It’s Friday, I am hungry, and I have a hankering for barbecue. Almost daily I pass two barbecue joints within four of blocks of each other on South Dale Mabry and wonder which is better. The Deviled Pig opened in 2018 taking over the former home of BJ’s Alabama BBQ. BJ’s then reopened four blocks south in early 2019 in a former used appliance store. My plan is simple: order the same standard barbecue dish (ribs, coleslaw, and baked beans) from both restaurants and pick a winner. Game on!
Lee Ann Whippen, an award-winning pitmaster who beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network’s Throwdown, heads up the Deviled Pig (whose name is derived from the Tampa favorite deviled crab croquette), along with Jennifer A. Daskevich who earned the title of 2013 World Sandwich Champion from the World Food Championship.
BJ’s Alabama BBQ has fewer accolades but is steeped in tradition and the recipes were honed in Tampa. The founder of the restaurant, “Big John" Stephens, started Big John's Alabama Barbecue on 40th Street 51 years ago. Now his daughter April Moreno heads up the house in the new location and brings a time-tested flair to barbecue.
The two buildings are visually very different. The Deviled Pig looks more refined, with large glass windows surrounding the 15 seat dining room. Smoking is done behind the building in a large and modern stainless steel smoker. BJ’s is not as polished and has a huge barrel smoker in the front parking lot that brings the look of authenticity.
So, let’s eat. I start with the Deviled Pig.
Walking through the propped-open front door the smoky barbecue smell hits me. It is wonderful. The menu on the wall is a little overwhelming, but I order the half rack of ribs and sides as planned ($19.98). The cashier asks what sauce I prefer (they offer a choice of four) and recommends “sweet sauce” when asked. Taking a seat I see jugs of barbecue sauce on the floor and torn window film on a couple of different windows. Aesthetically I’m surprised that such a proper place would be so lax. The back counter where the barbecue pit once lived, is stuffed with cooking trophies intermixed with cups of barbecue sauce and a heated cabinet holding deviled pig rolls. It’s chaotic but curious. The atmosphere is noisy with a pop radio station and Bay News 9 both playing at the same volume at same time in the dining room.
When the food arrives it looks and smells impressive, but they forget the coleslaw. That is soon remedied with a trip back to the cashier. The food is served on a paper lined silver tray.
The 6 pork ribs look enticing as I see some of the granular dry rub peeking through the glistening surface. That juicy tender meat falls off the large bones and there is a nice balance of fat and meat giving each bite a savory mouth. The rub is spicy and sweet and the recommended sauce is sweet and peppery. It's too much. I switch to their mustard sauce which compliments better, giving a broader flavor pallet and adding a vinegary and acidic kick to the dish. The sides are supreme. Their coleslaw is creamy and tangy with cabbage and other ingredients crunching with each bite. It is just sweet enough to not be overwhelming.
DP's baked beans are outstanding. The mix blends large great Northern and Pinto beans, a delectable smoky sauce, and chunks of brisket and pulled pork. At the end there is a little bit of a heat kicker left over. So good! I can see why it is award-winning! It’s a five napkin meal of barbecue goodness. Twenty bucks for lunch is a little over-the-top for me but it is scrumptious. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Parking might be a challenge on busier days.
Soon it's on to BJ's where owner April Moreno tends to the smoker in the parking lot. The large barrel shaped behemoth cooker clearly shows its years of service. The smoke creeping out of its crevices lights up the block with an appetizing mesquite aroma. I am greeted with “Welcome to BJ’s” walking through the front door to a large counter and prep space. The front and side dining rooms can easily accommodate 30 to 40 people. The place is bustling with folks picking up to-go orders and others dining in.
The friendly staff is an enthusiastic bunch. Patrons are addressed with phrases like baby and sweetie setting a tone of southern familiarity. Rib options on the menu are broken down into one quarter, one half, and full slabs. Keeping with the theme of this story, I order a combo meal of ribs (three bones) coleslaw and baked beans ($10.00). Drinks are served in cans and iced tea by the cup.
Food delivery is fast and served on a Styrofoam sectional plate. This is classic barbecue. The ribs arrive slathered in sauce (they only have one option), and are oaky and smoky and have a traditional bark on the outside enveloping pink tender pork that again falls off the bone. The outside meat is slightly chewy and stringy because of the bark and the inside is pink and tender -as one might expect with classic smoked ribs. The fat/meat ratio is just right and delivers a juicy bite.
The side dishes here are the time honored old-school variety. Navy beans swim in a brown sugar-based sauce and are very sweet with a honey finish. They have small bits of pork mixed in. The coleslaw is made with standard shredded cabbage and a sweet mayo creamy dressing. A not-too-sweet cornbread muffin finishes this combo. This meal shows its age (51 years), and that’s a good thing! Tradition reigns supreme here.
So, which is better? One of my pet peeves when reading reviews is when the writer comparing two items suggests they are going to conclude with a winner, and then don’t. But, that’s what I’m doing here (sorry). Both meals satisfy my barbecue whims, and they both have unique qualities. If you are looking for a new take on an old favorite, hit The Deviled Pig. Even with their higher prices, the use of dry rub and modern smoking techniques along with contemporary takes on side dishes, you can’t go wrong. If you want traditional Q, BJ’s Alabama Barbecue is the place to go, sweetie! It is down-home, fairly priced, old-school, friendly, and delish food. Their lack of website and small social media presence speaks to their traditional way of doing things.
Compare them both and leave your thoughts in the comments below. Bon BBQ appétit!
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
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