Tampa’s BBQ scene has been elevated by a worthy competitor. Many smoked/cured connoisseurs proclaim their beloved the BEST in our humble Florida community (Jimbo’s? Smoke? First Choice? Kojak’s?) but Holy Hog Barbecue has arrived in all its delicious pig glory. This quote from Danny Hernandez, owner of Holy Hog in West Tampa, might sum up my thoughts on the matter: “We like to think our pig is divine, hence HOLY.”
Danny has been kicking around the Tampa restaurant scene for decades. His family moved to West Tampa in 1975, when Danny was only four years old, to partner up with the owner of “The Golden Dragon,” a Cantonese restaurant on the corner of Cordelia and Armenia Avenues (only two blocks south of Holy Hog). In 1979, Danny’s parents opened the iconic Cuban restaurant Pipo’s, so he and his brother grew up in the kitchen roasting whole pigs. He’s carried a penchant for pork ever since. And it shows.This small-ish, downhome-style restaurant has only been open four months (in a former Pipo’s location that still serves as a catering kitchen), but you wouldn’t know it from the throngs of people crowding the chow line. Like many Cuban joints around town, you choose your food from a cafeteria line, pay, then settle down on a family-style picnic table clothed in red plastic. Everyone around you is happy. We’re all busy eating, praying to and loving the pig.
Danny says the recipes at Holy Hog are mostly original and some have been adapted from travels around the South. Smoky sausages, succulent pulled pork and tender beef brisket beckon from the moment you enter, energizing your tastebuds for some tasty, authentic meats that might convert a vegetarian. Might.
Naturally, the pulled pork, which comes as a “dinner” with two sides or on a sandwich, is the highlight of the menu. Ethereal, slow cooked and chewy-charred, it’s an homage to the humble animal from which it came. I fell in smokin’ love with the beef brisket slathered in Holy Hog’s tart mustard sauce. It’s pretty rare to have a mustard option on a BBQ menu, and I’d love to spread a gallon of this mustard sauce all over my… meat.
Ribs, to say the least, are fall off the bone but get them early. They dry out a bit while sitting under the cafeteria line heat lamp. Not that the spicy red sauce can’t perk them back up.
The best sides: hand-cut French fries; “fully loaded” potato salad that reveals a hint of smokiness itself like he baked the starchy tuber in the smoker; collard greens that brim with pork chunks and seasoning (no sugar); savory, mayo-based cole slaw; creamy mac n’ cheese, and corn fritters. Fried okra — although fried to a perfectly golden crispness — lack a bit of seasoning and the Cowboy baked beans have a heavier hand with the sugar than I like.
The inspiration behind Hernandez’s ‘Hog’ concept comes from his infatuation with the pig and its versatility in the kitchen. He says: “Think about it, from snout to tail, every inch of that pig can be used in a delicious culinary creation. It kicks a chickens behind all day.” Yep, although his chicken is pretty darn tasty too.
Holy Hog Barbecue
3501 North Armenia Avenue
Monday – Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Thursday & Friday, 11 a.m – 8 p.m.
Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
The pulled pork is better than the brisket, IMHO, but try them both. The sausage is fantastic, and not enough can be said about the fries. The prices are reasonable, too.