Monday, December 17, 2012

Great barbecue in a Florida gas station: Pearl Country Store

Pearl Country Store barbecue chefs Leander Alford (left) and Richie Owens with coworker Alyssa Wallace (center)
Those who love barbecue don't dream of tablecloths or arugula. The dream of the ideal plate of barbecue is some place in the country where all that matters is the meat. Heavyset men spend all day tending slabs of ribs. Pork is smoked at low temperatures until it is almost the texture of marmalade. And there ain't no pretensions.

Soon as I heard of Pearl Country Store, a gas station/convenience store with well-regarded barbecue in Micanopy, Florida (population 653; median household income $28,000), I wanted to visit.

I want to pronounce this town 12 miles south of Gainesville "My canopy," or even better, use a pretentious French accent and say "My canapé." But I think it's actually pronounced Mick-a-nope-ee. To be honest I'm not sure; I didn't want to mispronounce it, out myself as a San Francisco guy, and have them search through the meat for the gristly bits.

Pearl Country Store is located at the blinking light on US Highway 441; that is the actual description of the location from the website. Hearing "441" in a light, slightly nasal north Florida drawl always makes me think of the Tom Petty song "American Girl." In fact Petty, from Gainesville, mentions Micanopy in the song "A Mind With A Heart of Its Own," though in somewhat exaggerated context:

Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I wish I could tell you I did a classic 3-visit restaurant review. In fact, I dropped in for lunch just once and didn't even get gas. Petrol, I mean. Or the other.

If you were driving on 441 instead of nearby I-75 for some reason and you did drop in to fuel up, you might not notice anything special food-wise. It's close to a typical convenience store layout with a glass counter a few feet away from the register. You have to step closer to that counter to even notice that it's barbecue and not ham and cheese sandwiches or corn dogs. There are a few tables, all full when I arrived at 1:30 p.m, a great sign, and -- now this is unusual for a convenience store -- about a half-dozen seats at a counter overlooking what you finally notice is an unusually large kitchen.

The cooked meat is displayed in a glass case: ribs, chicken, pulled pork and brisket. Sides sit in warmer trays. I went for the ribs because while I like pulled pork, ribs are the dream.

Sitting at the counter waiting for my jumbo plate ($13) with sides of beans and green beans, I watched both on-duty chefs wrangle promisingly large, long cuts of pig and beef, preparing them for the smoker.

I probably could have spoken with them; I once lived in central Florida and think I can still speak the language. But I was dressed like a caricature of an urbanite: black t-shirt, black fleece, black jeans, black leather jacket, the bright red spectacles, and a green opal earring. I kept my mouth shut and listened to local conversation. There's a billboard for "America's favorite manure" on I-75 not far away, but to my great regret nobody discussed that, or high-school football. But to my great relief, nobody talked about them damn liberals either. Florida is always unfairly stereotyped, and I chide myself as I type this for doing so myself at that counter stool when I know better.

I also chided myself for ordering a jumbo when surely I could have gotten by with a regular. But I don't regret it now. Though I liked both sides, I didn't finish half of them. But I ate 5 1/2 of the six ribs I was served.

They were meaty, not rippled with too much fat; not complete fall-apart tender, but with the delightful texture that comes from long smoking and retaining enough moisture. There wasn't much dry rub, so I did try several of the half-dozen sauces available and most liked the Carolina Hot, which they do not make in house. The most memorable pieces of the rib were the fat at the ends, which had candied, not caramelized: they had blackened and turned crunchy and a little sweet and richly porky all the same. As it was entirely pork fat, this must the the most unhealthy candy I've had all year, but I am salivating remembering them; I'd love to have a bag of just those bits.

The green beans, spiked with surprisingly sweet bacon, were good; the bacon must have been sugar-cured, but the beans didn't have sugar added. The baked beans, cooked in some of the Southern Hot and Southern Sweet sauces, were outstanding, a great mix of those sensations, with a richness from a few hunks of pork. There's also an iced-tea bar with vats of several different options regarding sweetening. I moved away from sweet tea some years ago but that is what this sort of place does best, so I'm not giving Pearls' tea a fair shake by reporting on the unsweetened.

David Carr
Upshot is, this is the dream come true. It's really good barbecue in a gas station/convenience store by THE blinking light on a secondary highway in a town of 653 people with a median income about 60% of the US average. They may not be rich, but at least they have Pearls.

I have these photos but not photos of my rib plate because I didn't want to call attention to myself before I ate. Soon as I took the first post-repast photo, owner David Carr came out and asked if I was from the health department. I told him I was a food blogger from San Francisco and that his ribs were excellent.

He and the chefs were delighted to hear that, and Alyssa said, "He owns the meat. You need a photo of the guys who make the meat." So I lined them up in front of the barbecue pit and took the photo at the top of the post. By the way, if anybody's reading this in Micanopy, Alyssa says she usually uses the name Stacy because some guys in local bars are too creepy to give her real name, but she trusted me with it, presumably because creepy local bar patrons don't read food blogs. No wonder they're creepy: less ogling, more okra, gentlemen.

We all shook hands and were all happy as I left: they fed me well, and I made sure they knew it. I guess I can still speak central Florida after all.

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1 comment:

  1. if you are heading south, try Toms Place for Ribs. It used to be in a 1 room shack with a giant picnic table, now its a mini chain in the Palm Beach area but the sweet and smoky ribs are oh so good. Its just about the only thing I miss from my Florida days