I hadn't heard from Dave — my old college roommate — in more than a decade, when, out of the blue, he dropped me an e-mail. He wanted to let me know that he lives in the Bay area, which I already knew, by reading his blog for the past couple years. I suggested we meet for dinner — on the Planet's dime — and a mere 24 hours later I was shaking his hand inside the door of Jimbo's Pit on Kennedy.
My gut has been clamoring for meat lately, and Jimbo's is right around the corner from Dave's place. It's been there for over 30 years, I'd driven by it numerous times, but somehow the scent of smoked flesh had failed to penetrate my car as I flew by with the traffic. If I'd have smelled it, I'd have stopped. Turns out, the reunion is a good reason to try it out. At least we have something to talk about after a few bites of Jimbo's dreary barbecue.
We gossip about old school chums across Jimbo's heavily lacquered picnic tables that have been worn smooth over the years. Almost every surface in the place is covered in shiny planks of wood, the kind of Disney-fied country atmosphere that straddles the fine line between kitsch and authenticity. When the plates hit the table, I realize that kitsch has won out.
I bite through a torpedo shaped hushpuppy to find, well, not much. It's deep brown on the outside and fluffy on the inside, but it doesn't taste like anything. The cole slaw is crunchy, inoffensive and barely dressed with a touch of sweet dressing, but the onion rings are pocked with black burn marks. Tomatoey beans are so innocuous they barely register on my taste buds.
Alright, lesson learned: I'm here for smoked meat and there is plenty of it stacked in front of me; I can afford to avoid the sides. First, I reach across and snag a paper-thin slice of pink ham. This is country ham, salt-cured and heavily smoked, the kind of meat that graces Easter tables across the real South. It's great, but it turns out to be far better than the rest of the meat.
A slice of beef is rubbery and cold; a mound of chopped pork is drowning in cloyingly sweet sauce; and the chicken is dry. Honestly, most smoked chicken ends up dry, but Jimbo's breasts show only a meager tinge of the glorious pink stain that signals they have absorbed the soul of smoldering hardwood. This ain't soul food, that's for sure. The oddly squat ribs have a bigger dose of infused smoke and almost satisfy. Almost.
Walking out to my car, I feel a little let down. The company was great, but the food didn't do anything to relieve my barbecue jones, instead acting like the smoked-meat equivalent of methadone. I know I'm not going to get to sleep unless I can find a good barbecue fix, so I dig through my pockets for, ahh, there it is, an old receipt with a scribbled name. Connie's. I dial up the Soulman on WMNF and point the Hyundai toward South St. Pete.
New Planet staffer Anne recommended Connie's a few weeks back, warning me that the interior isn't much to look at. Maybe, but it sure says good BBQ to me. When I open the creaky door, the sight and smell of hardwood smoke smacks me in the face. It feels like my craving is about to be satisfied.
Connie's looks like a child of the '70s, the tiny, square waiting room yellowed with years of ash and airborne fat. The counter is chest high, with a window cut into the wooden lattice that separates the workers from the customers, a leather-bound bible holding down a stack of community newspapers. An ancient hand-lettered sign hangs above the window, up near the ceiling, menu prices written on tape that's several layers thick. Not a lot has changed at Connie's since it started serving ribs.
When I order, the guy behind the counter pulls meat directly from the glowing pit and slaps it onto the counter, his cleaver making a quick chunk-chunk-chunk as it shears through pork and beef and hits the scarred cutting board. Other than a nice little stone picnic set out front, Connie's is strictly take-out, and by the time I pull back onto I-275 the smell of mustard — the signature ingredient of South Carolina sauces — has permeated my car. I can't wait to get home.
By 11 p.m., my wife and I are unwrapping the paper packages and diving in. The half-chicken "sandwich" is just that — half a chicken, bones and all, crammed between a few pieces of Wonder bread. Like Jimbo's, its dry, but the surface of the flesh is stained red and it tastes like smoke and fire. The skin is slathered in Connie's hot sauce, bright orange and extremely spicy.
Pulled pork is doused with the house mild sauce, a mix of mustard and vinegar, but the sodden mass is distractingly sweet and we quickly pass it by for the ribs. A glorious half-slab of meaty perfection, each is covered in a dark, occasionally crisp, seasoned crust that masks pink pork flesh made luscious by rendered fat. With each bite, I feel my body relax into the soporific bliss brought about by good meat.
After I sate myself on ribs and rub down my slick hands with a few wet naps, I find that the sides are as good as the meat. The potato salad is forgettable, but the tender beans are maply sweet with a Thanksgiving punch of spicy nutmeg. Sweet potato pie is given a shot in the arm by bright orange juice. Damn fine pie.
That night, I slept like a baby, the scent of pork and smoke still clinging to my skin. Craving satisfied.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.