A Tampa Bay Barbecue Sampler

Adventures in Florida 'Cue.

My barbecue travels in January took me down to the Tampa-St. Pete area, where I checked out a couple of old-school Florida joints and some more recent arrivals, too.

One of the oldest in the area is Big John's Alabama Barbecue, which opened in 1968. Its barbecue lineage is right there in its name, for founder John A. Stephens was born in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1922 and moved down to Tampa in 1958, where he became an ordained minister and started the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens.

A decade later, after his barbecue earned repeated praise at church picnics, he opened Big John's on 40th Street, which quickly became an East Tampa favorite. Stephens passed away in 1994, but his family has kept the business going, with one brief interruption in 2009, when the state forced them to close to make way for the widening of 40th Street.

Stephens's original restaurant, a small building that hugged the shoulder of 40th Street, was razed, but the following January Big John's reopened in a larger building set back farther from the road, with a big parking lot and seating for 60.

One thing that didn't change was the cooking method, for the family faithfully reconstructed the patriarch's barbecue pit. Similar to those found at legendary Alabama joints like Archibald's in Northport and Bob Sykes in Bessemer, it's a gigantic brick pit that opens right out into the restaurant. A fire of split hickory logs burns beneath two smoked-blacked double-decker cooking grates, and a garden hose hangs nearby to douse any flare-ups. The pitman uses a giant two-tined fork to shuffle and flip the racks of ribs, pork shoulders, and chickens as they cook.

Big John’s Alabama Barbecue
A chicken and rib plate at Big John’s Alabama Barbecue. Robert Moss

Big John's sells beef, pork, and sausage—all chopped into thin chunks—but for me the standouts are the chicken and ribs. The smoky flavor of the tender chicken shines right through its thick blanket of reddish brown sauce, which is sweet and moderately spicy. The spare ribs have a pleasantly chewy texture and great bits of brown char imparted by their cooking over direct heat — much akin to what you would find in a classic central Alabama rib joint.

You can get a similar taste of old-school Tampa 'cue at BJ's Alabama BBQ on Dale Mabry Highway, just south of the Tampa airport. As the name indicates, it's a legacy of Big John Stephens, too. Owner and pitmaster April Moreno is Big John's daughter, and she cooks a similar lineup of ribs, pork, beef, sausage and chicken, though she does it on a smoked-blackened metal pit that sits right out by the highway.

BJ's has been in its current building at the corner of El Prado Boulevard for just a year, having moved there from a previous location four blocks farther north on Dale Mabry. In perhaps a symbolic representation of the shift from old to new, BJ's former building is now occupied by the Deviled Pig—a new-school Tampa joint if there ever was one.

The small square building has a black metal roof and a small dining room enclosed in plate glass windows. It's the home of pitmaster and co-owner Lee Ann Whippen, a veteran of the barbecue competition circuit and frequent guest on television shows like Food Network's BBQ Brawl and TLC's BBQ Pitmasters. Whippen was a partner in several restaurants in Chicago before heading south to Tampa to launch the Deviled Pig, which opened in the fall of 2018.

The offering runs the full barbecue gamut from prime beef brisket and pulled pork to burnt ends and rib tips. I was particularly intrigued by Whippen's smoked shrimp, which get just ten minutes on the smoker with lots of hickory, so they're still fat and juicy but have a rich smoky flavor accented by a dusting of sweet "Pig Powder" rub.

Deviled Pig BBQ
The specialty of the house at the Deviled Pig in Tampa. Robert Moss

The restaurant's eponymous specialty, the deviled pig, is a clever twist on a local Ybor City delicacy, deviled crab. In Whippen's version, smoked pulled pork takes the place of the original blue crab. It's mixed with onions, red peppers, and sriracha then rolled in panko and deep fried. Crisp outside and gooey and quite spicy inside, it's a delicious golden brown treat.

Head west across the bay on the four-mile-long Gandy Bridge and you'll find yourself in St. Petersburg, which recently welcomed an ambitious new barbecue joint of its own called Dr. BBQ. Named for its co-founder and pitmaster, Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe, it shares some notable features with Whippen's Deviled Pig.

Like Whippen, Lampe came to Tampa via Chicago, though he's a Chicago native and has lived in St. Pete for two decades. He, too, cut his teeth in barbecue competitions and became a fixture on barbecue-themed television shows. Lampe partnered with local restaurateurs Suzanne and Roger Perry to launch Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg's Edge District in October 2018—the same month that the Deviled Pig opened.

Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg, FL
Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg has a big dining room with a full bar. Robert Moss

In terms of physical format, though, the two restaurants couldn't be more different. Dr. BBQ is a slick, cavernous space, with a broad downstairs dining room—all rough hewn wood and metal—wrapping around a full bar with a deep whiskey list. Dozens of Edison bulbs hang down on long cords from the ceiling high above, and the restaurant's giant black Oyler smoker is on proud display right behind the counter where you order. There's more seating upstairs on the second floor balcony and also on an outdoor patio.

The restaurant declares itself a "New American Smokehouse," which is an apt description. As you might expect from a guy who has traveled the country and written nine books about barbecue, Dr. BBQ delivers a full array of cross-regional standards, like ribs, sausage, turkey, pork belly, and burnt ends.

Dr. BBQ Beef Rib
The Ginormous Beef Rib at Dr. BBQ. Robert Moss

The "ginormous" beef rib is suitably silky and luxurious, but—as at the Deviled Pig—I found the less common items to be the most compelling. The smoke-kissed "gator fish spread"—a creamy blend of smoked grouper and alligator—is a nice Gulf Coast touch, and the sliced "pork brisket" is a welcome change of pace in an age of ubiquitous beef brisket and pulled pork.

This pork version of brisket is carved from the bottom end of the shoulder, and it's a fairly flat, boneless cut with part of the fatty belly on one end and a strip of the leaner shoulder on the other. It may sound gimmicky—pork packers trying to horn in on the current trendiness of beef brisket—but at Dr. BBQ it turns out quite delicious. Beneath an ample rub of coarse-ground pepper, each thin slice has a rosy ring of smoke along one edge and a nice quarter-inch jacket of fat on the other—a smoky, tender morsel.

WATCH: Dr. BBQ Shares His Delicious Burger Blend

As a barbecue region, Florida remains something of a conundrum. Few commentators recognize the state as having a distinctive style of its own, but if you spend enough time driving around cities like Tampa and Miami, eating ribs and chicken at half-century old joints with tall brick chimneys, a pattern starts to emerge.

Roll that older mode together with some of the more creative entires from newer restaurants—especially those that are putting barbecue spins on local ingredients and recipes—and there's something interesting going on. It's still premature to say for sure, and I look forward to heading back down south soon for more exploration, but we might just be seeing the emergence of what we can call Florida-style barbecue.

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