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DeWitt: Texas is the inspiration at Brooksville's new MOPAC BBQ

The mahogany color of the brisket circling slowly in the smoker at MOPAC BBQ promised intense flavor once the meat ended up on a plate — or, actually, in Texas barbecue fashion, on a paper sheet spread over an aluminum tray.

So did the smell of charcoal-and-cherry wood smoke that trickled from the stack of the custom-made grill.

So does general manager Kevin McDougal's description of the cooking, which had started nearly 12 hours earlier — each cut, about the size and shape of a schoolkid's backpack, had been rubbed with a spice mix so finely tuned that an extra teaspoon of salt can throw off the entire process.

And, finally, there's the promise of MOPAC's pedigree.

The Texas barbecue restaurant that opened two weeks ago in the former location of the Coffee Barn coffee shop, south of downtown Brooksville, is owned by Bobby and Kristel Heskett.

They are also the owners of the 5-year-old Capital Tacos in Land O'Lakes and a newer outlet in Wesley Chapel — restaurants that have been praised for turning out some of the best burritos in the country.

"This was kind of Bobby's brainchild," McDougal said of MOPAC, which is named after the Missouri Pacific Railroad or, maybe, the Mopac Expressway in Austin, Texas, which was named after the railroad.

Either way, Austin is the inspiration.

"He's been fascinated with Austin, Texas," said McDougal, 23, a Pasco County native and longtime Capital employee who intends to buy MOPAC and, possibly, open several more outlets in the future.

Heskett, who cultivates mystery as a marketing strategy, did not sit for a full interview. But in a brief conversation two days after MOPAC's opening, he said he spent a lot of time in Texas and fell in love with its tradition of barbecue.

It's the model for the brisket — a classic Texas cut — the decor, the music and the service style at MOPAC.

Walls are covered by signs from rural Texas highways. Texas blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan is in a regular rotation on a playlist heavy on vintage blues, soul and rock.

The counter is flanked by the sawed-off beds of two pickup trucks, one with the relatively useful function of holding silverware and condiments, the other serving as a display case for old railroad lanterns and a 1940s sausage grinder.

And as with many other Texas barbecue joints, the menu changes depending on the availability of the best meats, McDougal said, though customers are pretty much guaranteed to find brisket. Because its clientele might favor other styles, MOPAC's also serves, for example, St. Louis-style ribs and a sweet, vinegary Carolina-inspired barbecue sauce.

"We do other influences because we aren't in Texas," McDougal said.

The ribs, by the way, do live up to all of MOPAC's promise, the meat so smoky it takes on a ham-like, pink hue. The brisket managed to be both tender and moist, a delicate balance that, McDougal said, is the aim of every barbecue cook.

I'm not enough of an expert to judge how MOPAC's brisket stacks up against the best of Texas. But I can say the sides — the meat-flecked baked beans and the roasted brussels sprouts and creamy, tangy mac and cheese served out of king-sized cast-iron skillets — definitely are not uninspired afterthoughts, as they are in many barbecue restaurants.

"I tried the brussels sprouts there, and for the first time in my life I was not repulsed by brussels sprouts," said Mark Laird, owner of nearby Crank Works Bicycles.

Laird ate at MOPAC the day it opened, and has been back nearly every day since.

Every meat he's tried has been outstanding, he said, and "their smoked turkey breast was really amazing. It fell apart, and it wasn't dry at all."

From his experience, from mine and from those of customers who have plastered social media sites with rave reviews, I'd say that though MOPAC is too new to be considered a Brooksville landmark on the order of Florida Cracker Kitchen, it has that potential.

As Laird said, "That place rocks."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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