Take Their 'Cue

3 Barbecue Joints

Transplants to Florida often miss one of the state's most notable culinary delights: country barbecue. One reason may be that the most authentic barbecue restaurants are small, family-owned and operated, often a single room or two hidden inconspicuously among the neighborhoods that supported them for decades. To find them, it helps to be a native.

The South has carried on a long love affair with barbecue, and over many years, each Southern state has found a unique style of its own. Florida is no exception, but the Bay area's most authentic country barbecue joints lean toward "Alabama-style" barbecue — grilled meat basted with a tomato-y, rich sauce.

You haven't lived till you've tasted it. In fact, studies have shown that down-home country barbecue cures hangovers, tends to hush annoying mothers-in-law and certain sauces can even substitute for jet fuel in a pinch.

Anyway, even though I know I ought to keep my favorites — ferreted out over many years with the help of numerous cracker relatives — to myself, I will share them with you in the spirit of patriotic duty.

Big John's Alabama BBQ This barbecue spot without a doubt produces the most tender meat and most outstanding sauce of any in the Bay area. Located in a modest, two-room building with a huge wood grill, spattered and stained from use, it has operated in the same location since 1968.

Founded by the late Rev. John Andrew Stephens, who preached for years in the church across the street, Alabama John's has prospered because it delivers terrific food at affordable prices. And, I guess I must warn you, the overhead is nil: The "decor" entails worn tile floors and simple, bare tables that have not changed one iota in decades. A counter separates the dining room from the grill, where the meat cooks slowly to a crusty perfection.

Order the chopped pork sandwich plate ($6); the sandwich's filling is smoky, so tender it dissolves in your mouth like sugar, and topped with a rich, thick tomato sauce that is not too sweet or too hot. Syrupy baked beans flavored with cinnamon come as a side order, along with mediocre coleslaw, but hey, let's not nit-pick. Finish with miniature sweet potato pie ($1.50).

Rev. Stephens was famous as a preacher, but it was his (still closely guarded) sauce recipe that cemented his reputation — and continues to spell business success for his family. It tells you something about the importance of barbecue that, when he died, his obituary was published on the front page of The Tampa Tribune.

Big Tim's B-B-Q This is another excellent barbecue joint that hasn't changed much since Tim Walters founded it in 1968. The business operates two restaurant locations, one in downtown St. Pete across from Tropicana Field, and the other a little farther south. The restaurant located on 34th Street South is a tiny, two-room building, painted a Creamsicle orange inside, with a few modest tables for people who can't — or won't — wait to haul the eats home.

Owned and operated by Big Tim, the restaurant has even employed the same manager, Emma Thomas, for 30 years. "I guess experience does help," she laughs.

The meat is roasted over "wood only," which gives it a heavy smokiness and crusty texture. Tim's "Secret Sauce" is hotter than that of Alabama John's, with a peppery spark that sets your taste buds ablaze. The restaurant produces beef, chicken and pork dishes, along with side orders like french fries and onion rings. Tim's even fries corn on the cob, lest the usual method of cooking — boiling — might render it too similar to health food. Just kidding — my pals who want health food should definitely go somewhere else.

Order the pork rib bar-b-que dinner, served with potato salad, baked beans and french fries ($7.75). Wash it down with a large Coke ($1.50) and finish with one of the small sweet potato pies ($1).

Jazzy's Bar-B-Q Johnny Ray Smith does a lot of things well. He was a defensive back for the Tampa Bay Bucs from 1981-84, and when he stopped playing football, he turned to something else he's good at: cooking.

"I'm from Texas, and my family taught me how to cook," he explains. Boy, did they. Smith owns and operates Jazzy's Bar-B-Q, one of the Bay area's premier barbecue restaurants. Typical of its ilk, it's just a couple of rooms, set almost invisibly along West Waters Avenue, near the Veteran's Expressway. But as is true of all really outstanding barbecue restaurants, you can smell it blocks before you see it.

Everything's good, but if I had to choose, I'd pick the Combo Pack ($26.95) and invite friends or family to dinner. It includes a slab of beef or pork ribs; hot, medium or mild sauce; one whole chicken, and three pint-size side orders — baked beans, Smith's creamy potato salad and the excellent, crispy coleslaw. Please save room for homemade pecan pie ($1.25) — a buttery crust loaded with gooey nuts and, sometimes, still warm from the oven. You won't find any better pie, anywhere, including Bern's Steak House or Don Ce Sar. Jazzy's is just an outstanding restaurant we're lucky to have.

MAKING BONES ABOUT IT: Steve Lark chows down on some ribs at Big John's Alabama BBQ.