After a few years of owning a small chain of local sandwich shops, Tom Wills decided he needed more. So the longtime Redlands man started traveling to Georgia and South Carolina to learn barbecue. He bought a trailer, started smoking baby back ribs, briskets and chicken wings, and winning competitions.
Those awards, mostly for their sweet-smoky ribs, hang on the walls of T&W Barbecue on South Dixie Highway in Cutler Bay. A line stretches from the service counter, where orders are placed and ribs and corn bread are dished, out into the dim, wood-covered dining room. Wills hobnobs with customers, plying construction workers to sit for a tall Styrofoam cup of sweet tea rather than return to the work site. Later, he spends a few minutes talking a family friend, coordinating carpool for the kids later that week.
The reason everyone is there, besides Wills' good nature and the brief list of craft beer, is of course the barbecue. A well-crusted third of a rack with two sides -- creamy mac & cheese and bitter yet sweet collard greens -- is only $7.99.
Yet Wills can't stay away from his submarine sandwich roots and everything from pulled pork to beef brisket to boned-out baby backs is slapped in between two thick, buttery slices of Texas toast and doused in a mild, sweet-tangy barbecue sauce. Grilled pastrami, pickles, swiss, and squiggles of mustard and barbecue sauce blend Jewish deli and smoky southern meats for only $7.99
T&W, the W coming from Tom's wife Wendy, is refreshing to find down in the southern part of the county, where U.S. 1 widens into a yawning highway lined with an endless string of Taco Bells, Pollo Tropicals, Olive Gardens and the like.
"We don't have anything except chain places down here," Will says. "I can't believe there's not more barbecue."
Wills said he's in the midst of installing two more smokers and an additional hood to boost smoked meat production. He's got his eyes set on winning brisket competitions next year, and has been tweaking his recipe for the fickle cut of beef for years.
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"Every time I pull one out of the smoker I learn something new," he said. "I think I've got it just where I want it."