Sunday, November 02, 2008
Florida Barbecue at Bono's
My recently-acquired high-tech barbecue locating device served me well this week on a trip to Jacksonville, FL. At lunch time it plotted a route directly to Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q. I was a little skeptical as we pulled into the parking lot since it's just off a four lane parkway near a big mall, and the place looks just a little too clean and upscale.
But, as soon as I stepped in the door and was hit with a big snootful of hickory smoke I knew it was going to be just fine.
We had St. Louis cut ribs, pulled pork and--just for the hell of it, since it's fairly unusual item--barbecued turkey. All three were fantastic. The ends of the pulled pork were tinged that beautiful deep red from real wood smoke, and the turkey--big chunks of white breast meat--was far better than I expected, succulent and rich with smoky flavor. The ribs were perhaps the smokiest of all, the meat still tender and--thankfully--served without a lick of sauce on them. They didn't need any..
Bono's "original 1949 sauce" is a quite tasty yellow concoction that would more than, um, cut the mustard in a South Carolina BBQ joint. It's the farthest South that I can remember finding a mustard base--a reflection, perhaps, that what many call the "Midlands South Carolina" style actually scoots across the border into Georgia in the counties around Augusta. Apparently, it may have slipped a little down the coast into Florida at some point, too, though Bono's has Brunswick Stew and not hash as a side item.
I applied a little of the mustard-based sauce to my pulled pork and it went quite nicely. There was also a "hickory red" sauce that struck me as a bit Texan in origin, but there was really no need for it, since the ribs were more than flavorful enough to stand on their own.
Bono's has been around since 1949, when the Lou Bono opened his first location on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville. There's now a good two dozen locations, mostly in North Florida. They cook their barbecue in big Southern Pride smokers, which are gas-fired but burn wood for smoke flavor. These are pretty common these days (Southern Pride claims that 12 out of the top 14 barbecue chains use their equipment), but Bono's takes an extra step and finishes the meat on a big open pit over Black Jack oak.
The open pit features prominently in the restaurant, positioned right behind the lunch counter, where you can watch the pit boss take the big shoulders and racks of ribs out and hand-slice each portion as orders come in.
I can't saw for sure how much of an effect the open pit has on the flavor, but Bono's barbecue does seem a lot more smoky and flavorful than a lot of other places that use those combo gas/wood smokers. At a minimum, it makes for a great effect, and keeps the delicious aroma of wood smoke in the air.
And, as a sidenote, I have to say that I'm a big fan of serving sweet tea with a slice of lime, like Bono's does, rather than the more standard lemon. It must be a Florida BBQ thing, since they do it the same way at Shorty's down in Miami, another classic Florida BBQ joint.
Some people like to sneer at Florida and claim it isn't really a part of the South. I can see how one might get that idea if they just fly into Orlando for a conference or a visit to Disney. Such folks ought to drop by Bono's for a little pulled pork, though. It might change their outlook.
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