Sometimes my parents joke that they have no idea why I like so many different kinds of food that my family never ate when I was growing up. I got curious and wanted to try new things once I was on my own, out of their house, taking the advice of cultured, worldly friends or the Internet hive-mind. Not my dad, though! He likes what he likes, he’s set in his ways, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on a constant quest for the best too! Just today I reassured my dad that he is a big reason I appreciate food as much as I do. He used to drive all over Miami to find the best Chinese buffets, hot dog carts, New York pizza (by the slice!), bagels, Cuban bistec milanesa, and pastrami sandwiches. He’d schlep up to an hour for a good meal, so that’s where I get it from. We had a heartfelt conversation where I told him that I love all the same foods he loves, but along the way, I just figured out I like to eat other things too. We had one of those “We’re not so different, you and I” moments over the phone.
Well, another kind of food my dad actually likes is barbecue… as long as it is not too saucy or spicy, that is! He got me into barbecue at the legendary Shorty’s in Miami, and we ate there together countless times. Barbecue is a reliable crowd-pleaser and a timeless and true American art form, like jazz, blues, and comic books. Most people have strong opinions and great loyalty to barbecue, but even when we find a ‘cue joint we like, we’re always scanning the sky for scintillating smoke signals, seeking something equally good or even better. And today I think I found that place.
Smokemade Meats + Eats (https://www.smokemade.com/) is a pop-up restaurant that started pitching a tent and serving up Texas-style barbecue at local breweries around Orlando earlier this year. I’m back at work with a heavy teaching load, so between that and the pandemic worsening in Florida, I’ve been laying low, avoiding crowds, and not exploring as much as I would like. But after several months of frustration, I finally made to a Smokemade pop-up at Whippoorwill Beer House & Package Store in Orlando’s Milk District and met Tyler Brunache, the sorcerer supreme of smoke and mystical maven of meat. Tyler, an FSU graduate (which I’ll forgive) started barbecuing in Washington D.C. before returning home to Orlando, and we should all be glad he made that decision. You have to follow Smokemade on Facebook or Instagram and find out where he’ll next appear, so you can try this delicious food for yourselves.
I hated crowds and long lines before social distancing was cool, so I was smart and made it to Whippoorwill Beer House on the early side, before it got overrun with Milk District hipsters. I parked right in front of the establishment (a very pleasant surprise), and Smokemade was already set up in a tent in the parking lot with Tyler, three associates, and a very tenacious bee flying around inside the tent, occasionally landing on them but going unnoticed. Everyone was friendly as they were taking and assembling orders, and nobody seemed perturbed about the bee, even though I warned two of the guys to watch out for it. Those guys are nonchalant AF. I would have gotten the hell out of that tent until the bee got bored and took off. He must have been there because of all the positive buzz online.
Anyway, even with the curious bee, I was one of the first in line, so I was able to order and get my food packed up within ten minutes. Keep in mind that proper barbecue is smoked low and slow — low temperatures for hours at a time. Tyler’s beef brisket is smoked for 16 hours, his pulled pork is smoked for ten hours, his pork spare ribs are smoked for six hours, and his scratch-made sausages are cold-smoked for four hours. Then all the meats have to rest for hours before serving to be at their best, kind of like me. So even though I got my order quickly, it took over 24 hours to get ready behind the scenes. What looks like a pop-up to us takes days of planning, prepping, and perfecting. And looking at drool-worthy photos of Smokemade’s food online over the past few months, it sure looks like Tyler Brunache has perfected his process.
So what did I get?
Well, whenever I try any new restaurant, I always like to order something where I can sample as many different flavors as I can. Here, that was the Texas Trinity Platter ($29), featuring a half-pound of beef brisket, a half-pound of pork spare ribs, and two sausages. Keep in mind, I was bringing all of this home to share with my wife!
When I got home with this massive takeout order, I opened the heaviest box first to reveal the Texas Trinity Platter, and this is what we saw. WOW. But you’re not even seeing all of it here!
The first thing I did was remove that half-pound slice of brisket to portion it out. Look at that gorgeous color, that bark, that marbling! My photo fails to describe just how thick and substantial it is. But it’s magnificent, masterful meat. I asked for our brisket to be a little more moist and fatty, rather than lean. Trust me, it’s better. Texas-style barbecue is never served drenched in sauce, but even though we got several small cups of barbecue sauce, none of the meats really needed it. This brisket stands on its own just fine.
By the way, you can also order a brisket sandwich on a roll for $15, and they look huge.
Underneath, you can see what is essentially a double-order of spare ribs, since I added on an extra half-pound ($9). Hey, my wife and I both love ribs, and I knew she wouldn’t want any of the sausages. The ribs are magnificent. The sweet, sticky, peppery glaze adds tremendous texture and fabulous flavor. These ribs are so tender, not only do they fall off the bone, but I swear I chewed up part of one of the bones, since it was as tender as the meat surrounding it! Today, Tyler offered two different kinds of sausages, his popular cheddar jalapeño sausage, and a hot gut sausage. I requested one of each in the Texas Trinity Platter, and they are both coarsely ground in natural casings (hence the “hot gut” moniker) that give you a satisfying crispy crunch sensation when you bite into them. They were both heavy and dense sausages, and with everything else we tried, I could only eat a small segment of each. The cheddar jalapeño was my favorite of the two, with pockets of oozing orange cheddar and a pleasant heat throughout.
Since I can’t always make it to these ephemeral pop-ups around town, I ordered what I could, while I could. This here is a half-pound portion of pulled pork ($10), not included in the Texas Trinity Platter, but well worth trying. It is much more understated than the brisket, ribs, and sausages, but I’d still totally recommend it. You can also order a pulled pork sandwich on a roll for $11. They were generous with the scratch-made barbecue sauce, which is thin and vinegary, not the usual thick slurry of ketchup, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial smoke flavor like too many sauces.
Barbecue focuses on the meats, but sides are part of the experience. I couldn’t leave without trying three of Smokemade’s sides: coleslaw made with red cabbage and apples, jalapeño dill potato salad, and pinto beans that are spicier and more savory than the typical sweet “barbecue” baked beans served with Southern BBQ. Each of these sides cost $3.50. I liked the beans the most, but the meats are the real reason to chase down Smokemade.
Honestly, my favorite among all these pictured sides were the pickle slices and pink pickled onions in the top left corner of the box, and those actually came with the Texas Trinity Platter! I already love pickled onions (I make my own), and I am starting to consider myself more of a pickle aficionado, but I really liked these. Their puckery, pungent punches complemented the salty, smoky meats very well — even better than the actual separate side items, in my opinion. I asked Tyler, and he said they make everything from scratch except for the slices of white bread that came with the platter. I don’t know if he would consider selling his pickles and pickled onions in larger portions in the future, but if he offers them, run, don’t walk.
Finally, I couldn’t come home to face my wife without a dessert, so I chose bread pudding over key lime pie (I love it but she doesn’t) and banana pudding. Each of the three desserts costs $4. This was a nice-sized chunk of sugary-sweet, soft, moist bread pudding, featuring cinnamon and caramel flavors. We thought it might have been made with challah bread, as it did taste somewhat eggy. We each had a nice-sized portion earlier tonight, and there is still some bread pudding left for tomorrow (with my wife’s name on it). I’d love to try the banana pudding and key lime pie on a future visit.
You might have noticed this was a lot of food for two people, but I fully expected we would get multiple meals out of it, especially with me packing lunches for work to wolf down between classes and reference interviews, and her being home for the time being. And it was all so good, neither of us will mind eating amazing Texas-style barbecue for another couple of days.
Five years ago, I was lucky enough to attend an annual conference for my professional organization in Dallas, Texas. Of course I had to try the local barbecue, so I sought out the famous and highly recommended Pecan Lodge. It was amazing — easily some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Maybe the best. I’ve never had anything quite like it in Florida, until now. I never forgot that meal, but I can tell you that Tyler Brunache’s food from Smokemade Meats + Eats looks, smells, and tastes just like that real-deal Texas ‘cue I enjoyed so much in Dallas and dreamed about ever since.
Seriously, don’t sleep on Smokemade, and don’t write it off as a logistical nightmare just because there isn’t a permanent, brick-and-mortar location. Follow the social media, figure out where Smokemade Meats+ Eats will pop up next, get there early so they don’t sell out of what you want, and go with friends so you can sample a little bit of everything on the menu. But be careful out there, and drink responsibly at all these breweries!
Back in 1996, the great singer/songwriter/actor/Texan Lyle Lovett sang “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.” Well, I’m not from Texas, and neither is Tyler, and statistically, most of you stalwart Saboscrivnerinos probably aren’t either. But take it from The Saboscrivner: you want this Texas barbecue anyway! Heck, even my dad would.