The Great Recession has been a blessing for Tampa Bay barbecue lovers. While other restaurants closed or struggled to keep the doors open, barbecue flourished. It makes sense: Barbecue is casual, comforting, all-American and affordable.
So many places opened in the last year or so that we recruited a couple of certified experts to help investigate. Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe is the author of Dr. BBQ's Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook and was a judge on the Food Network show Tailgate Warriors with Guy Fieri. John "Ribdog'' Verville teaches barbecue classes at the Rolling Pin in Brandon and has been judging barbecue contests for more than 12 years. Both cook competitively and are master judges certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
"To me, BBQ is primal,'' Verville says. "It appeals to our inner primal desires, which is why so many diners consider it their comfort food.'' And, he points out, it's indigenous to North America. Barbecue is not complicated: It's meat (or fish) slow-cooked over smoke. The differences can be subtle and depend on the type of wood, cut of meat, sauce and geography.
We found barbecue styles from Memphis, Texas, Chicago and some that drew from myriad influences. Our judges have decided opinions on what makes good barbecue — tender and smoky but not too much of either, with lots of flavor. But they are open to just about anything. As Dr. BBQ put it: "I like to eat what the guy likes to make.''
HOLY HOG | TAMPA
Owner Danny Hernandez ran Pipo's in this spot for years, but switched from Cuban to barbecue last year for personal as well as business reasons. There's a lot of competition for Cuban food in this largely Latin section of Tampa, but not much barbecue. Besides, barbecue is a personal passion of his. He has a collection of barbecue cookbooks at home (including an autographed copy of Dr. BBQ's book) and makes a point of visiting barbecue joints whenever he's traveling. His 30 years of restaurant experience shows at Holy Hog: It is clean, comfortable, friendly, consistent and efficient. For Ribdog, though, it's all about the brisket, his favorite type of 'cue, especially when cut from the fattier point end. The brisket was tender and juicy with the right amount of smoke. "Many people smoke briskets and they either have very little beef flavor or they taste like pot roast,'' he says. This version "has a nice amount of smoke on top of a good amount of seasoning.'' The two dining rooms are decorated with mounted fish and game, including wild hogs, with picnic tables for casual dining. The food is served cafeteria-style. Don't worry, the line moves quickly.
Combination plate: $10.50 to $12
3501 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 879-4647
PICNICS & MORE | ST. PETERSBURG
Edward Nesbitt has the usual barbecue offerings — spare ribs, chicken, pulled pork. What distinguishes his place is what got him smoking in the first place: mullet. It's tender, moist and smoky and comes with a flavorful mustard sauce he calls his "no name sauce." It's not something you find at most barbecue restaurants, probably because it's so unforgiving: There's a very fine line between moist mullet and dry. Nesbitt, a retired commercial printer, started as a weekend warrior. Then he and his wife, Jo Ann, began a catering business on the side. He uses oak in a custom-crafted smokehouse that he won't show off for fear someone might steal his secrets. He's quiet and humble but justifiably proud of his 'cue. "The flavor,'' he says, "is to the bone." The ribs are intensely smoky — "definitely up there on the edge of too smoky,'' Dr. BBQ says — but the tenderness of the meat makes up for it. "The ribs are done beautifully,'' Dr. BBQ says. Ribdog agrees: "These are right on.'' Nesbitt uses both wet and dry rubs he has developed over the years (don't bother asking many questions about that). If there were a Florida-style barbecue, this would be it. The interior is exceedingly clean, almost Spartan in appearance. And every dinner comes with a nice extra: Mrs. Nesbitt's yummy sweet potato pie.
Dinners: $7 to $9
1939 Central Ave., St Petersburg; (727) 824-2833
GRANGER RIB SHACK | CLEARWATER
Dr. BBQ took one look at our platter of ribs and declared them Chicago style. Actually, he was pretty sure when he looked at the menu and saw rib tips, the strip of meat and bone discarded when spare ribs are trimmed into a St. Louis ribs. Sure enough, owner Jon Weaver, 33, grew up in his dad's Rib Shack in Granger, Ind., outside Chicago, where rib tips outsold regular ribs 2-to-1. Granger Rib Shack may be the only place in the Tampa Bay area serving rib tips, which are tender but a little fattier (and more flavorful) than regular ribs. Some customers come just for the rib tips. The ribs, and the tips, are served atop two slices of white bread and covered in Granger's own deep-red sauce that is based on Open Pit sauce. "It's going to be a messy meal,'' Weaver warns. "You're going to get sauce all over the place.'' We're fine with that. All the smoking is done out back over hickory chunks, another nod to Granger, where hickory is the wood of choice. The restaurant is mostly carry-out, with a couple of tables and a few chairs for waiting or informal dining. While ribs are the star, Granger also has pulled pork and chicken. But the best surprise of all: juicy, crispy fried chicken ($9.99 for a four-piece dinner) good enough to make a fine last meal.
Combination plates: $9.99 to $19.99
1208 N Fort Harrison Ave. Suite B, Clearwater; (727) 386-4160
SMOKIN' J'S | GULFPORT
Started in a trailer parked at a Chevron service station in South Pasadena, Smokin' J's moved into a converted house in Gulfport about 2 miles away, the trailer replaced by a huge smoker housed in a shed in the parking lot. Originally from Dallas, owners John and Lisa Riesebeck specialize in Texas-style barbecue, so brisket is their specialty. But the pulled pork is a star — moist, tender with the right amount of smokiness. John is the pit master, and you usually will find him in the kitchen. He knows how to make the ribs just about perfect. It's a tiny place, just a couple of picnic tables inside, so you might find more people outside waiting for takeout orders. Be sure to try the ranch-style beans, savory with a hint of smoke.
Combination plates: $8.50 to $18
5145 Gulfport Blvd., Gulfport; (727) 329-8624
DUNEDIN SMOKEHOUSE | DUNEDIN
This is barbecue in a sports bar setting, with six flat-screen TVs, outdoor seating, a full bar, a decent selection of craft beers and music on the weekends. At many barbecue restaurants, the sides are an afterthought, but they are practically the stars at the Dunedin Smokehouse, especially the Gouda mac and cheese, the jalapeno corn bread and the garlicky greens. But the barbecue — ribs, chicken, pulled pork, brisket, Montreal smoked meat — cried out for more smoke and seasoning.
Combination plates: $21 to $24
680 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 736-2227
POPPA'S BBQ | CLEARWATER
If not for the lousy economy, Mike DeWeese might still be a purchaser for an electronics company. DeWeese, 57, grew up around barbecue in Memphis, where his dad was a VFW leader and always manned the smoker for events. DeWeese got into competitive barbecuing a few years ago and proudly displays his trophies on the front counter. Then he got laid off. "I took a year off and wondered, 'Hmmm, what am I gonna do?' I'd always wanted to do this anyway so I just decided to do it." He cooks over oak in a large black smoker parked in a shed in front of the restaurant in the middle of an industrial area off I-275. Split wood leans against the shed under the shade of a large oak tree. DeWeese keeps the menu simple: baby-back ribs, pulled pork and chicken, with beans, potato salad and cole slaw. His specialty is Memphis-style ribs, so they are cooked with a dry rub and served without sauce. You can get sauce on the side, but it's unnecessary. The ribs are tender and flavorful enough, with a glaze that has a hint of apple. "He's a competition guy, and it shows,'' Dr. BBQ says, holding up a rib. The color is golden brown, the meat perfectly tender, the flavor not too smoky. The setup is as simple as the menu: a counter and half a dozen two-top tables and a cooler with soft drinks. Poppa's opened in June and is limited to weekday lunch hours only, though DeWeese is thinking about opening on Saturdays so his weekday customers can bring their families.
Combination plate: $9.99
12211 49th St. N, Clearwater; (727) 954-8871