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Barbecue worth its wait

After the last month of emergency chores, you might not want to see Home Depot for a while.

Unless your Home Depot is the one on Route 60.

That's the one with the come-hither smoke of First Choice Southern Barbecue curling up behind it. Makes you want to load up on six bags of Sakrete just for an excuse to stop by.

Roasting pork, beef and turkey _ yes indeed, the beautiful white turkey breast _ seems a better use for trees than plywood.

Though the signs say "follow the smoke," you could just join the trail of people in the line that's out the door before noon. Sixteen people were ahead of me when I arrived at 11:50 a.m., and that was outside. Another 11 were in the inner sanctum, so close to the goal they could hear the barbecue.

You didn't know barbecue has a sound? It does at First Choice, and it is heard above the customers' shouts: "Beef. Sandwich." Half slab, chicken. On the bone." There's a constant drumming, bum-bi-da-bum-bum-bump, as the crew's cleavers riff through the two-handed chopping of each portion to order.

That's part of the primal joy that makes barbecue one of America's remaining slow foods (along with beer and pickles) and relatively unchained. Not just slow in time, barbecue is also cooked in a hand-crafted fashion: building a fire, cutting the meat, watching it cook, precisely adjusting the temperature and time, and finally, chopping and serving. We rarely get so hands-on close to our food as First Choice does.

For me, meat comes first because any fool can add sauce. My foolishness in that regard would would be mustardy yellow from Alabama (and my true preference is vinegar-basted eastern North Carolina). First Choice's sauce is tomato red with a little fire and barely a touch of smoke.

The meat of the matter here is slow-cooked, moist, smoky, surprisingly lean and of great variety. I can vouch for beef, pork and falling-off-the-bone ribs; chicken I like crisper, but those are the basics. It's always good to find sausage in the smoker, and turkey's a special rarity. First Choice's chopped sausage is peppery and spicy (and could be fattier), but turkey is perfectly tender and moist. Corned beef brisket, however, came out too dry. If First Choice wants to add another choice, I'd love to taste its ham.

Other barbecue partisans don't fret over meat or sauce. Meat's meat, they say; it's the sides that decide. And on that score, First Choice is way ahead. First thing fans tell you is "the macaroni salad's really spicy," and the counterman repeats the warning.

No question. The orange color alone cautions you. No cheese, this is mac salad with chili powder, red pepper and only a little mayo. The fire is subtle but deep all the way through. I can't give a Scoville rating, but I clocked my after burn at 2 minutes, 11 seconds.

That's not the only distinction in sides. Baked beans are perfumed with a kick of cinnamon and maybe clove or nutmeg, a standout among beans. Fries are fresh cut, skin on and straight out of a 5-gallon saucepan. Greens are the real thing but somehow flat and mild, as if some well-meaning soul was stingy with salt or pork fat. Cole slaw, my side of sides, is thankfully unsweet, with a slight punch.

To everyone who bragged to me of the macaroni salad, I'll repay the favor with one word: fritters.

These are an extra, not a side, so folks who think meat and sides are enough may miss them. Don't. These probably began life as hush puppies long ago, but someone added meat drippings and barbecue debris to the cornmeal. Dr. Atkins, forgive me, it's a delicious idea.

With those fritters, chili-fired macaroni salad, apple-pie baked beans and fine-smoked turkey, Roger Storr and partner Leland Young have added distinguishing extras to the barbecue menu in the 12 years since they took off their neckties and started the business.

The soul of barbecue remains the same: honest meat, slowly and carefully tended over a fire, whether in a pit in a restaurant or a jury-rigged oil drum on the side of the road. So follow the smoke wherever you live and you'll find some kindred spirit cooking some of the most nourishing food we have. You want it, and you need it.

Remember, when the going gets tough, the tough get barbecue.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or shermansptimes.com.

FIRST CHOICE SOUTHERN BARBECUE

10113 Adamo Drive

Brandon Crossing Shopping Center, Brandon

PHONE: (813) 621-7434

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday

RESERVATIONS: No

DETAILS: Credit cards accepted, no smoking, no alcohol

FEATURES: Takeout, catering

Here's the breakdown of the pork sandwich with fries and cole slaw: The meat at First Choice is moist, smoky and surprisingly lean. The sauce has a little fire. The skin-on fries are fresh cut. The slaw also carries a slight punch.

Want barbecue for lunch? Get to First Choice Southern Barbecue early. The line of customers often extends out the door before noon.

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