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Jun 16, 2008 10:54 AM

The Best Barbecue in the Tampa area...a roundup of sorts

CarpetBaggers and Interlopers beware. A Southerner's take on the 'Cue

As someone who considers themselves a Southerner by the grace of Gawd I would like to weigh in on the debate about the best 'cue in and around Tampa. And for all you transplated yankees playing along on the home version of our game, when I say 'Cue that means Barbecue. Now that we have that sorted let's get down to brass tacks and dry rub...and yes, I was born and raised in Plant City so that just adds to my expertise.

Kojaks is probably the best barbecue joint in Tampa. Hands down their ribs are consistently mo' better than just about anywhere else you will try around the bay. They have a pretty nice selection of other cuts as well. If you like smoked sausage, and if you're below the Mason Dixon Line why wouldn't you?!, Kojaks has what they call "hot links" on their menu. That's a really nice Georgia made country smoked sausage with enough spices in it to make you reach for their perfect sweet tea more than once. Their other cuts of meat are succulent and their protions are usually beyond decent. When we talk about sides there are the usual suspects on their menu (potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, maccaroni salad, green beans, corn on the cob) but they also have some pretty fantastic buttered parsley potatos that you will order just about every time after you have them the first time. The sauce at Kojaks is pretty decent cross between a catsup based red sauce and a vinegar sauce. They got the blend down pat on it and their spicy sauce is just as good. After you're all done with that and wash it down with the afforementioned tasty sweet tea, I definitely reccomend that you sample their Chocolate cake. Have it warm and have it with their vanilla ice cream. For those of you lucky enough to have grown up in the South I promise you that it will give you visions of holiday dinner at your granny's house or lunch after church on Sundays. I would love their recipe. It is perfectly moist and gooey chocolate cake and they get it right every single time. If you get it warm and have it with the vanilla ice cream you'll be just f-i-n-e fine. They'll probably have to roll you off the porch when you leave.

Jazzy's BBQ in Tampa is an okay place to go. The 'Cue there is decent. They do pulled pork better than anything else meat-wise on their menu. the number one and only reason to go to Jazzy's takes place only on Fridays at their restaurant. They have a little old lady that comes in on Friday just to make the maccaroni n' cheese that they offer as a side dish. It is only available on Fridays when she comes to work and only until Gawd finds out how good her mac n cheese is and calls her home to make it for him and the angels. The rest of their food isn't bad, it's just not consistently awesome in my humble opinion. Their is always a line at lunch time at Jazzy's so go early. And if you want to taste the best mac n cheese goodness on the planet you for damn sure better go on a Friday and get there early. Or better yet call in your order early. They do have a good call in and pick up service there. If you see me there on a Friday and your ass was too slow to get any mac n' cheese you better keep your hands off mine or you will draw back a nub.

First Choice BBQ, like Kojaks, is the shizznit when it comes to the 'Cue in the greater Tampa Bay Area. This fact is evidenced by the line that winds out the door and down the sidewalk EVERY day for an hour or two at lunch time. First Choice used to be called Brothers BBQ for those of you in the know. It was in fact started by a group of brothers, who also happen to be brothas, and they know their 'Cue. I am going to say this for the benefit of all the carpetbaggers in the audience, brothas know a thing or two about the 'Cue seeing as they more or less perfected it as an artform in this country. Try everything they have on the menu there. It's all good. You can stand in line at First Choice and listen to the symphony of the pounding cleavers as they demolish full pork butts and roasts that have been wood-smoked for a day or two. It is a good tune they play there and lord knows I have tapped my foot more than once listening to it. I will offer a cautionary word or two about First Choice here. The maccaroni salad they offer as a side is deceiving. It is deliscious, but also spicy enough that you'll think the devil himself was in the back whipping it up. All their other sides there are standard fare and good, especially they're handcut french fries. One last thing about First Choice in Brandon, there is no air-conditioning so it gets hot as the sixth level of hell if you sit in there awhile and eat. Take out is a smart idea at this place. For your own personal safety you should probably know what you want by the time you get to the front of the line and it is your turn to order. The combination of the heat in that joint and the long line of waiting to wrap your lips around a big juicy rib is enough to make people violent. I am not exagerating when I say that I almost saw somebody get shot there over taking too long in line to order. Somebody in the back of the line was tired of the yankee in the front of the line trying to figure out what they wanted. (The menu is not that hard people!) Heated words were exchanged, a little pushing / name calling followed and the last words the whole restaurant heard from the guy in the back of the line was, "I got something for you in the truck, I'll be right back pal. Don't you move." Unfortunately for that guy he didn't see the deputy sherriffs eating at the little table in the back. I am guessing he had his dessert over on Orient Road. ;o) I will let you all in on a secret that just may save your life. They opened another First Choice over in Plant City. It is even better than the original due to the addition of air-conditioning and the fact that not too many high-fallutin' folks from South Tampa will make the trek to the booming metropolis of Plant City. It's owned and run by the same brothas from Brandon and the food is the same.

Jimbo's BBQ in Tampa is decent. If you want their best shot you'll have to make the trek over to Lakeland way out on Memorial Blvd. Their ribs are almost as good as Kojaks. Their sauce is actually better. It is a perfect blend of peppers, vinegar and tomatoes that will make you glad to be down South. Jimbo's does some really great things. Their homemade pickles and pickled peppers are out on every table when you get there and if you hit the bottom of the bowl they will bring you another one I swear. Don't take your neighbor's or someone is gonna get bit. They have killer hushpuppies at Jimbo's these little golden deep-fried nuggets of heaven are one of the best things they offer there. They are perfect for soaking up rib drippins and extra sauce you may have slopped around the plate. They are tasty enough that you have to remember one thing, when it starts hurting you should stop biting because you have run out of hushpuppy and are gnawing on your fingers. Order extra, you'll want them. Along the vein of desserts you cannot leave Jimbo's without trying their homemade apple pie with vanilla ice cream and the little cup of warm cider to pour over it. Sweet Jeezus you will want to slap your gramma and someone else's. It is that good. The only thing with Jimbo's is that it can be a little on the pricey side for a not so consistent 'Cue experience. Your mileage may vary.

Whoever brought up Famous Dave's BBQ in a serious discussion of the 'Cue should just be slapped. Not that it's a bad joint, but Famous Dave's is to the 'Cue what McDonald's is to good cheeseburgers. It's edible, it doesn't necessarily suck and it's cheap but if you have other alternatives you should take them. Seriously what a disappointment you turned out to be. Please turn in your 'Cue card as you go back up north. They have Famous Dave's in Minnesota for Christ's sake. They ice fish in Minnesota and that's their idea of "fun". That's all I got to say about that.

In closing I will say that 'Cue is truly an artform. I sampled its delisciousness in pretty much every place that is reknowned for it in this country. Tampa has a few good spots for the 'Cue I will say that, but if you really want to find out about the 'Cue it's gonna cost you time and gas money. How much is a little taste of heaven worth to you?

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  1. this round up is appreciated. I got so disappointed in local barbecue that I learned to make my own. The best barbecue in the city can be found in the right backyards. any reason Alabama John's didn't make your list?

    1. I always enjoy reading someone's post like yours who thinks they know all about cue. Who christened you the arbiter of cue in the Tampa Bay area. But I guess since this is an open forum, you are entitled to your opinion.

      Well, here are a few of mine.

      First, Kojaks has always been very consistent in my experience with them. Consistently bad. I would keep trying them to see if they ever got a new pitmaster but after the fifth or sixth time, I felt it was too much abuse to my taste buds.

      Second, I will agree that First Choice and Jimbo's are a few of the better places in Tampa Bay. But so is Alabama John's as Andy brought up.

      Third, I think Andy made the best point of all. If you are truly serious about cue, you will make it in your own backyard. It is not that difficult if you are willing to learn.

      Feel free to come back and offer your opinion on cue anytime. But if you lose the higher than thou attitude, more people might listen.

      And btw, I know quite a few southerners who don't even consider Florida part of the south. And before you ask, I am a southerner born in Georgia.


      16 Replies
      1. re: RibDog

        After being born and raised in Homestead to a pioneer family that settled there in 1906 amongst the saltwater crocs, gators and gynormous skeeters - I would say that this was as old South as anyplace.....especially when you get down 'round Flamingo and the jewfish holes (and yes we still call 'em jewfish)......

        I would agree that BBQ is best in the backyard....I have a Big Green Egg that produces championship caliber BBQ.....and I generally have the patience for an 18-hour low-n-slow that won't make you slap you're granny 'cause we ain't invitin' her over........

        As for BBQ in that neck of the woods.....I visited this place on the main drag in Mulberry.....Can't remember the name.....And those folks really knew how to smoke ribs....Hated their sauce as it was yellow, mustardy and downright gawdawful.....But the meat is the thing.....and the ribs were smoked perfectly.....Hopefully those folks are still in business....Paid $15 for a full slab of large spares and based on taste alone they were worth that and then some.....

        Alot of different opinions on BBQ.....It always tastes best coming out of your backyard.....but life doesn't always give us 18 hours to do the low-n-slow thing....and that leaves us to try restaurnant BBQ.....and that's where the fun begins........And hey!....It is "BBQ Season".....right?


        1. re: LargeLife

          My apologies. Personally, I agree that Florida is part of the South. It was a comment that should not have been made in the heat of the moment. I'm all for reading reviews and such but get a little heated when someone feels they are the definitive source on a particular cuisine.

          I get over to Mulberry occasionally. Will have to look for them. I don't remember any over that way at the moment myself.


          1. re: RibDog

            That place in Mulberry was right on the main drag....not far from the phosphate pits.....It had picnic tables out in front......and as I recall there was a McDonalds up the street and not far from I-4......I usually have great recall for these kinds of things as far as locations go.......And hey....don't wife is from Georgia and she doesn't think South Florida is the old south either......I think these days the old south ends just somewhere north of Lake Okeechobee....somewhere between Moore Haven and Ft. Pierce.....

            But back in my grandpappy's day......The "Old South" ended down by our fishing camp in Flamingo.....past Hold in the Donut.....



          2. re: LargeLife

            The place in Mulberry that you mention sounds like Carter's BBQ.


            1. re: EOutlaw

              Thanks, EOutlaw!! That is the place!! I stopped in there and purchased three slabs of spare ribs and they were perfectly smoked. I drove by that place, got a whiff of what was going on, did a u-turn and went back and was glad that I did. I didn't care for that yellow sauce though. I've been to BBQ competitions all over and have never tasted a sauce like that and hope that I never do again!! But when it comes to BBQ...the meat is the thing...and those folks know how to smoke meats right!!


          3. re: RibDog

            I agree. Kojak's blows. Jimbo's is decent. Keep in mind that, like everywhere else, there are people in the rest of the South that don't know their ass from a hole in the ground. Florida and Texas are my favorite barbecue states and coincidentally the two southernmost. Florida is Florida, but it's definitely still the south. Under-funded schools, non-existent social services, a teeming underclass, a crooked legislature, NASCAR, unbearable summer heat, poverty wages...hell, we got it all! I'm native to Virgina, another "that ain't the south" state, so I'll share a joke that pretty much sums up this whole southern thing.

            How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Six. One to put in the new bulb and five to stand around and speak of how grand was the old one.

            1. re: flavrmeistr

              Well, flavrmeistr.....Gotta hand it to ya....that was a pretty darned good description (and assessment) of all the wonderful things about Florida!!....Liked the joke about Virginians and the light bulb.....I think that joke might apply to friends in West Virginia as well......Keeping in mind that those are two states that I really like to visit!

              I like BBQ so much that it's my (secret) ambition to someday open a BBQ joint and I would model it after 'The Smoke Pit' which is located in Ft. Worth, TX.......This place is like White Trash Hooters with A-1 Texas BBQ......The waitresses all have stringy bleached blond hair....jacked up to the ceiling....with tight jeans....halter tops....and all chewin' hard on a piece of gum.....And the BBQ was nothing less than outstanding.....The owners cell phone is posted on the door and he invites you to call just in case things ain't right....I called him on my cell....he answered....And I told him how much I enjoyed the BBQ at his place and from there we had a right nice visit......Hope that someday comes......


              1. re: LargeLife

                Plant City/Lithia

                Even with the windows up, you can smell Smokin' Joe's long before you see the piles of split logs and the big smoke shack beside Rick's Custom Meats on County Road 39. Perhaps it is the aroma of chicken, pork, beef and ribs mingled with smoldering oak, hickory, pecan and mesquite. 10252 County Road 39 South, Lithia
                OPEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

                1. re: LargeLife

                  Please, please bring some Texas BBQ to use poor benighted Floridians! I love Texas-style BBQ, not because I don't like pulled pork but because I like the style of sauces and rubs. There doesn't seem to be much if any Texas-style Q in Florida. Even California gets some!

              2. re: RibDog

                Hehehe...I found the OP's post to be rather humorous than obnoxious. People who really love BBQ are downright serious about it. Q experts can smell out faux-Q within a mile of the place. Most faux-Q starts at the chains like Famous Dave's. They moved into Atlanta and all they did was take some of Sonny's business away from them. Mainstream Q made for the masses. Not even their 4 or 5 kinds of sauce mattered. "Please turn in your 'Cue card as you go back up north"....hahaha!

                Anyone ever been to Corky's in Memphis? Well, they franchised out 10 to 12 years ago and the Corky's in Atlanta is just average. Yep, average Q with an average bland sauce. Just b/c it's from Memphis and has a reputation doesn't mean the franchising will be the same as the original.

                I don't know anything about Tampa, but I do know the OP sounds like he takes his Q the way I do, seriously. I've spent 7 years in East Tennessee, 22 in Hotlanta, and the rest in Florida. So I am pretty much southern as well.

                1. re: freakerdude


                  since you spent time in Hotlanta, did you ever get around to Fat Matt's Rib Shack on Piedmont? Kind of a controversial place because they don't smoke their ribs. They basically roast them and finish them with sauce on a wood fired pit as best as I can recall. Don't flame me but i actually liked their ribs. I think it's because they had developed a good sauce. I remember buying a rack of ribs and putting it on my carry-on baggage on a flight back to Tampa. I was worried that the smokey ribs would make someone think something was burning.

                  I am currently out here on a stint in California and Famous Dave's is out here too. I can't trust a bbq chain headquartered in Minneapolis. However, in California you can get beef tri-tip. I guess it's a cousin cut to brisket? I have not found decent BBQ here in california. Either the ribs are too smoky and taste like gasoline or the sauce just isn't right. Someone else mentioned Texas BBQ. The good thing about Texas style BBQ that I do like is barbecued beef brisket. Oh man, good stuff.

                  Anyhow, I will be moving back to Brandon in early July and one of the first places I head to will be First Choice. I remember those guys as early as 1996 !!!!

                  1. re: ramblinwrek92

                    Where in California? Have you tried Armadillo Willy's?

                    1. re: aynrandgirl

                      I am an hour East of LA near I-15 in Rancho Cucamonga. Looks like Armadillo Willy's only has locations in Silicon Valley. Bummer.

                      1. re: aynrandgirl

                        Armadillo Willy's isn't too bad, as I have tried it once on a business trip to San Jose around 2002.

                      2. re: ramblinwrek92

                        Fat Matt's? Yep, I used to think they had some decent Q until real deal places opened up behind them around the mid 90's. I used to drive 50 miles RT just to get takeout since they are usually packed. FM's, as you said, doesn't smoke their ribs and they are typically the big and fatty type. It's mainly a yuppie-fied BBQ joint for grilled BBQ with really good blues bands. Their sauce is pretty plain jane but good and the rum baked beans are very good.

                        If in Hotlanta, you have to go to Fox Bro.s BBQ Texas style joint that now has their own location as of a year ago or so. They were serving out of Smith's Olde bar up until then. Talk about killer dry rubbed brisket!

                        Other notables: Swallow At The Hollow in Roswell, Hometown BBQ in Lawrenceville, and Pig n Chick for decent pulled pork. Spiced Right in Lilburn (sold to new owners ~ three years ago) has the best sauces hands down and Dusty's BBQ in ATL has the best NC style vinegar based sauce and best Brunswick stew I have ever had. I never ventured to the historical Harold's or Auburn Ave. Rib Shack.

                        Average BBQ: Benny's and Slopes around town.

                    2. re: RibDog

                      I am glad you weighed in, RibDog. I've never been to Kojack's, largely based upon your earlier assessments. I had to smile to see you get peeved at the post. For those who don't know RibDog is a master of the art of smoke and meat. I think the reviewer above is enthusiastic, which isn't all bad. I say keep learning and try to make your own. For many of us "Chowhounding" is not a hobby, but a passion and way of life.


                    3. I hesitated to volunteer C & K Smokehouse BBQ because it's a little south of Tampa, on 301 in Parrish, but I've heard some yearnings for Texas quality 'que here, and the ribs at C & K rival the big 3 in Elgin, Texas, outside Austin. They don't do brisket, but they do a mean smoked mullet, which is getting harder to find. It's take out only, but if the aroma of barbecue were music, you might think Norah Jones and Regina Spektor were singing duets in your back seat during your drive home. Good sauces, too.

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                          1. Yes, we're a "holding pen for retirees and transplants" here in Florida. But we look up to you guys in NC and VA, not for your latitude, but as organ donors :)