One minute, you’re pulling into the Shell station at the southeast corner of Apalachee Parkway and Capital Circle. The next, you’re drawn to a tantalizing aroma. Follow your nose and the plumes of oak wood smoke to a bright red food truck perched in the corner of the parking lot.
Welcome to Mo-Betta BBQ, which has been serving smoked spare ribs, chopped pork, beef brisket and chicken for 12 years, tantalizing customers with ‘cue so good it will “Break Yo Mouth.”
That’s the slogan touted by Billy “Mo” Hollaway, who owns and operates the barbecue business with his wife, Nicole.
“I brought the truck to Tallahassee to be at a football game,” said Mo. “So many people liked the food, they said ‘Stay here.’ “
And so he did.
But the path from Mo’s childhood in Stockton, California to this corner of Tallahassee has taken more turns than a pig on a spit.
When Mo was a little boy, his dad had a barbecue restaurant. “He had 15 brothers and sisters and they competed when it came to barbecue.”
The men generally did the grilling and the women were cooking sides and pies in the kitchen, said Mo. “I grew up around it and picked up secrets.”
Then his dad got sick and lost the business.
Mo never forgot his love of barbecue, but for more than two decades, he built a career as a singer in the band California Malibus, a group in the style of the Temptations.
“After 21, 22 years, I decided to back out of the band, and I learned to drive trucks,” he said.
Mo then drove trucks for about 10 years, eating barbecue all over the country, sampling dry rubs and sauces in places like St. Louis, Kansas, Chicago, Milwaukee and Memphis.
“When I traveled, I always liked to try different flavored foods,” said Mo.
He eventually ended up opening a food truck in the Tampa area before coming to Tallahassee.
His wife, Nicole, is a Tallahassee native who got both her degrees at Florida State University. She studied business administration and then got her master’s degree in accounting and finance. She was Practice Administrator at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital for 18 years before retiring.
“That seems like a lifetime ago,” said Nicole. “Now I work with my best friend, my husband, every day.”
Ask the couple how long they’ve been married and they’ll both chime in “not long enough.” They bring their love and sense of humor to a business that can be pretty tough, especially during hot, summer days and tough months of dealing with a pandemic.
Since their business is take-out, they’ve managed, though their food truck business has been put on hold. They have another truck on premises that they used for events, games and gatherings. Mo said he is grateful that the owners of the Shell station have not raised his rent over the years.
“They’ve been instrumental in helping me stay,” said Mo. There are times customers come for ‘cue and end up buying gas while others buy gas and then are lured to the smell of the smoke — Mo uses oak or hickory, sometimes pecan.
Another challenge. Meat prices have gone up and beef and chicken have been hard to find.
“I couldn’t find chicken today,” said Mo. “Our customers are understanding. They read the paper, they know what’s going on.
My husband and I have been to Mo-Betta’s many times but we were just there for lunch this week. The Hollaways have moved the picnic tables, where we would sometimes sit and chow down. Given Covid-19, it’s easier to just stick to takeout now without having customers linger, said Nicole.
The menu is so tempting it’s hard to decide what to order. My husband and I both wanted the chopped pork sandwich, delicious and addictive ($7.15). It’s packed with so much meat I can barely eat it all in one sitting while my husband manages to devour the whole thing. Mo suggested adding cole slaw atop the pork on one of our visits here and it’s such a good complement that’s the way we order it all the time. Sides are $3.25 for eight ounces but you can get larger servings.
We also got an order of smoked ribs (regular size for $10.26), which are cooked with a dry rub, a concoction Mo has created from his memories and experiences around the country. The ribs are meaty with a fine char, served with tips as well as toast. You can also order a half or full slab. Sauce is offered on the side and while many ‘cue lovers like to slather it on everything, the meat is so good you can save it for something else.
We added a side of comforting mac ‘n cheese, and have enjoyed the baked beans and potato salad. There are also combos. Nicole generally works the window and she is so friendly, she’ll steer you in the right direction.
“I can tell you that prior to this I was scared of the kitchen,” said Nicole, who now knows all the recipes and techniques for cooking Mo-Betta’s repertoire. “I never thought I’d say it but ‘I love it.’
Mo and Nicole both talk of being grateful for their longtime barbecue spot.
“The good Lord led me this way,” said Mo. “Thank you to Tallahassee.”
If you go …
Mo-Betta BBQ, 3105 Apalachee Pkwy.; 850-570-8800. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Delivery services are available.