Tallahassee’s Barbecue Scene Embraces a Variety of Regional Specialties
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A classic plate of ribs with all the fixin’s from Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Que.
Barbecue, like religion, has many variations on a basic theme, and each has its true believers. Most Southerners profess allegiance to one smoke-infused denomination or another fairly early in life. With the kind of passionate loyalty reserved for college football teams and brothers caught up in a barroom brawl, barbecue enthusiasts rarely waver in their belief that their choice of cooking method and sauce is the “real” barbecue. All you have to do, they say, is follow them down the path to true gustatory enlightenment and contentment.
The differences are primarily based on geographic location. In eastern North Carolina, a whole hog cooked low and slow and a sauce of apple cider vinegar, black pepper and salt defines barbecue. In the western part of the state, the dominant style of barbecue is named for the town of Lexington and features primarily pork shoulders, also known as Boston Butts, and a vinegar-tomato sauce.
South Carolina adds a mustard-based barbecue sauce that can range from mild to spicy. Head over to Georgia and the dominant sauce has a tomato base with lots of spices and vinegar to add kick. Alabama’s legendary barbecue pit-master, Big Bob Gibson of Decatur, created a white barbecue sauce for chicken back in the early years of the 20th century that has proven to be a happy pairing with many other smoked meats. Memphis-style barbecue gives us a sweet glaze.
Western Kentucky adds barbecued mutton to the menu, and Texas brings beef, particularly brisket and beef ribs, to a cooking style dominated by pork farther east. In Kansas City, Missouri, meat of all kinds tends to be covered with dry rubs and smoked, then finished with a sweet table sauce.
So what’s Tallahassee’s barbecue identity? The consensus among barbecue purveyors and their customers alike is that there isn’t one. Even barbecue blogger Johnny Fugitt, who is on a mission to discover the best barbecue in the country, noted when he came through town several months ago that Tallahassee “doesn’t seem to have an extremely deep set of barbecue roots yet.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s room for true believers of all stripes here in the capital city. Whether you favor a brick-and-mortar barbecue restaurant, a mobile barbecue caterer or food truck, or one of the guys who parks a cooker on the side of the road and sets up shop, there are lots of different styles of barbecue to try. And it’s not heresy to favor one joint for its ribs and another for its brisket.
Barbecuing vs. Grilling
Before we go any farther, we need to get something straight. Some people, particularly outside the Deep South, refer to a backyard cookout of hot dogs and hamburgers, or even grilled steaks, as “a barbecue.” Forgive them, for they know not what they say.
Barbecue means the smoke-infused cooking of meat over an open flame, usually over an extended period of time at a low temperature — low and slow. There’s a great deal of debate about the fuel used. Some prefer charcoal, others swear by hardwood, particularly hickory, oak, mesquite or cherry. Some cookers are fueled by propane gas with wood smoke added. Whatever the fuel, smoke is the key. A backyard brazier grill can’t produce the depth of flavor found in true barbecue, whether it’s cooked in a pit in the ground or a $10,000 custom-made cooker on wheels. People who call a cookout a barbecue just don’t know any better.
Most any weekend during football season, a soft haze of barbecue smoke hangs over Tallahassee like a fragrant fog. The closer you get to one of the college football stadiums, the richer the aroma. Perry Street, behind Florida A&M University’s Bragg Stadium, is a boulevard of barbecue dreams on game day. On Thursday afternoon before a Saturday home game at either Bragg Stadium or Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium, you’ll see cookers being set up on street corners along the primary routes to campus. Local restaurants of all types get a boost from home games, and barbecue joints — whether mobile or stationary — draw crowds on game day. Location can really make a difference.
A number of Tallahassee barbecue restaurants have come and gone over the past 15 years alone. Remember Banjo’s? Shane’s Rib Shack? Mr. T’s? Wilson’s Barbecue? Tiny’s? Each of them had a devoted following, but for one reason or another, they all closed their doors. And somebody else came along and opened a new barbecue place somewhere else in town. Location, as in any retail operation, seems to be key. While it’s rare to see a new barbecue restaurant open where one just closed, selecting a location that was home to a different cuisine can be strategic.
For example, after Carlos’ Cuban Café closed at the corner of East Tennessee and Gadsden streets in 2009, the place sat empty until Up in Smoke Barbecue opened in 2011. After a bit of initial bureaucratic wrangling over the “smoke” mist shooting out of its street-side sign, the restaurant has continued to grow. This summer, a deck was added to accommodate outdoor diners and, presumably, smokers of another sort. With homemade rubs and sauces and a menu that includes beef, pork and chicken, Up in Smoke and the sampling of other barbecue cookers we talked to reflect the eclectic mix of regional styles that is Tallahassee barbecue.
Keeping it Mobile
Chuck Stubbs and his business partner, Martin Schaefer, are information technology specialists at FSU by day and Blue Water Cooking Company by night and on weekends. They freely admit that they started the business in 2008 to pay for their expensive hobby of entering cooking contests. They’ve been cooking together 15 years, starting with St. George Island’s annual chili cookoff. Ask them how they met, and they’ll look at you with straight faces and say, “in Lamaze class,” before laughing and adding they were coaching their wives and their sons are two weeks apart in age.
They primarily enter contests sanctioned by the Florida Bar-B-Que Association, a Southeastern regional group with teams and contests mainly in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. It’s one of the big three competition sanctioning bodies, with Memphis in May’s Memphis Barbecue Network and the Kansas City Barbeque Society being the other two.
With their mobile kitchen, Stubbs and Schaefer cater mostly barbecue for a variety of events, including tailgates, wedding rehearsals and receptions, and company picnics. Their style, like most Tallahassee barbecue cooks, is a blend of Kansas City and Memphis, using dry rubs followed by a sweet glaze at the end. “We use mostly oak for the smoke,” Stubbs said. “Hickory is too strong.”
Football tailgating is big business, and they have built up a clientele who book them for specific games several months in advance. For large groups, they usually serve pulled pork. “Ribs are labor intensive and difficult to do for a large crowd,” Schaefer said. “They take a lot of space and need a lot of attention, and we’d rather not do ribs if we can’t do them right.”
Other tailgate specialties include Wagu beef tri-tip or brisket and non-barbecue favorites such as paella and a low country boil. For several years they filled pre-orders and sold barbecue — vended, as they describe it — from a parking lot near the stadium where Urban Outfitters now stands.
The best part, Schaefer said, is seeing people enjoy their food. “We have a good time.”