ST PETERSBURG – The preacher is not in the house most weekday mornings. He's out back, barbecuing brisket, pork and chicken in a plywood shack that barely contains the fire-breathing hickory smoker.
As the early morning caffeine crowd rushes in and out of Starbucks on 4th Street North and 9th Avenue, they catch the unmistakeable whiff of meat grilling just a couple blocks north. They may even see smoke puffing from the stove pipe behind Preacher's Barbecue restaurant.
The storefront is not much to look at; in fact, it's easy to pass by on the 4th Street North highway. The small eat-in, take-out place is next to a used furniture shop and Oriental rug store.
Last month, Preacher's celebrated its one-year anniversary, and the family-run place has built a dedicated following in that short amount of time.
It's not just that the folks at welcome diners like family when they stop in for lunch or dinner. Nor is it the fact that Preacher's is run by a real-life preacher, Bernard Butler, who presides at Foursquare Baptist Church.
It's Preacher's authentic Southern-style ribs, pork, chicken and brisket, cooked fresh on the backyard smoker and served with Eunice Butler's sides of freshly made collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, or cole slaw, to name a few.
Still hungry? There's always homemade dessert, such as Hummingbird Cake, made with bananas and raisins; Sweet Potato Pie; or Lemon Squares, bright yellow on the inside and powdered with sugar on top.
Bernard's wife, Eunice, and their grown children, Bernard Jr. and Sherice, wait on the customers with a friendly greeting and smile, remembering favorites and making suggestions on specials like grilled turkey legs.
Last spring, Preacher's almost was forced to move from its 4th Street location, but has since worked out a longer-term lease. Good thing for the neighborhood.
Bernard Butler cooks everything out back in his giant smoker, which he had custom-made in Tampa. He said he learned the business from an aunt who runs Connie's BBQ, a long-time chicken and ribs joint on the south side of St. Pete.
As the temperature outside climbs to 90-plus degrees, Butler fires up the smoker each weekday morning, grilling pork, chicken and brisket for several hours, until it has a melt-in-your mouth quality.
Menu: Barbecue ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket, cooked in the barbecue pit just outside the back door. Sides include sweet potato fries, fried okra, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad. Homemade greens and macaroni and cheese are only available Fridays and Saturdays.
First Time Recommendation: You can't go wrong with a classic pulled pork plate, served with your choice of hot or mild red sauce or mustard sauce. It comes with two sides, for $7.99. All the sides are good.
Preparation: Everything is smoked in the barbecue pit just behind the store and then kept warm until ordered. The sides and desserts are all homemade.
Ambience: Preacher's has a few tables, but it's really a take-out place at this point.
Cost: Everything is very reasonable. The most expensive item on the menu is a full slab of ribs for $22.99, but all the dinner platters are $10.99 or less. Desserts, like sweet potato pie or hummingbird cake, top out at under $3 each.