An old favorite is back in Gig Harbor after an extensive hiatus. Owner and co-founder Dennis Ofsthun recently reopened a smaller version of his barbecue in the deli area at the Valero gas station off 38th Street. Rib Ticklers barbecue originally was on Harborview Drive in 1988.
Ofsthun, a seasoned veteran, has owned eight barbecue places during the past 25 years. He returned to the area to reconnect with family, and he brought his special taste back to Gig Harbor with his scaled-down Rib Ticklers venue.
“It’s gratifying that, after all these years, people who have come in are so pleased to find me here again,” Ofsthun said. “They remember the taste of the barbecue sauce from when their parents took them to my place in the harbor when they were kids.”
Ofsthun’s recipe is from western North Carolina, one that marries southern flavors for a “sweet, tart, zesty tang,” he said.
“This sauce is an old acquired recipe from a man named Willy Harris,” Ofsthun said. “He was a retired military cook who traveled with Bob Hope on his USO tours as his personal chef. When he retired, Willy opened a barbecue in Lakewood, and I used to frequent it. I tried for years to get him to tell me the recipe, but he would never give up the secret to his sauce.”
Ofsthun couldn’t get over the flavors and feel of Willy’s barbecue place after it closed, so he decided to set up shop for himself.
In the late 1980s, Ofsthun hung out his barbecue sign in Gig Harbor. A month before he opened his place, he didn’t have a recipe for ribs that matched his former favorite restaurant.
A man called after he saw Ofsthun’s sign and asked if he wanted to buy a smoker and use “an amazing recipe from a retired military cook.” It turned out to be Willy’s sauce.
“It was meant to be,” Ofsthun said.
He added his love and expertise for slow-cooked, pit-fired Caribbean-style food, and Rib Ticklers was off and running.
“The slow cooking makes the barbecue much better,” Ofsthun said.
Today, the product is still the same. The pulled pork in his shop cooks for 12 hours, the ribs take five to six hours, as does the tri-tip. Chicken is cooked at least for four hours.
The menu also consists of traditional southern sides of baked beans and cole slaw.
Ofsthun said he’s enjoying his smaller venue.
“It allows me to use high-quality, prime ingredients,” he said. “It’s easier to control and make sure we send out what the customers come to expect.”
Rib Ticklers has a drive-through window for customer, as well as a call-ahead number: 253-858-RIBS.
Bottles of his famous mild, spicy and turbo sauce are available for $5 and have been in such demand that the restaurant can hardly keep up with labeling them, Ofsthun said.
It’s open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. for dinner Monday through Friday. The store hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 a.m. on Saturday and closed on Sunday.
Also a caterer, Ofsthun is looking forward to getting back to that side of the business. He has a couple of employees to help with the time-consuming process. Marquis Guiton, a former military cook, is carrying on the tradition from the sauce originator. His official title is pit master.
“I tried the barbecue and thought is was great,” Guiton said. “It was a perfect match for me to come work here. I am really appreciating the customer compliments for our food.”
Ofsthun said Guiton has a nose for barbecue.
“I trust him to cook for me,” Ofsthun said. “I want to make sure I am leaving this barbecue flavor and taste with this recipe for generations to come.”