Where There's Smoke...

Hitting below the barbecue belt on U.S. 301

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click to enlarge BOB KNOWS BBQ: Barbecue scholar Bob Rauchmiller - displays some of his achievements. - VALERIE TROYANO
VALERIE TROYANO
BOB KNOWS BBQ: Barbecue scholar Bob Rauchmiller displays some of his achievements.

The story of U.S. 301 can be told in several ways. Running from northeast to central Florida, from speed trap to speed trap, the highway is a path through Florida history, passing rivers, creeks, railroad tracks and trails where Seminole Indian Chief Alligator played his historic part in the Second Seminole War.

But the hundred miles of 301 from Coleman to Wimauma can also be described through taste - the taste of barbecue. U.S. 301 is Florida's tender inner thigh, its languorous curves alive with barbecue shacks, joints, trailers and stands. While Florida, like Texas, lies below the traditional "barbecue belt" of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, this potent peninsula throbs with the hot blood of those who practice their barbecue faith their way.

D. W. Soul Food Restaurant

2428 U.S. 301 S., Coleman, 352-748-3300

The approach to D. W. Soul on U. S. 301 is lined with oaks. Old and young oaks covered in fungus, mildew and tiny ferns. Oaks covered in that old parasite mistletoe, folk remedy for women's cramps. Oaks that play a key role in the tastes along this road.

A board painted white with red letters spelling out "BBQ" is the only indication you're about to enter the realm of legend. I've hit D. W. Soul Food numerous times road-tripping up to the Ocala National Forest. The worst days are the ones when it's closed because it has sold out… before noon.

I'm eaten up with lust over Cindy Key's pulled pork sandwich. Slathered with soft orange sauce, her pork is picked with such precision that the sauce achieves orgasmic dimensionality with each mouthful. The bun is really just a tease; it never makes it to your mouth, rather falling into sauce-soaked oblivion, staining hands and rendering the steering wheel a lethal weapon.

As with most barbecue stands, indoor seating at D.W. Soul Food is slim; it's housed in an augmented beige trailer. The main attraction is the pit barbecue, built over two decades ago by a barbecue man named Willett from Kentucky.

Key is an anomaly. She is an African-American multi-generational Florida native female pit boss, the sole proprietor of a barbecue shack. At 6 a.m. she can be found hauling oak into the pit, stoking up the fire until the grill screens glow cherry red.

So the sauce? "Honey, I'm not going to tell you that. It took me my whole life to get my daddy to tell me what was in my grandma's sauce."

I can tell you it is tomato-based. I can tell you it has lived in Florida decades longer than I have. And I can tell you that it's more than just some sauced-up meat, but a family tradition. A hard-won tradition, at that.

Susie Q'S

729 U.S. 301 S., Sumterville, 352-793-7874

People have long wrestled over what makes barbecue authentic. Wet. Dry. Rubbed. Sauced. Grilled. Indirect heat. Smoke. Pork. Beef. How long, how slow and how marinated. Then there is the mud-wrestle of regionalized styles, from the vinegar of the Carolinas and the brisket of Texas to the rubs of Memphis.

Frankly, I judge it barbecue by the smiling pink pig face on the sign.

Sumpterville's Susie Q's would be judged harshly by the pit bosses of the world. Proprietress Leslie Strickland's barbecue is made in a crockpot. A crockpot, liquid smoke and "canned sauce." Or so she claims. Barbecue people offer deceptively simple explanations. Her pork sandwich rivals any pit-cooked pork on U.S. 301.

The first bite into sandwich pork that's done right is an evolutionary déjà vu - like identifying a rattlesnake rattle from just being warned about it all of your life. The subtle crunch in Strickland's pork reveals a master pit boss at work, someone who knows how to include trace amounts of crackly skin and slight charred bits in her pulled/chopped meat.

If Strickland's sandwich is like an artifact from a repressed genetic memory, her pork and beans is utter pornography. Served in B cup-size side servings, it produces the same emotional effect as eating milk chocolate frosting. Rich burgundy in color, obviously loaded in various sugars, this is a side dish with the formidable power of a hug from your mother after too much time away from home.

George & Gladys' Bar-B-Que

19215 U.S. 301, Dade City, 352-567-6229

On the way from Susie Q's to family-owned 48-year-old George and Gladys' Bar-B-Que, fences follow the rolling hills with the undulations of an exotic serpent - a serpent that gives way to the uniform rust ribbons of railroad tracks. Back in the day, these tracks would have held the Orange Blossom Express.

The restaurant sports nine sets of mounted bullhorns, four largemouth bass, a stuffed mallard duck and a bracelet of boar snouts around a column, and it's across the road from a rather popular firearms salesman. While the AA cup-size sides here are nothing to get worked up about, I've nearly fought to the death for the last garbanzo in the three-bean salad. At $12.25 the combo plate is just right for sharing. White bread slices on the side are perfect for soaking, sopping and related things Emily Post would reprimand.

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