All of a sudden Tampa Bay is awash in barbecue. Makes sense — the economy continues to be worrisome, and people are looking for businesses and new careers that are inexpensive to launch. Plus, 'cue enthusiasts get maniacal and need an outlet for their craft. Still, with so many new barbecue joints dotting the land, how does a newcomer distinguish itself?
Tampa natives Julian Lara and Chris Politis did it the smart way. They chose a theme everyone could relate to: rock 'n' roll. They hired a ringer to consult on the menu and tweak the recipes: chef Chris Ponte of Café Ponte fame. And then they launched CJ's Bar-B-Skew in September with the kind of steady-handedness usually reserved for chain concepts. In fact, if all goes well, we might see a passel of sibling Bar-B-Skews.
Servers (called groupies) in starburst tie-dye shirts greet guests warmly and pop menus into their hands. Meanwhile, murals by local artist Frank Pizzuro provide the eye candy: There's the Fab Four, the Steal Your Face cover art of Grateful Dead fame, and a guy who looks like Johnny Cash. After ordering, you get an old 45 record, so that when orders come out, servers can say, "Miles Davis? Is there a Miles Davis?"
It's fun and friendly. But this isn't even the main allure at CJ's Bar-B-Skew. It's the "Skew" part. The skew refers to a series of skewers on the menu, Greek-inspired and healthy grilled goodies loaded onto warmed pitas. But, it is also a reference to a slightly more "skewed" approach to barbecue, which is so often a meat-centric lineup that offers fewer allures to health-oriented diners or reluctant carnivores. At many barbecue places, sides can be perfunctory (workhorse mac 'n' cheese, cole slaw, baked beans). At CJ's, thanks in large measure to Ponte's good ideas, sides are fabulous.
There are stunning jalapeno corn muffins ($1.49 for an order, but they're included with the barbecue), wonderful green-apple-heavy cole slaw ($1.99), fried okra with a spicy piquillo pepper sauce ($3.49), most excellent potato chips ($3.49 with blue cheese, but they come sans cheese with most sandwiches) and lively half-sour pickles ($1.99). A tasty chicken corn chowder is a bargain at $2.99, hummus gets an interesting smoky treatment with grilled pita ($6.49), and Buffalo wings, while straightforward, are textbook versions (six for $4.99, 12 for $8.99). I will caution that the potato chips and the poutine (gravy-ladled fries, $5.99) don't travel well as takeout, and I thought the marshmallow sauce on the sweet potato fries ($3.49) was achingly sugary. But those are the only caveats to my enthusiasm.
The pork butt for pulled pork spends about 12 hours in the Southern Pride smoker, the ribs about seven hours. Both are juicy and not overly smoky, but I'd give the edge to the pulled pork on the basis of its glossy, rich toasted brioche roll and garnish of red onion and red cabbage pickle (with a teeny bit of beet juice for extra drama), with a few fried onions over the top of that lend a different kind of crunch. Texas-style spicy chipotle barbecue sauce was my favorite of the three house sauces, although the sweet Louisiana and mustardy Tennessee styles will doubtless have their defenders.
Lara and Politis are awaiting word on a beer and wine license, but if their thoughtful selection of boutique sodas and waters is any indication, there will soon be a cool craft beer list to accompany the menu. The comfortable dining room features a classic rock soundtrack that plays to the lowest common denominator. It would be nice if CJ's Bar-B-Skew could dip a little deeper into the archives for some rock chestnuts (or even guilty pleasures), so customers could get some serious air guitar in while waiting for their 'cue or "skews."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.