Out in the smokehouse at Down to the Bone BBQ & Catering, a screened-in area that looks like a giant chicken cage, co-owner Mark Nettles holds the secret to good barbecue in his hands.
It is a container of special seasoning that he mixed together and applies to his meat while the meat is still raw.
“It’s called ‘kryptonite' because it makes your meat downright dynamite!” he said. “People live off the merit of their sauce but good barbecue doesn’t need sauce. Our sauce complements our barbecue. But we do have award-winning sauce, too.”
Down to the Bone, 110 South Kings Ave., has been serving smoked-meat to hungry locals for about 10 years. The quality of the food is evident in the steady flow of regular customers on a recent Wednesday, as well as the handful of pig figurine-topped trophies on display at this place that, save for a few outside picnic tables, is strictly a take-out joint.
The menu includes a variety of barbecued meats, including chicken, ribs and sausage. Sides include Southern staples such as collard greens, yellow rice, macaroni and cheese and cole slaw. Peach cobbler is the lone dessert item listed on the menu.
In addition to walk-in customers, the business has a catering component that has served up grub for everything from small backyard parties and church events to shindigs for Coca-Cola and Hillsborough County Schools.
Down to the Bone had plans on expanding its operations, but the tanking of the economy put the lid on that a few years ago.
“That’s the only thing that stopped us from going gangbusters,” Nettles said.
Nettles, who grew up in Alabama, learned the art of barbecue from his father and other family members. As a youngster he would fetch wood or items from the kitchen for them. It ignited a lifelong hobby, with friends and family always offering kind words about his barbecuing.
Nettles, however, worked in computer diagnostics — until the tech bubble burst more than 10 years ago, that is. That’s when Nettles and wife, Wanda, who works the front counter at Down to the Bone, decided to turn Mark’s cooking skills into a career.
“It wasn’t something that we had planned on doing, but we just did it,” Wanda said.
Down to the Bone is the kind of place that inspires loyalty from people like Andrea Simmons. Simmons, of Valrico, is originally from Kansas City, which has its own regional style of barbecue.
“The food is consistently good, the key word being consistent,” Simmons said of Down to the Bone.
“I’m kind of a barbecue snob,” she added. “Nothing compares to Kansas City, but (Down to the Bone) is the best I have found in the Tampa Bay area.”
Wanda’s husband said the little eatery may not look fancy, but it doesn’t matter. Consistent taste and reasonable price keep customers coming back.
“We’ve been called the small place with the big taste,” he said while chopping up chickens to bring to the outdoor smoker.
Barbecue always inspires such passion from cooks and consumers. Why does he think that is?
“It’s very individual, and it’s a comfort food, especially in the South,” he said. “The best barbecue you’ll find is in small places, by the way. We’re mom and pop so we put love and attention into it.”
Down to the Bone serves up a lot of food. An average week finds the couple going through about 3,000 pounds of meat. Truth be told, Nettles said he gets sick of eating barbecue sometimes himself.
“But not the smell of it,” he added.