It's not an accident that 2012 may become known as the Year of Barbecue. In the aftermath of the disastrous economic crises of 2008, people found themselves unemployed, underemployed or on shaky ground. What do people do then? They dust off their dreams and take another look.
Rock star? Brain surgeon? Those ships may have sailed. But what about this one: Open my own little place, be my own boss, do something I'm good at. I'll have a restaurant.
They are fairly easy to open. There's lots of existing real estate (with an 80 percent failure rate, restaurant spaces have high turnover). And being a restaurateur doesn't require professional training or graduate degrees. As a subset of restaurants, barbecue places are among the least expensive ventures to launch: You need a storefront, a smoker and a whole lot of napkins.
Dozens of barbecue restaurants have opened in the past two years, the smell of hardwood smoke and slow-cooking pork a common perfume at intersections and gas station parking lots all around the Tampa Bay area. That doesn't mean it's easy to do well. Four barbecue spots in the stretch of a couple miles on Fourth Street N? We stopped in to take stock, ordering a half slab of pork ribs at each place.
The undisputed winner was Champions' BBQ, not surprising given owner Fred Fleming's long and illustrious career on the professional barbecue circuit. First in Largo under the Champions' name, then in Homosassa and now back in St. Petersburg, he specializes in fat St. Louis-style ribs slow-smoked over hickory. St. Louis knows its barbecue evidently (residents are said to consume more barbecue per capita than anywhere else), this particular cut involves something technical about sternum bones and rib tips — what you need to know is ribs are juicy, flavorful, with just enough tooth resistance to get the carnivore's engine revving. Good enough to go sauce-free but better with the regular or hot sauce (clear cousins, not too sweet with good acidity), they are expertly cut, revealing the perfect pink smoke line within.
To-go orders come in a sturdy three-compartment domed plastic container, my other containers given over to lushly cuminy baked beans and collards with just enough meaty pot liquor to moisten. Dining in is pleasant, with an open, homey dining room and a feisty staff apt to kibitz with regulars.
Now look out the front window across the street and you'll see the silver medalist, Luckie B's. The dining room is a little more convivial (booths, a full bar, flat-screen TVs and decor that manages to pair antlers with kids' hobby horses seamlessly). The to-go set-up isn't nearly as swank, though: An aluminum cake pan with a clear lid means your coleslaw (fresh and crunchy) may creep over to your ribs on the ride home. Ribs (spareribs and baby-backs) are darker and drier than at Champions', although the dry-rub flavor is good. Baby-backs are fat but with strange knobs and flaps, not cut cleanly. Of the house sauces, the mustardy mid-South Carolina version is the most memorable.
Pull up at the new "green" Dunkin' Donuts on Fourth and you won't smell crullers. It's all smoky 'cue from Preacher's BBQ next door. This place is nothing to look at, mostly utilitarian kitchen and a handful of rickety tables. You'll likely be taking out, but glance at the day's Bible verse on the chalkboard as you order.
The best price-to-portion ratio of the four, Preacher's ribs (in a standard foam clamshell) tend to be a little fatty, the regular sauce extremely sweet. The spicy version is much better, with a slow burn that accumulates and cuts the unctuousness of pork ribs that aren't quite as smoky as at the previous two spots. A must are the baked beans, heavy with the bittersweet of blackstrap molasses. Points off for the super-bendy sporks at Preacher's, certain to double dry-cleaning bills.
Big Dick's BBQ is last on our Fourth Street N roundup, both for ambience and product. Customers sit indoors at four rough-hewn picnic tables after ordering at the counter (cash only). If you dine in, plates are small, floppy plastic-foam jobs, ribs and sides piled inelegantly. On my visit, ribs were barely warm, with a texture that was unappealingly soft and stringy, like they'd been overly boiled before going in the smoker. More chopped than sliced, the ribs had decent smoke but no other discernible seasoning. Even salt would have kicked it up a notch.
There are four sauces to choose from at Big Dick's, the most interesting of which are the creamy horseradish and the hot sauce (nice burn). Still, with such a bounty of barbecue within a mile or two, Big Dick's has got to step it up to compete with the big boys.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.