Holy smokes!

A pilgrimage to four cornerstones of Tampa Bay barbecue.

click to enlarge RIBS ’ROUND THE BAY: Eli’s BBQ in Dunedin. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
RIBS ’ROUND THE BAY: Eli’s BBQ in Dunedin.

There’s a truism that the two things you don’t discuss in polite company are religion and politics. I’m afraid now I’m tempted to add a third category to the list of verboten subjects:


Because, when you ask the question “What makes great barbecue?,” you get as much consensus as if you’d asked, “Is there life on other planets?” or “Is God dead?” The answers are just as personal, with just as many permutations.

Is the best BBQ made from pork, beef, or poultry? Is it sliced, cubed, shredded or ribbed? Does the perfect sauce have a vinegar, ketchup, or mustard base? Dry, wet or no rub? Back or spare rib? Mesquite, hickory or oak? One thing is clear, to quote the Pointer Sisters, “I want somebody who will spend some time, not come and go in a heated rush.” The universal mantra is “low & slow.”

Before I set out to taste BBQ around the four corners of the Bay, I was myself a diehard advocate of one style and one style only: pulled pork. Adhering to the faith of my forefathers, I believed fervently that the apotheosis of the porcine barbecue world was clearly eastern-style Carolina ’cue with vinegar sauce topped with the de rigueur crunch of creamy slaw.

But now my head is reeling. I’m filled with doubt. After years of being an evangelical disciple of pulled pork, I have fallen from grace, not once, but four times in the last month.

Now that I’ve dined at Eli’s, Cally’s, Champions and Al’s, I’ve joined the cult of the rib.

And not just any rib. Forget the delicate, tender Memphis-style back ribs close to the loin. No, I’ve succumbed to the big meaty, juicy marbled St. Louis spare rib.

I’ve also got to confess that I now question all that I took for granted before. Please don’t tell, but I like eating my ribs without sauce. No vinegar, nothing sweet or spicy, or mustard-based. Just in their plain virginal, smoky state.

Before you judge me, hear my testimony.

All four establishments produce great-tasting BBQ with attractive sides of beans, slaw, collards — the usual suspects. Most importantly, their meats without exception are mouth-wateringly delicious. Following the three-question rating system I introduced a few columns back — What were they trying to do? How well did they do it? Was it worth doing? — they each earn four indisputable stars. Rejoice and be glad.


Eli’s BBQ

Critic’s Rating: 4 stars out of 5

360 Skinner Blvd., Dunedin, 727-738-4856

Perhaps because I’m a lapsed Catholic, Eli’s reminds me of waiting for confession. Groups of disciples stand in line, silently waiting to approach the window, then speak one-on-one, and slowly retreat to await their heavenly reward.

Out back is the barbecue pit, a fiery furnace of a screened porch that’s right out of Dante’s Inferno, complete with fire and brimstone — or at least an impressive pile of hickory. Smoke rises skyward like sacred incense in a cathedral, worshipful and intoxicating.

The ribs are so juicy and perfectly touched by wood that I taste the two tomatoey sauces just so I can report that even the mild one packs heat on the finish. I LOVE these ribs soooo much… but I must disclose that a listing for Eli’s in a recent CL BBQ dining guide provoked a 180-degree response from a loyal reader whose “fatty and greasy” ribs were even refused by his pit bull. Embrace your free will and you decide!


Cally’s Sticky Bones BBQ

Critic's Rating: 4 stars out of 5

2313 W. Linebaugh Ave., Tampa, 813-935-6600

The first thing you notice, besides the corrugated metal wainscoting, is just how clean Cally’s is — a far cry from a smoking rusty barrel that may entice you off a road onto the shoulder with the promise of luscious meats.

Cally’s beef and pork are cubed rather than shredded, but nicely imbued with delicious smoke. Three sauces are ketchup-based from sweet to hot, and Susan’s swine sauce has a tasty tang of vinegar.

But don’t dare miss the scrumptious ribs!

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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