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Ten spots for barbecue

Two tanks of gas, 20,000 calories and countless wet wipes – all in the name of getting to the meat of the matter.

By LAURA REILEY, Times Food Critic
Published June 28, 2007


"Barbecuing is primarily a North American phenomenon, but it's also found in Mexico and the Caribbean. It refers to a specific cooking technique that's slow, indirect and heavy on wood smoke."

- Barbecue! Bible, by Steven Raichlen

 

I always thought that, technically speaking, there were only four schools of American barbecue. Sure, there are splinter groups, regional anomalies and isolated barbecue malcontents, but I figured it really came down to this: Texas-style barbecue is brisket and beef ribs shellacked with a sweet, sticky, tomatoey sauce; 'cue from the Carolinas means pork smoked and then bathed in a more vinegary, sometimes even mustardy sauce; Memphis is all about pork ribs, mostly served "wet"; and then there's Kansas City, more of a melting pot, sauce sweet and thick, where they talk about barbecue in terms of cuts "snoots, " "brownies, " "short ends, " "long ends".

Ah, how naive I once was.

Just in North Carolina, east side means vinegar, where west side gets the sweeter, more tomatoey sauce.

People in rural west Tennessee swear "big city" Memphis barbecue pales compared to their pulled pork shoulder. Then there's soul food barbecue that knows no geographical boundaries, usually marinated pork, smoked and generously ladled with soupy and somewhat incendiary brownish sauce.

And what about North Alabama?

In the name of education - and dinner - I scoured the Tampa Bay area in search of good barbecue. What follows may not be a definitive "best of" list, but it's a "pretty darn good" list, reflecting geographical diversity and a range of barbecue styles.

 

"I love barbecue in all its incarnations. I can find enjoyment in any sauce, any style and just about any barbecue meal I can find. The diversity and uniqueness of each style aren't really that different. Kind of like a Ford and a Chevy - the difference makes for good conversation, but they both seem to be pretty good."

- Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook, by Ray Lampe

 

Note: This is the first in an occasional series by Laura Reiley highlighting 10 spots that have something in common. Next, coming in August, 10 spots on the Gulf of Mexico.

 

OKLAHOMA-STYLE

Kojak's House of Ribs, Tampa

The third generation of the Forney family oversees the proceedings in the white house with the barbecue sauce-colored trim, its wide front porch and knotty pine dining room as comfy as a '70s rec room. Indeed, it has been around since 1978 with its all-natural pork spareribs ($10.50 dinner), dry-rubbed overnight, smoked for two to three hours, then served in the buff. They don't need embellishment, but there's a hot barbecue sauce (red bottle) and a mild sauce (clear bottle) on the table.

Chicken ($8.25 half ) gets the same treatment; results are moist, flavorful, with thin burnished skin you'll have a hard time passing up.

The rib recipe hails from Midwest City, Okla., but the sausage links are straight out of South Georgia ($5.25 sandwich) - smoky, flecked with crushed red pepper and bouncy as a SuperBall.

Kojak's also gets top honors for its coleslaw and potato salad (both $1.50 a la carte), mayo-intensive, mustard-tinged for the taters. Pace yourself, because the chocolate cake ($3.50 a la mode) brings a square of sweet nostalgia struggling under the weight of molten fudge and a softly melting ball of vanilla ice cream.

 

"(Barbecue) is simply the most delectable of all traditional American foods. It is the gaudiest jewel in the crown of the American South, where most of the finest traditional American cooking originated."

- Peace, Love and Barbecue, by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

 

GEORGIA-STYLE

Eli's Bar-B-Que, Dunedin

Elijah Crawford is a local legend. Hailing from Valdosta, the epicenter of Georgia barbecue country, he only gives a couple days a week to his passion, which may account for a bit of the fervor - it's perceived scarcity coupled with excellent barbecue. Sometimes he runs out.

The small dirt parking lot alongside the Pinellas Trail is crowded. A line forms in front of the little concrete shack (a repurposed ice cream stand); the smoker rig is out back.

Choose from full and half racks of pork ribs ($11 half, $22 whole), pulled pork ($4.25 sandwich), boneless chuck ($12 a pound, a little like brisket), sausages (spicy pork made by Eli and the first to sell out at $8 a pound) and chicken, with a supporting cast of simple baked beans, coleslaw and corn bread.

You can eat at a picnic table, but Eli's wares travel well: Ribs come unsauced, offered with a mild (nice balance, not too sweet) or spicy sauce (noticeable heat, but not enough to cause injury). Meat is heavy on smoke, ineffably tender and juicy. It's a crime against humanity if you eschew the heavenly skin on the chicken.

 

"Dancing is my number one love. That was my first goal as a child. I would love to do stage, maybe do Chicago. I love being in front of an audience. It's so stimulating. I also love to barbecue."

- Carmen Electra

 

CAROLINA-STYLE

The Butlers Barbecue, St. Petersburg

Butlers is nothing if not specific. This is barbecue from eastern North Carolina, along U.S. 301 and I-95. The results are indisputably delicious: pork roasted over an open grill, chopped and then settled into a tangy bath of vinegar and red pepper sauce. You can add more vinegar or a dollop from the tabletop squirt bottle of sauce, but the balance of acidity, smokiness and spice is already nigh perfect. The dinner ($7.95) comes with a quartet of crunchy hush puppies and a choice of two sides, the top honors going to pork-smoky collards and little lengths of battered and fried okra.

Order at the counter for lunch (at dinnertime it's sit-down), but be sure to linger for a handful of sweet-hot pickle discs that prep the palate for good things to come.

A few years back, Butlers added a seafood menu, heavy on the fried catfish ($6.95 sandwich, $8.95 dinner) and steamed oysters and clams ($5.95-$13.95), but don't be deterred in your barbecue focus: The ribs and chicken are also good, and the last Thursday of each month brings the all-you-can-eat pig pickin'.
 

Alan's N.C. Bar-B-Que, New Port Richey

There may be more tenured, mind-boggling barbecue elsewhere in these parts (the nearby Hungry Harry's Bar-b-que in Land O'Lakes has fierce devotees), but Alan's has hush puppies of splendor. The archetypal pups ($1.99 a dozen) are greaseless, crisp, fluffy on the inside, with the sweet taste of cornmeal. They won't sit in your gut like lead shot if you overindulge, which you will.

Alan's is a newcomer, only six months old, in a strip mall next to a Dollar General. Lots of windows and a spotlessly clean interior make it comfortable to eat in, but most folks seem to do takeout. The best bet is the pulled pork ($5.99 for a small platter), straight-up North Carolina-style, gussied up with a sauce that's mostly boiled cider vinegar with crushed red pepper and brown sugar.

House ribs ($7.99 platter) are unadorned, no dry rub, no sauce, no smoker: They get an Italian dressing marinade. The huge pork spareribs are gas-grilled slowly, then slow-roasted. A little fatty, they get a squirt of hickory smoke sauce (it tasted commercial); opt for the tasty baked beans over the limp corn on the cob. Owner Alan Ginn also cooks whole hogs; call to find out when.
 

Boo's BBQ, Tampa

Practically in Oldsmar, Boo's sits in the shadow of a Lowe's. Order at the counter, eat in (only if you're in the mood for a little loud Dark Side of the Moon or More Than a Feeling) or do takeout. Fat spareribs ($7.49) are seriously caked with a spicy/salty dry rub, with a tabletop squeeze bottle of straightforward, sweet, tomatoey sauce (for chipotle sauce, North Carolina mustard, vinegar or Buffalo, you've got to ask).

They say it's North Carolina-style, but I'm not so convinced. It's kind of its own invention. There's no smoke, and the baby backs ($8.99) are a little more tender and less fatty than the spareribs.

Get this: barbecued tofu ($5.99).

Of the side dishes, Boo's gets points for its stewed green beans and tomatoes, and for its blue cheesy coleslaw (both $1.49 for a small). A little lighter on the dressing and the coleslaw would be world class. Pair it all up with buttered Texas toast, and owner Trey Taylor has a good thing going on.

 

ALABAMA-STYLE

Big Tim's, St. Petersburg

Big John's Alabama BBQ in Tampa and Big Tim's in St. Petersburg are the contenders for top Alabama 'cue. I hear Big Tim's a tough guy and that Big John was a preacher, but intimidation has nothing to do with why Big Tim's gets the nod from me. First, there's its decades-old reputation for bringing together people of all races over plates of ribs.

Second, there's the sauce. A little hotter than Big John's, it's got that not-too-sweet, slightly peppery, a little bit vinegary balance that Alabama barbecue is known for. The orangy sauce is haphazardly brushed on smoky spareribs ($11.75 half, $19.99 whole slab) - it's a strategy, not laziness. A crisp "naked" bite contrasts with a saucy, spicy bite. Gorgeous.

I could do without the deep-fried corn on the cob brushed with butter (a textural oddity), but the tomatoey baked beans ($1.50) and fried okra ($1.50) make agreeable sides; finish with an individual sweet potato pie ($2.68).

A few plastic-wrapped tables accommodate diners, but takeout seems to reign supreme here.

 

CAROLINA-MEETS-TENNESSEE-STYLE

Jimbo's Pit Bar-B-Q, Tampa

The M.O. at this tin-roofed old standby is serious smoke. St. Louis-style pork spareribs ($8.35 for third of a slab) get a dry rub before they spend up to eight hours in the oak smoker. The sauce is tomato-based (that's the Tennessee part) with a little vinegar kick (Carolina) and not a lot of heat. Tasty, a little tooth-resistant, with that interior pink that smoke imparts.

The sliced pork butt ($3.75 small sandwich) gets the same styling, a pile of pale slices mounded on a serviceable bun to which you can add a big ladle of warm sauce. Sides didn't knock my socks off, but the baked beans ($1.60) at least made one sock bunch up in my shoe: Great northern beans are simmered for hours and come in a balanced sauce of molasses, mustard, Worcestershire, soy, ketchup, tomato paste and some other stuff. Very nice flavor; the award-winning hush puppies ($1 for six), however, might be used for ballast in a submarine.

Jimbo's has a drive-through, which makes takeout easy.

 

FLORIDA-STYLE

First Choice Southern Barbecue, Brandon

For some reason, Brandon is impressive barbecue country. There's the very laudable Down to the Bone (110 S Kings Ave., (813) 653-9903) that slings its alluring aromas for blocks. But still, the top dog in the area is First Choice, putting spring in people's step even when there's a line out the door. Maybe it's the curls of fragrant smoke, or the rat-tat-tat of the meat being chopped inside.

They're not real specific about the provenance of the recipe. When pressed, Florida barbecue sums it up just fine: no dry rub, a lot of smoky flavor and a sauce that is ketchup-based with a kick of vinegar. Ribs ($5.25 quarter slab) are tender, deeply smoky and delicious eaten sauced or au naturel. The novelty item, smoked turkey ($5.25 sandwich), comes pale pink and moist.

Spicy macaroni salad has proponents, but the fries (crisp, skin on, fresh cut) are hard to overlook in favor of the chili powder-tinged macaroni/mayo melange.

 

TEXAS-STYLE

Brisket Basket, St. Petersburg

Owner Linda Bernard says the tradition of slow-roasted beef brisket isn't just from Texas, but hails from all over. So, fine. Maybe we should call this "freestyle."

Brisket Basket is a newcomer, opened in May at the site of the old Triplett's drive-in across from St. Petersburg High. It's where brisket takes center stage in the barbecue drama. There are no ribs.

To get a quick tour, opt for the triple slider basket ($6.95), in which a ground brisket burger, carved brisket and a barbecue-sauced "sloppy" chopped brisket are tucked onto pillowy rolls with a dab of gorgeous chipotle mayo. The meat is cooked all night, with smoky sweet and smoky hot paprika the central spice note of its dry rub. Defatted while the brisket is still hot, it doesn't have that uber-fatty texture that turns some folks off to brisket.

BB is blessed, or cursed, with side dishes that threaten to steal the brisket's thunder. Potatoes are hand-cut, washed, blanched quickly, then fried in clean oil. The results? Mind-blowing fries ($2.99). The tangy hot German potato salad ($2.99) is nearly as good, bacony and with balsamic vinegar; and the green chili hominy ($1.99) will win people over to the textural challenges of baked, dried field corn kernels with its combination of mild chilies, sour cream and sharp cheddar.

You order inside and await your food at one of a handful of picnic tables under the overhang.

 

CHAIN-STYLE

Shane's Rib Shack, New Tampa, Land O'Lakes and Riverview

The obvious choice would be Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, the biggest barbecue chain in the country, dating to the first store in Gainesville opened in 1968 with its St. Louis-style ribs and fixings.

But who wants to be obvious?

Shane's is giving Sonny's a run for its money, with franchises popping up all over the country. A concept of Raving Brands, which also has Moe's, Planet Smoothie and Boneheads, Shane's has outposts in New Tampa, Land O'Lakes and Riverview. The vibe is a corporate reconception of the Southern screened-in porch. The dining room is pleasant, but there seems to be a brisker takeout business.

Fat, buttered Texas toast provides the medium for most sandwiches, but the best offering is the smothered pork sandwich ($5.69): chopped barbecue pork deluged with a scoop of crunchy slaw, served on a burgerlike bun. Good, because the pork itself needs a little more oomph to it.

Baby back ribs look good, glazed with a nice sheen of fairly sweet sauce, and they're meaty and tender, but the flavor of the meat itself was timid. The biggest up-side of Shane's: Portions are mondo.

 

"Barbecue is a guy thing, a throwback to the spit-roasted woolly mammoth perhaps. It tends to be written about today (and debated in endless detail) like a sporting event, which in fact it has become: thousands of tiny local competitions are rapidly giving way to several major barbecue leagues, with their own playoffs, World Series - and six-figure purses."

- Molly O'Neill in American Food Writing

 

- - - 

What I learned:

1. Though regional barbecue styles have staunch devotees, there's little consensus on their defining features.

2. Because there is little consensus and passions run hot on the subject of ribs, an unspecified but impressive number of readers will have a bone to pick with me.

3. Dental floss can be a business expense.

 

Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com