit, one thing they all seem to have in common are ribs. Styles and techniques may vary but you’d be hard pressed to find a self-respecting smokehouse that doesn’t have ribs on the menu. A good rib falls off the bone but a great one clings to it ever so gently, forcing you to gnaw at it until you’ve sucked every smoky delicious bit out of every little nook and cranny. ABBQ’s is one of those ribs. Blake sources Duroc pork from a small farm in Minnesota for a clean flavor that’s set off by the dry rub, an eight-hour smoke and just a swish of spicy-sweet glaze towards the end. A thing of pure beauty, it isn’t even the jewel in his meat crown.
Smoked turkey is almost always considered the “diet” option at most Texas BBQ places. Its order is commonly followed by an “I’m watching my figure” and a wink. It’s often accompanied by an iced tea with enough Sweet‘N Low to kill every lab rat from here to San Antonio. Yet so far at ABBQ it’s been one of the most popular things on the menu. Blake credits the flavor and juiciness to the brining process, but the six-hour smoke doesn’t hurt a lick. It’s probably damn good on a salad, if that’s your thing.
Most folks seem to gravitate toward pulled pork when they seek out BBQ in these parts; an inevitable consequence of our proximity to the Carolinas where it constitutes the foundation of what they consider true ‘Q. ABBQ includes it on their menu for good measure and to great effect but Blake doesn’t dwell long on the subject despite his roots. Although he grew up in North Carolina and certainly respects the craft of whole hog BBQ, it’s just not his thing, preferring instead to ponder and philosophize on the marvel that is the pinnacle of Texas BBQ–the brisket!
Otherwise laid-back and nonchalant, Blake’s eyes light up when he gets to talking about his love affair with his smoked meat of choice. “Brisket is my love and nemesis at the same time,” he explains. “There’s such a technical cook on it and the variables of it going wrong are stacked against you. It’s intriguing to me. It keeps me on my toes.”
There’s a reason people stand in line for the brisket at places like Franklin in Austin or Corkscrew just north of Houston. They’ll wait hours for the privilege without so much as a guarantee there will even be any left by the time it’s their turn to order. “It’s the purest form of meat,” Blake explains with adoration. Brisket isn’t continuously mopped with sauce the way pork is and it isn’t heavily seasoned either besides some salt and black pepper. It gets all its flavor from the meat itself and the smoke. But that it isn’t to say it’s an easy process. Not by a long shot. As Blake explains, it all begins the moment the meat comes through the door with a proper trimming of the ever-important fat cap and doesn’t end until its cut, right before it hits your tray. It’s a hands-on process that requires maintaining a consistent fire temperature and regulating the smoke for a solid 24 hours followed by resting the cooked meat in an insulated cooler for another eight hours. It’s a hell of a lot of work but the result borders on perfection if done properly.
Brisket gets all the glory (and for good reason), but it’s important not to forget the supporting act, the sidekick: the sausage. Blake admits his “hot link” is a work in progress but he’s damn near nailed it as far as the flavor goes and it’s well worth sampling as it is. Combining the trimmings from both the brisket and pulled pork in a natural casing, it’s something of a perfect marriage that embodies the soul and spirit of a Texas BBQ joint transplanted among the swine-loving culture of the Southeast.
On to the sides…
Traditions are nothing if not strict when it comes to properly smoking meats but there are far fewer limitations imposed upon the sides. While there are obligatory items every self-respecting BBQ joint is sure to include, the recipes vary considerably from spot to spot. So it is here, in this unsuspecting and often overlooked domain, that Blake is able to flex the kind of creativity one might expect from a chef with Michelin stars on his resumé. Take potato salad. A ubiquitous-but-bland affair more often than not, it seems to almost always exist solely as a foil to the flavorful meats on offer. But in the ABBQ kitchen, this humble side is elevated to an exciting new level of awesome, worthy of exaltation thanks to the unexpected addition of yuzu juice and a healthy pile of fresh dill. Then there’s the cole slaw. Another side that rarely inspires praise, it receives a mighty big bump in the flavor department courtesy of a simple rice wine vinaigrette and packs the perfect punch of acidity to cut through all that meat.
If you prefer your “vegetables” on the indulgent side (read, smothered in a ridiculous amount of cheese), Blake has concocted some obscenely decadent options just for you. His mac ‘n’ cheese contains a criminal amount of cheese and his shredded potato casserole is downright sinful. “It’s really healthy,” he tells me sarcastically with a mischievous grin hiding somewhere in his salt and pepper beard.
I must confess that I found the cowboy beans a bit too tomatoey for my liking, but I have very strong opinions on beans so don’t let that stop you from giving them a try for yourself.
Apparently there are sandwiches and salads on the menu and I am sure they are wonderful. But when you do make your trip to ABBQ, hold fast to the tried-and-true essence of real Texas BBQ and give Blake’s sliced meats a try on their own. Wait in line like you’re supposed to and if you can, hold off on the sauce for at least a bite or two as you experience for yourself just exactly what makes all us crazy Texans hem and haw when we smell that smoke!