Just look at local elections and you'll immediately see the value of a little oversight when there's a serious popularity contest in the offing. Add in CL's unstructured voting — à la Chicago's aldermen elections, or any high school homecoming court balloting — and that oversight becomes even more necessary. Luckily, I'm here to add a little perspective to CL's Rib-Off.
This week I anonymously visited Hillsborough's eight Savory Sixteen finalists, surreptitiously taste-testing their ribs in the hopes of finding out which joints deserved their spot. I found some that should have been dumped in the first round, some that can serve to quench a barbecraving emergency, and a few that just might deserve to top our Tournament of Ribs. Next week I'll take a look at the Pinellas finalists and crown my own Rib-Off champion. First, in order of preference, are my takes on Hillsborough's final eight.
1. Jimbo's Pit BBQ
4103 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-289-9724 or jimbosbarbq.com. Jimbo's may have more of a family-dining, almost-chain atmosphere than some of Hillsborough's characterful barbecue joints, but the meat makes up for that in spades. Jimbo's ribs have texture, the crust rippling with crisp fat and deeply browned meat surrounding a core of tender, juicy pork that easily pulls away from the bone with the slightest pressure. Each bite is rich and laden with smoke, with a subtle spice rub that neither helps nor hinders the simple enjoyment of excellent ribs. I can imagine a better rib than that served here, but Jimbo's can easily serve as a benchmark for seriously capable ribs everywhere.
2. Jazzy's BBQ
5703 W Waters Ave., Tampa, 813-243-8872 or jazzysbbqtampafl.com. Although smack on a highly trafficked and visible section of Waters Avenue, Jazzy's could fit in almost any out-of-the-way neighborhood. Smoke and heat hit you the minute you open the door, making the rudimentary decor of the dining room rather meaningless. The ribs live up to that promise, with a gorgeous crust and meat that drips with pork fat — you know, in a good way. You might ask for a little more spice in the rub, a little more tenderness in the meat, or you might just contentedly gnaw away at Jazzy's accomplished smoked ribs.
3. Jaymer Que
3331 Lithia Pinecrest Road, Valrico, 813-657-4227 or jaymer-que.com. Way, way out in Valrico, in a crowded modern strip mall at the area's busiest intersection, is Jaymer Que. It's a slick operation, with a huge family-friendly dining room, outdoor seating, efficient staff and a plethora of extras to go with the meat. And the ribs, well, they're massive meaty monsters, with a river of rendered fat adding flavor to the pork and a tasty herbacious rub that's assertive enough to cut through the juice. At times it feels like you're eating the kind of ribs that might tip Fred Flintstone's car on its side, but considering the quality you'll be thankful for the hefty portions.
4. Uncle Rodney's Rib House
5712 S Macdill Ave., Tampa, 813-837-1727 or unclerodneysribhouse.com. In contrast with other South Tampa finalist Kojak's — and during the very same lunch hour — Uncle Rodney's is barren of customers. It's closer to MacDill, but farther from South Tampa's commercial districts. The lack of air-conditioning adds to the bare bones vibe of the counter service and enclosed front-porch dining area. There's nothing more authentic in a barbecue joint than a squealing, lopsided screen door. Rodney's ribs have a good amount of smoke (maybe the most in Tampa) and enough rendered fat to keep the meat moist despite a seriously browned crust that's just shy of burned. Despite that, the meat is a bit bland and could use a more assertive rub to add some character.
5. Cally's Sticky Bones BBQ
2313 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa, 813-935-6600. Cally's is a slick operation, the small strip mall storefront neatly laid out with built-in picnic table booths and a central bar. There's also a load of awards from sanctioned contests and local events, plastered to the walls and lining shelves, testament to the pork and brisket prowess of this small barbecue joint. The ribs, though, are distinctly middle of the road, a tad dry and coated in subtly sweet spices that have turned pasty in the long smoke, detracting from the crust. Still damn tasty, but not top tier.
6. Mike's Smokehouse BBQ
7117 N US 301, Tampa, 813-626-5222 or mikessmokehousebbq.com. Easily the most scenic of Tampa's Savory Sixteen, Mike's is a converted wood house on a deserted stretch of US 301 overlooking the Water Management's canal and boat launch. There's a stack of logs ready to be split on one side, a dilapidated tiki hut on the other, and a trickling stream underneath the outdoor dining deck. Quaint, however, doesn't translate in the meat. Mike's ribs are dense and chewy, with little smoke flavor in spite of that pile of wood, combined with an odd vinegar twang. Good enough with a beer and the view, maybe, but not good enough to top the barbecue rankings.
7. Kojak's House Of Ribs
2808 W Gandy Blvd., Tampa, 813-837-3774 or kojaksbbq.com. At lunchtime this old, converted South Tampa home is hopping with everyone from office folks to serious uniformed types from MacDill Air Force Base. And, if this mass of people are Kojak's regulars, I doubt they're getting the ribs. Although incredibly juicy, the moisture dripping from the meat tastes artificial, like bad chicken broth. The exterior is devoid of crust and smells like old grease, with no spice rub powerful enough to eradicate the unpleasant flavors.
8. Lupton's Fat Man BBQ
5299 E Busch Blvd., Tampa, 813-985-4423 or luptonscatering.com. This long-standing palace of all-you-can-eat gluttony stays away from the typical American buffet meats in favor of barbecue. For Lupton's, it's a smart way to differentiate itself from others of a similar ilk, and the meat is good enough to be a draw when compared to the greasy fried chicken and watery ham at its competitors. But when compared to serious barbecue joints, the Fat Man has sung, with chewy, candy-sweet pork that's dry as the bones hidden in the center.