BROOKSVILLE — Like kids with a new toy, grilling enthusiasts with a new piece of equipment can't get enough of it. Case in point: Charlie and Gina Hall.
Adding a backyard smoker to their outdoor cookery line a couple of years ago, the Halls of Dade City cooked up whatever the supermarket meat case offered, burned all kinds of fruit and nut woods, and tinkered and tweaked recipes for rubs and sauces.
One day, Charlie came home from work to Gina's greeting: "I entered us in a contest."
"That's when we got serious about it," said Charlie, 49, recalling the couple's first foray into competitive barbecuing — last February's Smoke on the Water competition in Winter Haven.
Having completed a prize-winning year on the Florida barbecue circuit, the Halls have settled their hulking commercial smoker and Class 1 kitchen food trailer, the Smokehouse Express, near the busy intersection of S Broad Street and Cortez Boulevard. Diners can eat their freshly smoked beef brisket, pork ribs and shoulders, along with homemade sides, at a canopied rustic picnic table or take their fixings home.
The Halls' cookery is a geography tour of barbecue: St. Louis-cut ribs, Memphis spice rub, kickin' Carolina sauce.
In St. Louis, the ribs are called simply "spares," the sternum and tip bones as well as the gristle removed, leaving a meatier serving.
The Memphis rub? "A mix of spices," is all Charlie will say, with a Cheshire cat grin guarding a secret.
Carolina sauce is vinegar-based with more kick than the sweet-and-tangy sauce, also offered.
"We allow customers to sauce their (meats) because a lot of customers just like the dry rub," Gina said.
A peek into the smoker reveals a rub so lavishly measured on the chunks of meat that it appears as a mouth-watering crust.
Like a proud papa, Charlie points out the smoker's features: two racks to allow a complete circle of heat, a drip pan to catch the au jus, thermometer probes measuring temperature at both ends of the cook box.
Smoking an entire brisket requires 14 to 16 hours — Charlie eyeballing its doneness, but confirming with a professional thermapen, aiming for an internal temperature of 200 degrees.
"Then it will be mouth-watering delicious," he says.
At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended temperature, Gina insisted, "165 degrees does not make a tender brisket."
To generate the smoky heat, the Halls rely on kiln-dried pecan logs.
Charlie explained: "I find hickory bitter, oak too smoky, and I don't care for the fruit wood flavor on beef. Pork is real good with pecan; it reminds me of maple syrup."
On the barbecue circuit, judges don't give reasons for their placings. But customers at the events — crowds number up to 20,000 people a day, Gina said — have been free with their praise. Charlie recalls "best brisket they've ever had" and "a hit out of the ballpark."
While Gina, 44, has schooled herself in the meats end of the business, she has taken charge of the side dishes.
"We make everything: rubs, sauces, sides," she said.
The star of the sides may be cowboy beans, a two-bean recipe in a tomato-based sauce, finished in the smoker.
Leading the menu is a bitey appetizer, a bacon-wrapped jalapeno pepper. Sandwiches feature brisket or pulled pork, as do dinners. Rib dinners are joined by "spares" of one rib to a full rack.
With the restaurant-on-wheels serving from lunchtime until the dinner hour, Gina noted, "We're somewhat weather dependent. It's a little hard to keep a fire going in the rain."
But they've taken a lease on the site. Based on their first month of pleasing local palates, Gina said, "I think we'll stay."
On Saturday, Smokehouse Express will be parked at 37843 Meridian Ave. in Dade City for the city's annual Kumquat Festival.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]