Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pit Stop BBQ

Ever since we decided to make Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor our spiritual home, I'd always been curious about the tiny white shack nestled between a pawn shop and a gas station at the foot of the Florida 580 causeway. We'd pass by the place to/from Mass every Sunday morning - the sign out front advertised "BBQ" and you could clearly see wood smoke wafting up from a corrugated metal shed behind the weathered main building. I can't tell you how many times I made a mental note to drop in and get some barbecue, even after I saw the owner's tent at the Oldsmar Freedom Fest (Pit Stop BBQ they called themselves) and their restaurant received a spiffy, racing-themed paint job a few months ago, but I was never sufficiently motivated until a recent Friday morning when my yearning for pulled pork was finally too strong to ignore. Armed with just a handful of reviews from Yelp (most of which were positive, but not overwhelmingly so), I swung into Pit Stop while out running errands to see if there was any credence to my theory that the quality of the BBQ joint is directly proportional to the dilapidation of its surroundings.

What you see here is the prep kitchen building and smokehouse post-remodeling, with the pitmaster (whose silhouette is barely visible through the doorway) hanging out next to the main smoker inside the shed. The back end of the property certainly scores high on the run-down scale - next to the unpaved parking lot is a grassy yard with a couple of old picnic tables, a rusting smoker, and a collapsed wooden fence, among other random detritus. The prep building is just large enough for a counter, refrigerator, and sink (all food orders are to-go), leading me to believe that much (if not all) of the side dish cooking occurs off-site at the home of Miss Iris, the owner. On my first visit, I decided to try the rib and chopped pork combo dinner, with sides of baked beans and collard greens (all told, the menu is pretty limited).

The weather that morning was pleasant, so I headed over to nearby R.E. Olds Municipal Park to enjoy a bayside lunch at the pavilion. Once I arrived, I dug in and was immediately pleased: the pulled pork was fantastic, moist and flavorful and fatty in all the right places (I had a cup of mild barbecue sauce to go with the meat, but I didn't really need it). Nearly as good were the ribs, although it took me a few initial nibbles to get past some of the tougher meat on the bone (maybe these weren't quite done yet?). Miss Iris's collard greens put to shame anything I'd been whipping up in the Canteen (clearly one of her secrets is adding some of the tasty pig meat and fat to the pot) and even the baked beans, which I suspect originate from a can (I'm pretty sure I saw VanCamp's on top of the refrigerator), ended up being a favorite of mine, a subtle, pineapple-tinged version that's a nice change of pace from the heavy, bacon-and-molasses gut bombs that are much more in fashion these days. Only the cornbread included with my meal didn't really measure up to the rest of the combo.

Having erased my earlier reluctance, I returned for another meal the following week, this time choosing the lunch special (any sandwich, soda, and one side for $6.99) of roast chicken and baked beans. I was hoping to also snag some banana pudding, but apparently Miss Iris only makes that on weekends; the lady behind the counter convinced me to order a container of what she called "cornbread cake" (a bargain at 4 for a dollar) instead.

This time, I sat out back on one of the picnic tables to enjoy my lunch bounty. Again, I was very impressed with the meat - the chicken (which was chopped up with a cleaver in front of my eyes) was nearly perfect, not an easy feat for many so-called pitmasters whose skills are limited to smoking pigs. The beans were tasty as before and the cornbread cake was surprisingly delicious (the photo below doesn't do it justice), exactly as it had been described to me (basically "a brownie without the chocolate"). Even my kids enjoyed the cake, both in their school lunches and dipped into chocolate fondue on Super Bowl Sunday (who said desserts can't be repurposed?).

I haven't had much experience with barbecue in Florida (or really anywhere, for that matter) and I'm hardly an expert on the matter, but Pit Stop has immediately risen to the top of my list of best local smoked meat palaces. What they lack in menu diversity, they clearly make up for in quality (not to mention my theory of BBQ dilapidation still seems to be holding up)...

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