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A barbecue sampler highlights regional tastes

Fourth of July is as much about the meat as the fireworks, and people who know good barbecue know there's an art to it — and a style. North Carolina sauce is vinegary, but it might be tinged with ketchup in Alabama. So what's the result when transplants descend on one county and bring their own brands of "authentic" 'cue? To find out, the Times sent some carnivorous reporters to sample six of the many barbecue havens in Hillsborough.

Wholly Smokes BBQ

6803 N Armenia Ave., Tampa, (813) 935-5879

Open since: 1985; Angel and Gladys Aravena, owners.

Style: Texas barbecue (cooked over open pit; sauce has sweet, spicy base).

Meal included: Five large ribs, one chicken wing and a drumstick, two pieces of garlic bread, baked beans and waffle fries.

Cost: $9.50.

Portion size: Fit for a giant — ribs barely contained to one plate.

Meat: Fatty ribs with moist chunks of meat that fell off the bone. The chicken completely fell apart, too, and deboned easily.

Sauce: Three kinds: mesquite-flavored mild; hot, same as the mild, with a cayenne kick; sweet sauce had a smooth honey-vinegar flavor.

Sides: Waffle fries are a unique twist for a barbecue joint and go great with the sauce. Baked beans were so thick and dotted with pork chunks that they stuck to the fork. (Other sides available, including potato salad, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, coleslaw.)

Atmosphere: The restaurant seemed like an old wood cabin, filled with wood laminate booths and a hodgepodge of pictures, from the Wild West to the Rat Pack. Like authentic Texas 'cue, the meat is cooked on an open fire pit, which stood in plain sight of the dining room.

Best thing about this place: Because of the pit, you'll smell like barbecue, but you needn't go elsewhere for an after-dinner drink. "Wholly Sangria" is a nod to the Aravenas' Latin background.

Owner's philosophy of barbecue: "Cooking right and our secret sauce."

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday (11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on July 4 holiday).

Justin George, Times Staff Writer

Grammpa's BBQ

147 E Bloomingdale Ave., Brandon, (813) 684-4647

Open since: December 2008; Brad "Grammpa" Hannah, owner.

Style: North Carolina (vinegar-based sauce).

Meal included: Quarter chicken, two ribs, barbecue beans, potato salad and roll.

Cost: $9.95.

Portion size: Filling.

Meat: Ribs were juicy but not falling off the bone.

Sauce: Hannah, a 30-year Navy veteran, perfected his three sauces during his time as a chief warrant officer overseas. The Lake County native drew inspiration from the legendary King's Barbecue in Eustis.

Side: The potato salad proved to be a nice complement, and the beans were sweet but not overdone. (Other sides include collard greens, green beans and corn on the cob.)

Atmosphere: Quiet and clean.

Best thing about this place: The sauce brings out the flavor in the ribs and pork. Grandma's Red Velvet Cake proved moist and delicious.

Owner's philosophy on barbecue: "I just asked God to help me with the sauce. I put in some of this until he said stop. Then I put in a little of this until he said stop. It's a matter of faith and obedience — obeying God."

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Ernest Hooper, Times Staff Writer

Alex's Southern Style Bar-B-Q

5362 W Village Drive, Carrollwood, (813) 269-0050

Open since: July 1994; Alex Cooks, owner.

Style: Alabama barbecue (sauce has a ketchup base).

Meal included: Two ribs, a chicken wing and breast, potato salad, barbecue baked beans, two pieces of white bread.

Cost: $8.95.

Portion size: Forget about room for dessert.

Meat: Not falling off the bone, but tender.

Sauce: You'll sop it up with the white bread. Thick and sweet, the sauce brings out the flavor of the meat. Don't ask Cooks for the recipe — "It's under lock and key."

Sides: Barbecue baked beans are the restaurant's trademark for a reason. They are cooked with barbecue sauce, beef, pork and sausage. The potato salad is equally good — if you like mayonnaise. If you don't, choose from the 11 other sides.

Atmosphere: Clean with adequate space for the family to dine in. If you're a sports junkie, you'll appreciate the Bucs memorabilia and the big-screen TV tuned to ESPN.

Best thing about the place: Since 1999, Cooks has given bicycles to children for Christmas. This year, he hopes to issue 1,500 bikes. The record, set in 2007, is 1,416.

Owner's philosophy of barbecue: In true Alabama style, he said: "You have to cook it nice and slow, I prefer, over oak wood. I season it as I'm cooking it. To top it off, you have to make your own barbecue sauce — that's how I get you."

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Rodney Thrash, Times Staff Writer

Sooo Good Bar-B-Que

1045 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, (813) 234-8780 or (813) 234-8720

Open since: 2007; Nathan and Sheila Wade, owners.

Style: Southern barbecue (slow-cooked, using family recipes).

Meal included: Three ribs, a chicken wing, drumstick, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, two slices of white bread and a drink.

Cost: Combos are $8.95 with one side and the drink. (We bought an extra side for $1.95.)

Portion size: Generous; had to take a rib and a drumstick home for later.

Meat: Chicken is moist and tender, infused by wood smoke. Rib meat is high quality with little fat, which gives it a chewier consistency — like steak compared with the ribs at other barbecue restaurants.

Sauce: Sweet and strong with a molasses flavor.

Sides: Macaroni and cheese is just that, traditional and homemade with soft noodles and velvety cheese — no fancy truffle oil or bread crumbs or bacon to confuse the flavor. (Other sides are fried okra, sweet potato souffle, collard greens and barbecue rice.)

Atmosphere: It's an old ice cream parlor converted to a take-out stand with three picnic tables in the parking lot. Cars whizzing along busy Hillsborough Avenue leave something to be desired. Best to get it and go.

Best thing about this place: The meaty ribs, mac and cheese, and vast homemade dessert offerings.

Owner's philosophy of barbecue: "Taking your time preparing it with slow cooking and seasonings."

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday (noon to 11 p.m. July 4).

Justin George, Times Staff Writer

Jazzy's BBQ

5703 W Waters Ave., Town 'N Country, (813) 243-8872

Open since: 1996; former Buccaneer Johnny Ray Smith, owner.

Style: Texas barbecue (slow-cooked over an open pit).

Meal included: Chicken leg, thigh, beef brisket, french fries, coleslaw and a soft roll.

Cost: $8.99

Portion size: Enough to need a nap after lunch, but no leftovers.

Meat: Fell off the bone, nearly dissolved on the tongue; very flavorful.

Sauce: I chose the hot variety, which was sweet with a bit of a zing and not too spicy for the timid.

Sides: Perfectly seasoned french fries and creamy coleslaw. (Other sides are corn on the cob, barbecue beans and potato salad. Macaroni and cheese and collard greens are served on Fridays).

Atmosphere: The interior was Spartan at best. Orders are taken at the counter. Musical instruments, animals and other images were airbrushed on the walls. A small TV sat atop a drink cooler.

Best thing about this place: You can smell it before you see it. Smoke billows from the chimney. There's something cathartic about enjoying barbecue while watching drivers fight traffic on Waters Avenue.

Owner's philosophy of barbecue: Most important thing is the sauce. "It came to me in a dream, really … Then I woke up and made it. It floored me. It is something from above. It was given to me and I have to keep making it."

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 4, closed for a week after that).

Jared Leone, Times Staff Writer

Hungry Harry's Famous Barbecue

2006 S Parsons Ave., Seffner, (813) 643-0063

Open since: 2006; Harry Wright and Chad Hudson, owners.

Style: North Carolina (vinegar-based sauce).

Meal included: Quarter chicken and two ribs, collard greens, baked beans and garlic toast.

Cost: $9.99.

Portion size: Substantial and filling; all-you-can-eat specials offered daily.

Meat: They stress not hard-smoking the ribs and chicken to protect the natural flavor. The white chicken was particularly tender.

Sauce: Six types: original mild, sweet 'n' smoky, mustard, spicy mustard, hellacious hot and Land 'O Lina Vinegar, an uncommonly tasty concoction you don't typically find in these parts.

Sides: Collard greens are particularly noteworthy, as kitchen manager Paul Bruneau has called upon a childhood recipe. (Nearly all of the 13 sides are homemade.)

Atmosphere: Homey.

Best thing about this place: Chicken and chopped pork combo may be most popular, but Bruneau has perfected the greens.

Owner's philosophy about barbecue: "This is my 25th year and my dad always told me to cook excellent meats without sauce, but we do have great sauces that we make ourselves," Wright said. "Two days after everybody agrees on religion and politics, they will agree on barbecue. I just try to pick something that's going to please everybody."

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Ernest Hooper, Times Staff Writer

A barbecue sampler highlights regional tastes 07/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 5:01pm]

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