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Restaurants fight for spot on Southeast's BBQ map

New restaurants join established ones in the quest to spread the popularity of barbecue.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published February 5, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - Tina and Alan Ginn are from North Carolina, and so are their pigs.

The pigs get thrown on a gas grill the Ginns think smoke hides the flavor, thwacked and chopped, mixed with a peppery-vinegar sauce, and served with hush puppies and cole slaw.

This is real barbecue, as the Ginns see it, and only after much thought did they relent to a suggestion that they serve other meats at their new Alan's N.C. Bar-B-Que, in the Pasco Square shopping center at 7305 State Road 54.

"I struggled with it," said Tina Ginn. "Sure, I can throw on a hamburger for you, but I want you to come for the barbecue."

Meanwhile, about six miles away, Jon Weaver has imported the barbecue style he learned working at his family's restaurant in Indiana.

His new Rib Shack, at 5421 Main Street in downtown New Port Richey, cooks the meat in a "Texas-style" smoker, and serves it with a thick, deep red sauce derived from a secret combination of ingredients. And the offerings stray far from the purely porcine: everything from pizza to vegetarian sandwiches is on the menu, too.

Barbecue is the speciality, he said, but "we try to carry dishes for everyone."

Barbecue is loved and claimed by so many that the Saturday Evening Post once called it "Dixie's Most Disputed Dish."

Mustard-based or vinegar-based or tomato-based sauce? Pit-smoked or smoker? Sauce mixed in or on the side? Pork or beef brisket or, even, mutton? What kind of cole slaw? Brunswick stew? Are French fries on the side verboten?

The humble barbecue, born as the poor-man's meal, has even spawned its own subculture of connoisseurs.

Harry Wright, whose tender, smoked meat at Hungry Harry's in Land O'Lakes has made him a local legend, said that he occasionally hears from those who profess to know everything about his craft.

Everybody "thinks he's from the barbecue capital of the world," he said.

Barbecue has inspired cultural cartographers to sketch maps of the southeastern states based on the most prevalent styles used.

Florida, as a general rule, is not on those maps. But the state is not without its options. Just this year, Alan's and Rib Shack were added to Pasco County's roster of nearly a dozen places now dealing primarily in the disputed dish. That list includes institutions in business for more than 20 years, including Hungry Harry's and Pit Boss, which has a New Port Richey location on Little Road.

At a time when people can turn to chains like Chili's for ribs, the quest for the real thing becomes even stronger, said Sam Burn, the "commissioner of culture" for Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, a Birmingham-based business that is considering opening locally owned stores in Florida.

"Franchises have a tendency to take shortcuts," he said. "With barbecue, when you cut corners, you can tell."

Starting slowly

The Ginns came to Pasco after Alan retired from the Coast Guard. They had always brought pigs to cookouts. He learned the craft from his grandfather; she had worked at a barbecue place in North Carolina.

Nearly two years ago, they started catering at New Port Richey festivals and were pleased with the responses. One lady came back three times at a single event for the potato salad.

"It was a lot of hard work," said Tina Ginn. "But we wanted to get our name out there."

So far, the crowds have come to their 22-seat restaurant with minimal decor and country music. Customers have quizzed them about their backgrounds and their methods. Tina Ginn said early signs are good that west Pasco craves their style of barbecue. For some of them, she said, the barbecue may remind them of growing up somewhere else.

"We love Florida, but we miss home," she said. "And there's a lot of people who do."

A family business

Rib Shack owner Weaver, meanwhile, had vacationed in Florida and wanted to start a restaurant just like the 27-year-old business his family runs in Granger, Ind.

He decorated his New Port Richey restaurant with sports memorabilia and a television, which give it a sports bar feel.

Business has been steady so far, Weaver said, with top sellers including pulled pork sandwiches and baby back ribs. Soon, Rib Shack will start selling bottles of its sauce, which is the business' speciality.

"There seems to be a little void of barbecue in New Port Richey," he said.

Customers will come

Like the best barbecue, building a customer base takes time.

Both Pit Boss and Hungry Harry's helped make names for themselves through catering.

Gary Taylor, a Pit Boss co-owner, wasn't schooled in barbecue. He used to be in real estate.

But he and his partner studied others and experimented. The restaurant, which has three locations, uses an open pit to smoke the meat and primarily sells a ketchup-based sauce.

"It was a lot of trial and error," he said. "But there's no substitute for experience."

Hungry Harry's owner Wright, a Winter Haven native who quit his job as a tire salesman to start his own business, learned how to barbecue from his father. He uses an open fire pit, and his sauce is thick and tangy and served on the side.

His proudest moments are when barbecue rookies like what he offers. "People go, 'This is good. I didn't know I liked barbecue,' " he said. "With barbecue, you've gotta fight the mind. I'm trying to fight."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.