"It's like a history lesson here," says Austin, my artist friend, as we cruise through Brandon. "So many different eras of strip malls."
No shit, Austin, it's the 'burbs. Truth is, at least when searching out barbecue, strip malls sometimes hide meaty gems, while rustic smoke shacks don't always deliver on their colorful promise. The lesson learned during a recent craving for barbecue out by I-75? Don't judge pulled pork by its cover.
First, we visit a place that looks the part. I put the front bumper of the Hyundai snug against a pile of chopped hardwood sticks and open the door to a gust of wind that's pregnant with fragrant smoke wafting from battered aluminum chimneys jutting from the back of Down To The Bone. The pocked parking lot is covered in dirt and shell; the air smells of meat; and paintings of hawg-riding hogs adorn the weathered wall.
You can see where a city boy like me would be filled with salivatory anticipation. The place has only been open for three years, but it feels like it's been here forever. Down To The Bone looks the part, man.
The sweet tea is the first tip that all is not as it seems. Sure, sweet tea is traditionally more about sweet than tea, but this mix is almost solid Dixie crystals, liquefied for straw-sucking drinkability. It does give us the energy to cross Kings Avenue so we can dine out of the rain on the concrete curb of an abandoned bank drive-through. There's no interior seating at Down To The Bone, just a couple of swaybacked picnic tables fully exposed to God's liquid wrath.
Minutes later, we're grateful for sugary gulps of tea that serve to wash down meat barbecued to within an inch of its life. The extra-long hardwood smoke does give the meat a deep pink glow, but at what cost? These ribs have a mahogany crust over tough, chewy meat, like bone-in beef jerky. Pulled pork is plastic and crunchy, edible only when softened by The Bone's sweet, tomato-based sauce.
Chicken just barely escapes the smoked desiccation, probably because it's dark meat with enough fat to protect it. This allows me to finally appreciate the hefty portion of smoke. Same with beef, a barbecue staple that is traditionally under-smoked. Here, the hardwood is noticeable and the beef shreds are not nearly as dry as the pork. But still dry, mind you.
After taking bites of orange mac that seem devoid of cheese, of potato salad dripping with a loose mayo dressing, and of unseasoned collards, I reach for the phone and dial my friend Larry for advice. I know there's another smokehouse out here in suburbia, but I just can't place it. "Don't forget about First Choice," he reminds me. "It's on the other side of the interstate, in the Home Depot plaza."
Right. Let's roll.
First Choice is in a typical strip mall, home to a Home Depot packed with pre-hurricane shoppers and pockets of cars surrounding a few storefronts. Outside, the restaurant looks like any other independent place in a strip mall. Inside, there's a line 15 deep in front of the counter, mostly 9-to-5ers picking up the family meal. Outside, reflective windows and neon signs. Inside, black walls and a palpable amount of hardwood smoke that has, over the years, yellowed the laminated awards and framed plaques hung willy-nilly. Outside, rain. Inside, plenty of dry tables and chairs.
At this point, I could care less about the appearance. I want some meaty proof, and soon have my face buried in a Flintstones-sized pork rib, a drop of fat dripping down my chin. There's not quite as much smoke here at First Choice, but it's enough, and the meat is moist and simply seasoned with salt and pepper. This is more like it.
Chopped pork comes in big, glistening chunks, rich and moist, with no need for sauce, but I douse them anyway. Same with the shreds of beef and a juicy chicken thigh. And the hand-cut fries. And a plastic spoon. Good sauce.
First Choice's sauce has that balanced combination of flavors that somehow manages to please everyone. There's a touch of sweet, but not too much. A bit of tomato and a bit of vinegar, but not enough to tart up the juice. There's spice, but it's in the form of black pepper, enough to tease the palate but not enough to scare the timid. It manages to straddle all these fences while still doing its job. This sauce should go into politics.
The sides are fine, but nothing to get excited about: standard potato salad with a hint of mustard, overcooked collards, slaw with a surfeit of celery salt, and beans loaded with sweet molasses. First Choice's macaroni salad is the standout. The cold noodles are stained bright orange by a blast of cayenne spice, updating this '50s picnic standard into a fiery salad worth pairing with piles of smoked meat. Dark brown cornmeal fritters, laced with bits of pork, also hit the spot and serve as another vehicle for sauce.
First Choice has been around for more than a decade. In the barbecue biz, that means it has a load of regulars. It also means that rush hour can lead to a stomach-rumbling wait, all while watching the First Choice staff chop chop chop through sections of beef and smoked sausage and ribs for the people in front of you. Just remember: Hunger is the best sauce.
While cooling my heels in a very slow First Choice line a week later for some 'cue to go, the two people in front of me take the opportunity to wax poetic about the food, instead of whining about the wait. That says it all.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers.Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.