After tasting through the Savory Sixteen rib joints — chosen by voters in our Tournament of Ribs Readers' Poll — I can only come to two possible conclusions. Either the east side of the Bay has a significantly better barbecue scene, or the Pinellas voters have no idea what constitutes good ribs. Even the least successful ribs on the Hillsborough side of the bracket beat out most of the Pinellas offerings, although there are a couple of standouts in St. Pete to give Tampa a run for its pork.
Here are my thoughts on Pinellas' eight Savory Sixteen rib joints, in order of preference:
1. Z GRILLE
104 Second St. S, St Petersburg, 727-822-9600 or zgrille.net. The only non-smoked meat in the Savory Sixteen, Z Grille's famous deep-fried Dr. Pepper ribs easily deserve to be in this competition. The outside is coated in a sweet and spicy soy and chile glaze, stickily covering meat that's been crisped in hot oil. Break through that crust and the pork falls apart between your teeth, each luscious bite infused with rich rendered fat. These ribs are a trifecta of texture — crisp crust, sticky glaze, tender meat — and packed with added seasoning and spice that accents the natural pork flavor. This isn't barbecue, but considering the rest of the Savory Sixteen's offerings that might be a good thing.
2. ANGRY PEPPER
4330 Duhme Road, St. Petersburg, 727-391-0800 or angrypepper.net. Angry Pepper is an archetypal waterfront watering hole, with wooden decks and a warren of rooms surrounding a central bar that drags in beer drinkers for a casual nosh. And that is where the archetypal part comes to an end. Unlike the usual island bars, Angry Pepper serves some serious food to accompany its classic atmosphere, with a focus on smoked meat and fish. The restaurant's ribs are hefty slabs of meat infused with hardwood smoke that would make Angry Pepper a destination, if not for a few quibbles. One end of the rack is coated in crackling crust to provide texture for the juicy meat underneath, while the other is surrounded by a layer of un-rendered fat. Still, half of excellence is something to be proud of.
3. SPOTO'S STEAK JOINT
1280 Main St., Dunedin, 727-734-0008 or spotossteakjoint2.com. Ribs are just a curiosity here at this clubby and intimate Dunedin steakhouse, a meat that's a little cheaper and more pedestrian than the high-class cuts of beef on the rest of the menu. They are baby backs and — despite not being a focus of the menu — are actually smoked. Nicely smoked, in fact. There's a serious amount of caramelized crust covering the tender meat inside, although it still suffers from the usual lack of richness that is a trademark of non-spare ribs. Best baby backs of the tournament, though.
4. BRADY'S BACKYARD BBQ
340 Main St., Safety Harbor, 727-712-3727 or bradysbackyardbbq.com. After all the furor in the early rounds of voting in our Rib-Off Readers' Poll, and the titanic battle between Safety Harbor's Brady's and Largo's Smokin' Rib Shack, I expected a little more here. Brady's is smack in the middle of quaint downtown Safety Harbor, the little restaurant stocked with classic picnic tables covered with checked tablecloths. That's about right, but the ribs? Not bad, but not exciting. With not much crust to speak of, a bit of smoke and very little spice, Brady's puts out capable ribs that I'm sure are a hit in the neighborhood, but shouldn't exercise much pull outside of Safety Harbor.
5. RIB CITY
1550 66th St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-343-1103 or ribcity.com. "I want my baby my baby my baby back, I want my ..." is all that went through my head at the chain called Rib City. It's a moderately priced cookie-cutter steakhouse decked out in pseudo-rough wood covered in inches of lacquer. Baby back ribs are the specialty here, and with my first bite I can see the potential of a rib cut that I've always derided a bit. With not nearly as much fat or meat, baby back ribs have always been second string to spare ribs in my culinary playbook. Rib City's meat isn't changing my mind, but it does show how a place can put a little smoke, a little crust, and some spice into this lean, mean cut.
6. QUICK Q BBQ
3441 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-321-0301 or quickqbbq.com. Although Quick Q summons the correct aura with its smoky converted diner vibe, the ribs will make you think it's a diner instead of a dedicated barbecue joint. The meat is flaccid and covered in a rub rendered soggy and pasty, with little smoke or spice to rescue the sodden, depressing meat.
7. TONY MAC'S BBQ
2805 38th Ave. N, St Petersburg, 727-329-9052. I planned on giving Tony Mac's last place, not because of the ribs but because the place was not serving during its posted hours, on multiple occasions. Is this place even open anymore? Luckily for them, another barbecue joint deserved that final spot even more than these no-shows.
8. BUFFY'S SOUTHERN PIT BAR-B-QUE
3911 49th St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-522-0088. Buffy's is part of the giant complex that contains Biff Burger, a bar, an ice cream shop, and whatever else it seems they can cram into 50 yards of lean-to patio space and makeshift restaurant shacks. Sounds like just the environment to foster some tasty barbecue, doesn't it? Not so much. The counter-lady recommended the baby backs, which come pre-sauced and surprisingly plump. Then — as I struggled to separate a bone from the rack — I realized that the ribs are that thick because none of the fat has been rendered from the meat. In fact, after I exert enough strength to rip some meat free, I'm confronted with incredibly chewy pork that is barely cooked. So poorly cooked, in fact, I don't manage to down enough bites to judge the flavor. Horrible.