Wesley Chapel's restaurant scene has witnessed enormous growth in recent years, both at the Shops at Wiregrass and Tampa Premium Outlets — some chains, some independents and some independents that aim to be prototypes for chains.
UNION72 is in this last category. Jeff Martin and Bharat Chhabria of the Brass Tap and their pit master Geoff Zukosky have a novel idea. In an attractive, spare, quick-serve environment, they pull together spins on barbecue from all corners of the planet. Beyond the obvious (Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas, St. Louis, etc.), great barbecue interpretations emanate from parts of Southeast Asia, Argentina and Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere. It's about appropriately accessorizing.
Martin has the Brass Tap locations in Orlando and Brandon in addition to Wesley Chapel. (Meanwhile, other franchisees have just opened the 40th Brass Tap location, in Baltimore.) The seed for the barbecue concept was proximity: In eight years of tenancy at Wiregrass, he had seen loads of businesses come and go in the adjacent space. Barbecue was a cuisine unrepresented at the shopping center, and thus they got busy.
They're calling it "chef-inspired," and conceptually it makes a lot of sense. But some of the basic building blocks would not pass muster on the barbecue circuit. The brisket had none of the smoke ring that is the badge of honor for great 'cue (it's caused by how the burning wood's nitrogen dioxide binds with the myoglobin in the beef), and the pulled pork had a mushiness that can be the result of overcooking or hot meat sitting in foil too long.
If Zukosky can more consistently execute the barbecue basics, there is much to recommend here. Lovely whimsical murals of Captain Poulet, Colonel Short Horn and Sergeant Stag orient you to the 'cue, and once you've ordered at the counter you get a recycled Minnesota farm cattle tag so your food finds you.
A ho-hum couple of wines and four beers are robustly outshone by a grilled lemonade ($2.99), the caramelized fruit adding depth and cutting the tartness in an appealing way. And desserts from nearby Buttermilk Provisions are charming in small sealed jars (but I don't know if you can call something a "chocolate lava cake" if it comes cold and solid under a layer of chocolate pudding; $4.99).
One of the best things I ate in a couple of visits was a small loaded smoked potato (all sides $2.49, but platters come with two sides and sandwiches with one), the spud's skin crispy and nutty with a whiff of smokiness, the perfect foil for its fluffy interior and little mound of sour cream, bacon, cheddar and chive. House-made slaw had nice crunch, its flavor straightforward and mayo-intensive; grilled corn on the cob stuccoed with herbed cotija cheese has good flavor (but maybe it's not date-night food). The only back-to-the-drawing-board side was the cornmeal-crusted whole fried okra pods, the veggie still too crunchy and the batter too brittle.
Texas-style brisket ($12.99), as I've said, didn't wow, but as the base of a banh mi sandwich ($8.99) it got the job done, the smoky tooth-resistant meat juxtaposed nicely with cukes, pickled carrot, bean sprouts, chopped herbs and spiced mayo on a crusty ciabatta-style baguette. Another sandwich, the Far East ($8.49) paired smoked chopped pork in a similar world beat concoction, this one jazzed with kimchee, scallion and sesame seeds, its barbecue sauce very akin to hoisin with a strong wallop of five-spice powder, all on a plush, glossy brioche roll.
With all of the barbecue options, Zukosky and crew offer a range of house-made barbecue sauce options. There's a very appealing smoked tomato-based sauce, a mustardy Carolina spin, a sticky sweet sauce and a spicy one (not a ton of heat), as well as the Asian sauce mentioned above and a white barbecue sauce (a northern Alabama invention that I've never quite understood). A good way to try them all is with an order of the smoked hot wings (dry rubbed, slow smoked and then quickly deep-fried, these are great with no sauce at all; $11.99), your paper-lined metal tray swiftly becoming a bone yard.
The idea of the "Union" of 'cue from all over is rich with possibility, and certainly UNION72 has the clean good looks to be happily replicated. They've just got to watch their p's and 'cues.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.