TNT Diner

This barbecue restaurant operated in a fish shack and gas station. Now it’s in a strip mall

A rib meal includes two sides at Rib Ticklers in Gig Harbor, Wash., on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.
A rib meal includes two sides at Rib Ticklers in Gig Harbor, Wash., on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

A fish shack, a gas station, a truck and now a strip mall.

Rib Ticklers Barbeque has operated in the most unexpected places in Gig Harbor.

Its latest incarnation opened Oct. 9 in the former home of Bistro Satsuma.

Owner Dennis Ofsthun wound up leasing the space after he went looking for sushi and was surprised to find Bistro Satsuma closed (its owners, Takeyuki and Minae Suetsugu, moved to Moses Lake).

Ofsthun approached who he thought was a building worker to ask what happened to Bistro Satsuma.

“Well, he was the owner,” said Ofsthun. “The next thing you know, I’ve got a lease and we’re off.”

Ofsthun previously opened a barbecue counter at the Gig Harbor Valero station in 2013 and then a food truck at the Purdy Spit in 2016.

Back up more than 25 years to get to the fish shack story. Ofsthun, with two restaurant partners, converted a Gig Harbor fish shack into a barbecue hut and later moved it to the space that now holds El Pueblito. They closed that version of Rib Ticklers around 1995.

There was a long hiatus between the original Rib Ticklers and Ofsthun’s opening at Valero in 2013. Ofsthun spent most of that time operating restaurants in California and also traveling with his recipes.

Whether discussing Rib Ticklers from 25 years ago or the restaurant from today, those recipes have remained.

His love of barbecue grew from a local barbecue restaurant owner, Willy Harris, the North Carolinian who operated Smoky Hill BBQ in Lakewood. After Harris died, Ofsthun and his previous business partners wound up with the recipes from Smoky Hill BBQ. The attorney who settled Harris’s estate offered them the smoker and the recipes.

From that emerged Rib Ticklers’ barbecue style.

Ofsthun calls it a style grounded in Texas smoke, with nods to Harris’s North Carolina roots.

The restaurant opened in its new location with a succinct menu of ribs, sliced tri-tip, smoked pulled pork and chicken. Sides include potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans.

Coming next will be a few menu additions, including lunch wraps and salads. His general manager, Augy Park, is working on adding hot wings to the menu.

chicken sandwich
A pulled-chicken sandwich with sauce from Rib Ticklers Barbeque. Sue Kidd

Meals: Baby back rib meals ($12 for three ribs/$14 for four/$17 for a half rack). Chicken leg and thigh ($8) or chicken breast and wing ($9) meals. Ribs and sliced tri-tip meal ($16). Ribs and chicken combo meal ($13). Half chicken meal ($13). Pulled pork half-pound plate ($14). Tri-tip half-pound plate ($16). All meals include two sides with choice of the beans, coleslaw or potato salad.

Sandwiches: Pulled pork or chicken ($6), sliced tri-tip ($8), hot link with coleslaw and beans ($6). Taco flatbreads ($6).

Dining room: Mostly same layout from Bistro Satsuma with four-top tables and booths in the front dining room and a handful of tables in a side dining area. The sushi bar has been replaced with a semi-open kitchen.

Ordering: Order at the counter, grab silverware and sauce near the open kitchen, find a table. Food is brought to the table.

That smoker our front: It’s used for catering, but Ofsthun has added a pellet smoker in his kitchen, which he says is more consistent. He uses hickory.

What about the food truck? “It’s busier than my wildest dreams,” said Ofsthun. He uses it for catering events.

trip tip 2
Tri-tip is served without sauce at Rib Ticklers. Sue Kidd

Must try: Ribs with a rub, but no sauce, carried a tender bite with meat that barely clung to bone. Chopped tri-tip also came without sauce, with a pronounced smoky flavor and mild rub. A pulled chicken sandwich was served on a toasted bun.

For sides, potato salad was nudged with sweet pickles. The coleslaw also tasted light on sweet, heavy on crunch and snap. It tasted freshly made. The baked beans tasted equal parts tang and smoke.

Sauces: Three versions. Mild was sweet with tang. Spicy intersected tang, but landed heavier on spice. Turbo was the least sweet of the three and with the most pronounced pucker and lingering, deep heat. (Nytro listed, but out on my visit).

Brew on tap: Coors Light, plus beer from Silver City, Blue Moon and Iron Horse. Also, wine and bottled brews.

Rib Ticklers Barbeque

Where: 5315 Point Fosdick Drive, Gig Harbor.

Info: 253-858-7427,

Hours: Serving lunch and dinner daily.