When Texas Tony’s Rib & Brewhouse opened in Naples in 2010, the Phelan family seemed poised to launch a companion concept to complement its Pinchers seafood restaurants. I expected to see them popping up soon all over Southwest Florida.
In the years since, Phelan Family Brands has instead expanded its portfolio with Bonehook Brewing Co. and Deep Lagoon Seafood restaurants on top of its 13 Pinchers locations from Tampa to Key West. With the September closing of Sonny’s BBQ on Pine Island Road in Cape Coral (the Fort Myers location is still open), the group swooped in and rebranded it as the second Texas Tony’s.
Patriarch Tony Phelan’s roots are indeed in Texas, so he may know a thing or two about ’cue, at least as Lone Star Staters practice it. The brisket is smoked for about 12 hours, the pork is not pulled but chopped, the ribs are dry-rubbed not saucy and just about every plate comes with Texas toast. Where Texas Tony’s bucks tradition is the choice of orangewood instead of mesquite, hickory or oak in the smoker. The result is a subtler smoke flavor, perhaps too subtle, but you get the same telltale pink ring just beneath the surface.
The Phelans know a thing or two about branding, too. The sprawling dining room and cozier bar are awash in carefully curated rusticity: whitewashed brick, wagon wheels, exposed ductwork, framed country music records and the occasional mounted boar head or antler chandelier. It’s a thoroughly executed design concept.
The hospitality may differ depending on where you sit. In the dining room, my server and a manager were exceptionally attentive and pleasant. I even heard the manager tell a customer they didn’t get enough ribs on their plate and promise to send out more.
In the bar, things were a little less magnanimous. My request for water went unmet, my main course took surprisingly long to arrive and I was handed the check without an offer of dessert. “What’s your chili like?” I asked, reasonably, while considering starters. “It’s chili,” the server said.
It was a wisecrack followed by an apology because she didn’t have an answer; a server ought to be able to describe a dish that’s as varied as chili ($5 up, $7 bowl). The version here is good — a thick, tomato-y soup generously strewn with brisket chunks, beans and tiny bits of green pepper and garlic. It seems a bit stingy, though, to charge 35 cents extra for additions of sour cream, cheese or onion — especially considering that Texas Tony’s has two-for-one beer, house wine (Woodbridge, $7) and margaritas all day every day.
For a heavier appetizer, there are slider trios filled with pork, brisket or tenderloin. The pork ($9) is topped with nice crisp coleslaw, which enhanced the rather dry meat. If you like the thready texture of pulled pork, the chopped meat might not be your cup of iced tea. The fluffy buns were toasted and buttery but could weigh you down before you get to the main course.
In addition to almost a dozen sandwiches, there are multiple combinations of meats and sides available as entrees. If someone in your party doesn’t do barbecue, the options are salads, a fish sandwich or fried shrimp.
By ordering samplers, you can get the best overview of the barbecue as well as appetite-satisfying portions. Two meats are $16, three are $19, with toast and two choices from a dozen sides. For smoked tenderloin, it’s a $2 upgrade and I thought it was well worth it. Remarkably tender to the knife and juicy red inside, this beef was one of my favorite Texas Tony’s offerings even though it’s not a traditional barbecue basic. With a BBQ sampler, you get a quarter-pound, which turned out to be four thick slices.
It was far more impressive than the brisket, which had some satisfying veins of fat and noticeable smoke rings but crumbled into bits with the nudge of a fork. Was this serving just old, or is there still work to be done on technique? Saucing helped compensate. The sweet version is pretty one dimensional, but the spicy sauce has depth of flavor. (Watch out for Texas Tony’s bottled hot sauce — it’s made with scotch bonnet peppers and may scorch your taste buds.)
If you’re a rib fan, I’d recommend the St. Louis-style bones over the baby backs. I tried both and found the latter puny even for baby backs; they just didn’t have much meat on them, though what was there had a nice char on it. The St. Louis ribs give you more bang for your buck, and I liked their sugary rub. Their meat was flavorful and satisfying with or without sauce.
The smoked chicken provides some contrast to the pork and beef entrees. The moist meat on the thigh and drumstick slipped easily off the bone and had a nice balance of sweetness and a little smoke.
Most barbecue lovers also savor their sides dishes, and Texas Tony’s has a mixed track record there, too. The bland macaroni and cheese has not perked up since I tasted it at the Naples location seven years ago, but the mustardy potato salad remains a solid choice — ditto the tender, mild collard greens, which are cooked with pork until tender and sweet. A whole ear of sweet corn was perfectly cooked — and most barbecue joints only serve a half ear.
If you still have room after a gnawing on a rack of ribs, the maple-glazed pecan pie ($6) is worth a try. It’s not cloyingly sweet like a lot of versions, and the nuts still had some chew to them.
Barbecue devotees can be a mighty particular lot, especially with regional styles that have loyal fans. It may just be growing pains, but Texas Tony’s will need to serve a more consistent product to keep all sides happy.
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