Move over Memphis. Step aside Kansas City. Talk a stroll, Texas. And get yourself home, Georgia. When it comes to barbecue, Central Florida’s Polk County is here to declare itself the Barbecue Capital of Florida. From the barbecue legacy to the competitions and pit masters, nowhere else in the state – and few places in the nation – can compare.
A Legacy Built on Smoke
At less than 15 square miles and with a population of less than 20,000 people, Auburndale is one of the smaller cities in Florida. It doesn’t even rank in the 200 largest in the state. But boy, does it know barbecue.
It all started in 1947 when an old roadside chicken shack became Peebles Bar-BQ. Today, a visit isn’t just a feast for the stomach, but for the nose as well, since the smoker is inside the facility. Among the longest-running barbecue restaurants statewide, Peebles must be doing something right – patrons line up outside to get their hands on the smoky goodness of this barbecue original that defies simple regional definitions.
Just down the street is Smokin’ Jim’s House of Barbecue, where the AKA sandwich, featuring the “Best Butt in Town” pulled pork, is a must-have, and steak dominate the menu on Saturday nights. But save room for their homemade banana pudding, a regional favorite for decades.
This tour isn’t over yet. In their bucolic downtown, you’ll find The Brack Shack, known for not only great barbecue but also for their signature egg roll mash-ups. While the pulled pork and brisket varieties might be best known, don’t forget the brisket mac and cheese, Cuban, cheesesteak, or dessert variety featuring strawberry shortcake, Oreo, or Elvis – peanut butter and banana – egg rolls. And that’s just one city.
Today, Polk County boasts more than 20 unique barbecue eateries, making it one of Florida’s most barbecue-dense restaurant scenes, per resident. From Lakeland, where you’ll find Blue Dog Craft Barbecue and Mojo Federal Swine and Spirits, just to name two, to Schack’s in Winter Haven or Blackburns in Eagle Lake – when it comes to great barbecue in Polk County, it’s easy to find.
Barbecue Beyond Walls
More than just a genre of food, barbecue has evolved into a competitive pastime far beyond friendly backyard taste tests. Throughout the nation, teams travel and compete in area competitions. The most prestigious of these competitions follow the fabled Kansas City Barbeque Society rules, where it may take a would-be official a year of weekend travel to gather the needed expertise to help judge a competition on their own.
Polk County boasts three of these top-notch, official Kansas City Barbeque Society-judged cooking competitions, the most of any county in the state. Additionally, we are home to more winning pitmasters than anywhere else in the state – barbecue is more than a hobby in Polk County, it’s a sport.
Pigfest, a Lakeland area staple for more than 25 years, is held on the sprawling SUN n’ FUN Expo Campus, Jan. 26-27. The largest of the barbecue competitions, Pigfest features barbecue, music, and more. Just two weeks later, Grills Gone Wild kicks off in Davenport on Feb. 9-10 at the Tom Fellows Community Center. Featuring live music, vendors, and, of course, food, this event throws in a car show as well. And not least is Haines City’s own Ribs on the Ridge, featuring food and entertainment on the banks of beautiful Lake Eva on Feb. 17.
A special twist on this grand tradition started this year, where the winner of the Triple Crown of Barbecue will walk away with more than just flame fame. By utilizing the Kansas City Barbecue Society points system, the professional barbecue team that tallies up the most points between the three events will win a cash prize as well as the title of The Official Grill Gurus of Polk County.
A Long Culinary History
From humble, rural beginnings, Polk County has grown a culinary cultural identity from the ground up.
Nestled in the heart of Central Florida, Polk County boasts a rich history intertwined with breathtaking bodies of water. Those ample waters, coupled with wide open spaces, create the perfect conditions for farming. Polk County staples include beef and, especially, citrus. Even today, Polk County remains one of the leading citrus producers in the state.
While the first official farm-to-table restaurant may have opened in Berkeley, California in the 1970s, unofficially, it has been a staple of the Deep South. From herbs grown at home to locally sourced eggs from the neighboring farm stand, locally sourcing produce is a norm in rural America.
But few have done what Polk County has – take those rural beginnings and launch them into space. From 1931 to 2014, Lake Wales was home to the fabled Chalet Suzanne, a restaurant and inn. Among those who visited were Burt Reynold, Dinah Shore, Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, Kevin Costner, and Don Johnson. Known for its soup, they eventually opened a cannery on the property that sold their romaine soup worldwide. In 1971, that soup went to the moon on the Apollo 15 mission by request of astronaut Col. James B. Irwin. It was so popular with the crew that the soup returned to space two more times and was ultimately dubbed Moon Soup. Chalet Suzanne ultimately closed in 2014 when the last of the family retired.
On the other side of the county is an establishment with an even longer history. Reececliff Family Diner in Lakeland opened in 1934. While it started as a drive-in – they even served folks on horseback – today is the longest-running restaurant in the county. Featuring classic Southern comfort food – think biscuits, grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, okra, and fried chicken – it is often cited as one of the best-kept secrets in Polk County. This is a place where you can belly up to the counter, get yourself a simple cup of Joe and a sandwich, and then a slice of their famous pie.
Of course, everyone says their pie is famous. But at Reececliff, they mean it. Locals know to order their holiday pies early, for while the French Silk and Apple varieties are perhaps the best known, the coconut cream and cherry pies are the best sellers. Others often on the holiday list include pumpkin, sweet potato, peanut butter, peach, egg custard, pecan and chocolate pecan. Be warned, these pies are cooked using the same recipes baker Miss Jeannette passed down after working at the restaurant for 60 years. One of their cooks, Ms. Willie, has worked in the kitchen since 1974.
On the other side of the county in Lake Alfred, the culinary history has a little more bite. Since 1951, Lang Sun Country Groves has been offering food fresh from the field. And while their jams, jellies, and wines all feature a taste of Florida, they are perhaps most famous for their one and only grapefruit pie, a signature taste of Central Florida that has been featured on media ranging from The Food Network to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Southern Living.
No matter what you have in mind as you visit The Sunshine State, a visit to Florida would be incomplete without a visit to Central Florida’s Polk County, the state’s sweetest spot. For more on Polk County’s food scene, visit goodfoodpolk.com. To plan your next vacation in Central Florida’s Polk County, go to www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.