ST. PETERSBURG ― The smell of smoked turkey beckons from blocks away. Just roll down the window and take a whiff — the heady aroma of pecan smoke is unmistakable.
At Red’s BBQ food truck there are barbecue hallmarks like pulled pork and St. Louis-style ribs, baked beans and mac and cheese. But the smoked turkey legs sure feel like the calling card.
The secret to chef Joshua Jackson’s collard greens isn’t a ham hock, it’s smoked turkey. Smoked turkey takes the place of pulled pork on a delicious, messy po-boy sandwich. And the truck’s signature item? A whole smoked turkey leg, split down the middle and stuffed with Cajun grilled shrimp and garlicky pasta. (Restraint isn’t really part of the game here.)
Brothers Christian and Joshua Jackson started their mobile food and catering operation two years ago, after Christian finished serving in the Air Force and paired up with his brother, who at the time was working as a corporate executive chef in upstate New York. The menu isn’t emblematic of any one barbecue tradition, but pulls from a number of influences, from the Jacksons’ upbringing in Buffalo, N.Y., to the Cajun and Creole flavors of their father’s Louisiana-inspired cooking.
The truck is named for their father, Red, who ran a restaurant in Baton Rouge, La. Out front, a large black smoker sits on a trailer hitch — a hand-me-down from Red and the hearth and heart of this operation. While Joshua runs the kitchen inside the truck, Christian is the pit-master.
Pork butts, ribs and turkey legs are all smoked over pecan wood, which imparts a deeply nutty aroma that lingers, cloaking the meat and anything else it touches in a warm, smoky embrace.
Smoked turkey legs, an homage to the fair food favorite they grew up with in Buffalo, anchor the menu. For the extra ravenous, two versions of a smoked turkey leg come split down the middle and stuffed with either Cajun grilled shrimp and creamy garlic and Parmesan pasta ($22) or lump crab meat and mac and cheese ($24).
Until recently, the duo were parking the food truck in the lots of apartment complexes, food festivals and private catering events. On Aug. 1, they found a permanent home in St. Petersburg, near the busy intersection of Fifth Avenue N and 34th Street.
The white building, flanked by tire and auto body shops on either side, was formerly home to Kenwood Organic Produce. For now, the space sits empty, acting as a storage area and a place where Christian’s son, Orion, can hang out and watch television or do homework while his father and uncle work the truck outside. But the owners say they have several ideas for the spot, from building out a full restaurant to a community center offering things like family arts and crafts nights or cooking classes.
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For now, the brothers are keeping the setup as is. Diners can call in orders or place them in person. For those who don’t want to get out of their car, that’s also an option — one of the brothers will bring the menu up to the window where guests can place their order from there.
Lunch specials include pulled pork or turkey po-boys with a side and a drink for $7, a steal if there ever was one. The behemoth of a sandwich comes overflowing with hunks of tender smoked meat all doused in a sweet and tangy sauce.
The St. Louis-style ribs ($12 for six), also called “candy ribs” here, are treated to a brown sugar spice rub before hitting the grill and arrive drizzled in a sticky and sweet barbecue sauce that helps cut some of the smokiness.
While sides fall comfortably into barbecue hallmark territory, each carries a unique spin, from the six-bean baked beans ($4), which are full of peppers, onions and warm spices and not nearly as sweet or syrupy as other versions, to the “dirty” mac, where creamy mac and cheese gets layered with pulled pork ($12).
Thick hunks of smoked turkey flavor the collard greens ($5), which won second prize in last year’s Tampa Bay Collard Greens Festival and feature strips of cabbage and crunchy carrots. The dish carries a little bit of sweetness from brown sugar and a kick of heat from cayenne pepper.
For dessert, the sherbetlike Italian ice served piled high in a plastic cup ($3 for a small) provides a refreshing, sweet treat — that is, if you have any room left.
If you go
Where: 3325 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (716) 478-2202.
Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
Prices: Po-boys, $9 to $10; smoked meats, $12 to $24; sides, $4 to $8.
Don’t skip: Pulled turkey po-boys, baked beans, collard greens.
Take out/delivery: Guests can either order by phone for pickup, order at the walkup window or place an order through their car window. The full menu is available on Grubhub for delivery.