Mick Reed opens the double doors of the smoker at the back of his boat-turned-open-kitchen. A few happy diners are scattered around a handful of repurposed picnic tables licking sauce from their fingers. A savory cloud billows out in soft waves across the water and disappears long before the seductively sweet scent does. As the fragrant fog clears, Mick uses enormous silver tongs to pull out a pile of glossy wings that are just the right shade of torched red. He sets a few aside and then hands them out around the room to the anxiously waiting customers who have been keeping an eye on his progress.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, a constant stream of customers come and go along the dock that leads to the floating restaurant permanently anchored in the Garrison Bight marina. Some stay to take in the breeze from the uncovered windows while others stay just long enough to pick up their preordered paper bags full of to-go platters and sauce. Nobody forgets to load up on sauce. Mick, along with his business partner David Rohrbaugh, make sure that people don’t leave without taking one or a couple of their homemade sauces with them.
“We’ve got a really great three pepper pineapple sauce that we make with fresh habanero, serrano and jalapeño peppers and a blackberry jalapeño sauce that has become the most popular,” Mick says,.“If you’re going to do BBQ, then do BBQ. Smoked is good Southern BBQ with a lot of Georgia influence, but also some North Carolina and Texas too. Our brisket is, of course, Texas.”
Along with the chicken wings and almost everything else that is on the menu at Smoked BBQ, including the baby back ribs, the pulled pork, the half chicken, the spicy sausage and the giant baked potatoes, the brisket is cooked in the single silver smoker that takes up the back-end of the dining room. Mick says that to get the big piece of equipment into the small space, they had to take out the middle windows and employ eight men to lift it inside into the place where it has settled in for good.
“After that we pretty much had to build around it,” he explains. “When you eat here you actually get to see the smoker your food is cooked in. It’s a special thing. There’s nothing like the taste of a piece of brisket that has just been taken out.”
Of all the things they prepare at Smoked BBQ, their prized brisket is by far the most complicated because of the care and attention needed to break down this notoriously temperamental protein into tender shreds of melt in your mouth meat. First it is left to marinade in a rub overnight, after then it gets a low and slow smoke for 15 hours straight. Once out of the smoker it is wrapped and allowed to rest for a day to seal in the juices. Finally, it is sliced and served alongside generous sides of Mama’s Southern-style baked beans, creamy style cole slaw, macaroni salad and smoked corn on the cob dripping in chipotle honey butter.
Even their double cheeseburger gets a quick smoke before it is piled with steamed Vidalia onions and finished with a sliced pickle.
“It’s somewhere in between a White Castle and a Crystal Burger,” Mick says.
The idea of starting a no-frills BBQ restaurant came to Mick, David and their third partner Mike Flaherty one night when they were out having a drink. With over 60 years of experience between them, what started as a casual conversation has since become their passion and the realization of a shared vision.
“BBQ is not cooking, it’s an art form,” Mick emphasizes. “It’s how you smoke, the balance of the wood, the rub you use, how often you rub. I love what I do and am here doing it 15 to 16 hours a day. All three of us take a lot of pride in the potential it has to be great.”
After a six-month delay due to Hurricane Irma, Smoked BBQ opened its doors — and windows — on Feb. 28 and has received tremendous local support ever since. Though they are still so new that you can’t find them on TripAdvisor, they have only five-star reviews on their Facebook page @smokedonthewater with guests “highly recommending trying this place out.”
Smoked BBQ delivers to both Key West and Stock Island and also offers catering for private parties and personal chef bookings. They hope to add more items to their menu like pork belly, artisanal bacon and smoked tofu as they continue growing. Their current hours are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., but they are aiming for 7 days a week.
Find out more by visiting www.smokedbbqkw.com or paying them a visit at 1800 North Roosevelt Blvd. ¦