If you go
Texas Tony’s BBQ Shack
Where: 4519 U.S. 41 E., East Naples
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Prices: Dinners $9.99 to $17.99; sandwiches $6.99 to $10.99
Information: 732-8392, www.texastonys.com
Normally, it might not be much of a compliment to comment on the way a place smells. At Texas Tony’s BBQ Shack, it’s meant as the highest form of praise.
That’s because what wafts from within the four walls of this East Naples eatery is pure barbecue bliss. Such a scent is a promising sign for a restaurant where the signs promise meats freshly smoked and cut to order.
Texas Tony’s is eat-in, but orders are made at the counter and brought to your table. In choosing, my companion and I sought the counsel of Shelly, a Texas Tony’s counter employee who proved to be a kind of barbecue sage, knowing not only the contents of the menu but the pros and cons of each type of meat.
St. Louis style ribs are tasty, Shelly explained — but more fatty than baby backs.
Since counting calories while eating barbecue is a form of self-punishment, we decided to go for the gluttony and ordered up a half rack of St. Louis ribs ($14.99).
We also ordered two links of what Shelly described as being “the best doggone sausage,” made with fresh jalapeño, onion and cheese ($5.99). And because we couldn’t go home without trying what is Texas Tony’s signature dish, we also asked for one-third pound of beef brisket ($5.99). For sides, we chose macaroni and cheese, collard greens and fresh-cut fries (all $2.49).
Then, we settled into a table on Texas Tony’s open-air patio to enjoy the fine weather and casual atmosphere. Everywhere, there’s a mix of memorabilia, such as longhorn steer skulls. There’s even a sign for a ranch in Driftwood, the Texas hometown of Tony Phelan, the restaurant’s owner.
Phelan may be familiar to local seafood lovers as the founder of the successful Pinchers Crab Shack restaurant chain in Southwest Florida. James Cheney is the managing partner for the new Texas Tony’s restaurant, and he soon joined us to chat about what he and Phelan plan to do with their new barbecue joint.
It’s a pretty big plan.
“The knock on Florida is there’s not good, authentic barbecue,” Cheney said. “We want to be a barbecue restaurant in Florida that makes the type of name for ourselves as being a good, authentic barbecue restaurant.”
To achieve authenticity, Cheney and Phelan traveled to the Lone Star State and studied how it’s done there; Cheney estimates he ate at 11 barbecue places in two days. He still seems a little stunned about that.
Back in Florida, the results of their investigation became Texas Tony’s — a restaurant that’s complete with five smokers and planning to add a sixth soon. The smokers are hard at work daily, smoking brisket for between 15 and 18 hours and ribs for four to six hours. The meat’s temperature is checked every 30 to 45 minutes, Cheney said, and the wood comes from none other than a local citrus grove.
The entire process is time-intensive, Cheney said, and not common in an era when it’s just easier and more cost-effective for restaurants to fire up the gas.
“What we’re trying to do is always keep that real, authentic, real wood-smoked pit flavor,” Cheney said. “We’re just trying to do it that old-fashioned way.”
Old-fashioned proved exceptional. The St. Louis ribs were some of the best ribs I’ve ever eaten. The meat was juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender, with a thin, crispy bark. One bite revealed the smoke ring, a pale pink hue that’s prized in barbecue, because it means the meat has been properly and consistently smoked at a low temperature.
We gobbled up the ribs, dragging them through the restaurant’s three homemade sauces — house, mustard and hot — in the process. Hot proved our favorite; it had a nice heat, but didn’t overpower the dry rub on the meat.
Next up was the brisket and the sausage. Brisket is a tough cut of meat, but after as many as 18 hours in the smoker, Texas Tony’s could be cut with a spoon. The sausage, as promised, was fantastic — mildly spicy and chock full of flavor. I wished we ordered more.
My companion has spent several years living and traveling in the American South, including New Orleans. She is something of a collard greens connoisseur; for her, Texas Tony’s were only average. The fries, however, were delicious — fresh and lightly seasoned.
Nor could either of us find fault with the sweet potato cheesecake ($3.99) we ordered for dessert. It was a lightly sweet finish to a meaty and memorable meal, and one that went a long way to convincing us about the wisdom of a certain old adage: Don’t mess with Texas — or Texas Tony’s.