We saw the sign reading "Hot Beer, Lousy Food, Bad Service" as a tongue-in-cheek embellishment to the exterior decor of Blackwater Bar-B-Q, but I'd be lying if I said our chuckles weren't tinged with unease. Sure, a smoky redolence surrounded this humble shack near the northeast corner of Edgewater Drive and Par Street, but the fact that the metal picnic tables outside sat empty was about as reassuring as seeing a health-food store endorsed by Paula Deen or, to be fair, as convincing as hearing Anthony Bourdain extol the virtues of vegetarianism.
When I and my Southern compatriots walked inside the shack to see it also empty, two hours before the posted closing time, expectations were duly lowered. Our server, though competent and helpful, appeared enervated while taking our order, but still gave prompt and courteous service – a cinch, given we were the only ones there.
We sat outside underneath the fans, enjoying the manufactured breeze while sipping on sweet tea ($1.75) and catching an episode of Deadliest Catch. Just as I got a hankering for catfish, a plate of baby back ribs and pulled pork ($14.50) was laid before us, then a brisket dinner ($8.95), followed by a chicken sandwich ($6.15) and sides of greens, slaw, crinkle fries, pork and beans, fried okra, cornbread and corn on the cob.
Now, barbecue joints are rarely accused of serving flavorless meats, but we were taken aback at how utterly bland the pulled pork was. It was tender, but completely devoid of a smoky essence or a tangy smack. Some unremarkable sweet or spicy sauce (also sweet) was the only way to add flavor. The original white meat, chicken, was cooked nicely and served atop a square of doughy white bread, but if you're looking for zing, best look elsewhere. Same went for the brisket. The shredded strands were moist, yes, but I'd rather spend more elsewhere to enjoy a truly savory brisket.
The baby backs were the sole meat to be met with approval. We liked the rub, the smoky essence, the perfectly pliant (but not fall-off-the-bone) meat and the slightly crisp exterior. We took note of the nice bark and smoke ring, then gnawed hard on those babies. Sides, sadly, were another hit-and-miss affair. The pork and beans were the highlight, with the fried okra a distant second. The coleslaw suffered from personal dryness, the greens were way too salty, and the cornbread resembled the corn muffins sold at Publix. Corn on the cob and crinkle fries were uninspired.
Of the four pies on the menu, only the Key lime ($3.50) was available. Sweet and tart, the pie was gone in a matter of seconds. All desserts, incidentally, are products of Mike's Pies, an award-winning pie bakery based out of Tampa. Blackwater's owners – Dan McCartney and James Capo – have evidently won their fair share of awards from regional and national barbecue competitions dating back to 2000. But if our experience is any indication, improvements need to be made if they hope to get back into championship form.
3405 Edgewater Drive