By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
The second time I called Andy Salyards I could hear power tools. He was cutting bricks in half for Urban Brew and BBQ's new patio. He's a can-do kind of guy, having started as a merchant marine after getting a mechanical engineering degree, then following that up with a master's in business. He came to the Tampa Bay area following his wife, Jill, who was here doing a dermatology residency. It was "find a job or create one," he says, so he did the latter.
When Urban Brew and BBQ opened in June it filled a peculiar void in the barbecue arena in downtown St. Petersburg. Since then, Witches BBQ Den has opened, but it still seems like downtown has room for more wood smoke perfuming the air. A man with a plan, Salyards did his homework, figuring that most barbecue restaurants err on timing. Because old-school pit barbecues require constant tinkering and attendance, barbecue restaurants often cook their meats during the day, then cool and reheat them as necessary. Salyards loads his automated Cookshack smoker at 10 p.m., and by morning the meat is ready to eat.
He's doing a handful of things in the smoker — brisket, baby-back ribs, pulled pork, chicken — offering them as full plates, with a side and a roll, or as excellent and well-priced sliders. On my first visit I was utterly smitten by a moist, flavorful pile of brisket ($5) sliced onto a little roll, offered with a choice of sauces from really sweet to really hot to vinegar-tangy. The meat had that delicate pink discoloration of meat just under the surface crust (in the biz this is the "bark") that signals skilled smoking, with a savory, rich flavor to the plush beef.
Then pair this with a scoop of crunchy, fresh-tasting cole slaw ($2.50) or a cup of smoky-sweet baked beans studded with big hunks of smoked pork ($2.50). Really, all the sides at Urban Brew are keepers, the top offering the skillet mac and cheese ($5) with wisps of prosciutto, crunchy bread crumb topping and a flavor that brings the sharpness of Cheddar with the rounder smokiness of Gouda.
Chicken ($10) and ribs ($13 for half, $25 for full rack) hit the sweet spot. They are tender but not mushy, the meat pulling off the bone with slight resistance in long, sumptuous strands. Sauce them how you like, but their dry rub and expert smoking obviate the need for any sauce at all.
Then there's the beer. Eighteen taps that change constantly (160 beers have been showcased since Urban opened), everything $6 a pint (except nearby Cycle, which is $5), with half-pours available if you want to try a few. Salyards makes a clear stand with all-American beer, many local, but in the full array of styles from hoppy IPAs to browns, fruit beers and ciders. Okay, wine enthusiasts have only a few choices, and only by the bottle; beer is the thing here, with a drink card that gets punched, not for sheer number of beers ordered, but number of types. Salyards is trying to expand your repertoire.
I almost didn't see one of the coolest things about Urban because of my camel bladder (T.M.I., I know). The restroom floors are decorated in pennies, 5,000 on each floor, the men's room with heads-up pennies in rows and fields, the women's room tails-up and in diamond patterns (some of them wheat pennies — maybe a beer reference?). The rest of the decor is no frills but inviting, equally appropriate for a quick business lunch or an evening out along the increasingly lively Central Avenue corridor.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.