Lakeland Barbecue Co.

I don’t remember exact flavors at Good Buddies, exempt them dirty fries. Why my phantom taste buds can recite this one menu item among all the others is beyond human comprehension. Yet, as an ode to the restaurant that once bustled then succumbed to a tragic fire a half dozen years or more in downtown Lakeland, my French fry cart The Root concocted our own version of dirty fries. Unfortunate or indifferent as it is, Good buddies isn’t back although the team that once brought some of the best BBQ around is. And what’s in a name really? For me, it happens to be nostalgia for  something I honestly can’t really remember too much of other than my brain verifies they was awesome. Lakeland BBQ Co. has risen out of the ashes of a burned down building and years worth of domination in local BBQ competitions. That is what their reputation of this new to you named BBQ Co is built upon.

LkldBBQ
This isn’t really a review, think of it more of an introduction to how I gauge my barbeque.
When you walk in, head toward the bar in the far reaches of the building where you might see someone waving a wooden stock pot spoon at you to control foot traffic in the right direction. If you don’t already know how to order BBQ from a new place here’s how you do it. Everyone’s got one or two favorite cuts of meat or preparations. From birth I’ve been a rib guy, mainly spare with the tips attached. If that’s not available, I wont always go for the back ribs as the next option. If not pork ribs, ill usually gravitate (if available) toward more rare white rabbit type forms such as Burnt Ends, In House Smoked sausage, Pig Belly and Mutton. If you don’t have a preference with BBQ I think you’re on the verge of being lost. I’m saying this because we have rules. Without rules, chaos reigns. When chaos reigns, you get your queues from a talking fox. On the first trip to a new BBQ restaurant or frankly one you’ve never been before, always order what you already love. This is your gauge. If you don’t think they do what you like very well, you probably aren’t going to like the rest. I would never order pulled or chopped pork over ribs, brisket, sausage, lamb, duck or even chicken, so why would I judge based on that? Chopped pork is way down my list, but this is  not at the behest of anyone that likes it. We all have our security blankets.

The ordering structure at Lakeland BBQ co. makes it easy to perform a second test because the subject is already at the table. Saucing. Take your less predominant index finger  out. Place a few dabs of whichever sauce you think you’ll enjoy. You want control, which is why I squeeze with my right and test with the left. Their spicy sauce is not overbearing on the heat index, but it’s cold inside to be honest. Usually shivering will cause you to feel the heat more than it’s meant to be felt, so sit near the window for maximum effort. It was very tolerable nonetheless. I detected a flavor combination with a subtle complexity right off the bat. I think I got some coffee and smoked chile, caramelized brown sugar in there somewhere.

As for the ribs:

The smoke ring was there as you see, but the smoky flavor wasn’t as bring you to your knees powerful as you’ll find at other joints.  Because of these factors, the texture made me think more of deeply roasted shoulder. I respect the restraint they exhibited as it caused me to actually taste pork. Kind of the reason we like the stuff in the first place.

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The menu is brief with the main and sides at a minimum, so you don’t have a myriad of options. I’m fine with that. I’d rather have fresh tasty sides done very well, over a pliable sheet panned week old macaroni and cheese. Opting for what I perceive everyone will gravitate toward, Cheesy Hash brown casserole was my side of choice, although the following visit allowed me to put their Collards under the microscope. You see, in actuality making good Collard Greens isn’t tough. Just don’t serve them raw in a salad or turn ’em to mush. everything else within the spectrum is allowable. The problem is people who make really good Collard Greens don’t want to admit anyone else does them good.  I have to admit, they done did the Collards right. Tender, ham hocky, salty and tangy with some great pot likker broth to sip as an after meal digestif.

A fitting suprise was the wedge of cake like cornbread on my lunch tray. I wasn’t expecting it, probably didn’t need it from the generous amount of ribs they provided, however I was very happy to eat the entire brick. Restaurant cornbread can be as fickle as a newspaper editor, twice as crummy and three times, no four times as dry. Not here.

Since they’re only open for Lunch, this new place might not end up on everyone’s to do list. If you’re a fan of Good buddies, maybe you’ll try this and think it’s just like they used to do it. Maybe you’ll think they have grown from the years being on the circuit. Maybe you’ll be elbow deep in pork fat  and far too busy to pontificate over these trivialized matters.

S&L Restaurant – Lakeland, FL

When I was about 10, my dad schooled me on how to cook a proper hamburger. He said he learned his technique from watching his mom make them in a skillet when he was a boy. She learned it from watching a man make what was known at the time as “grease-burgers”, which you used to buy for a quarter at the local farmers market back in the 50’s. The name grease-burgers, according to my dad, was earned because they were cooked on a flat top and basically fried when the fat or “grease” rendered out of the patty. This is the method I always use to make burgers at home. It gives the meat a great crust on the exterior, as well as keeping all the flavors from the fat intact. With all due respect, grilling in my opinion is a less than a desirable method of burger cookery. If you have some confidence and can cook at very high temperatures you can still get a medium rare doneness in a skillet, without sacrificing that nice greasy char.

There are many things I’ve been ashamed of during my three decades on this planet. Eating two gallons of ice cream the day after I broke my wrist when I was 17. The time I was escorted out in a wheelchair at Universal Studios for allegedly being “too drunk to stand”, I was never formally charged. Finally, and this will shock many of my closest friends to the core, never once in my life had I eaten at the local legendary burger joint S&L Hamburgers. To this day it defies logic why it took so long for me to make the trek down to no mans land for a tasting of what everyone, at least inside the city limits, considers the best. If you knew how many times I’ve driven past and noticed the parking lot overflowing with cars and a line of people outside the building, you might slug me right in the gut. Have I not been preaching that if it’s good it’s worth waiting for? Just yesterday, I stood waiting for my beignets from The Poor Porker, when a woman who might or might not be immediately related to me, approached the general area and asked “Are they really good enough to wait this long?”.  As we know by now, long lines, waiting and an overflowing dining room are usually a sign of good things to come.

The moment arrived when I committed to a lunch with a friend that worked in the area. He texted me around 10:30 to ask what I wanted to order. I thought it strange to even ask since we were going to sit down and have our meal inside. He filled me in on how they do things to get people from having to wait an extraordinarily long time. If you call them in advance and tell them when you’ll be there, not only will they reserve you a table, they will have your meal ready as your arrive. Talk about a great concept!

We met at 12:00 and I got there early. I really wasn’t sure what to expect inside. Was it going to be some grimy dump that people just have gone to for years because of force of habit? That happens a lot you know. I even looked online for a menu or pictures, anything that would help me prepare for my visit. I couldn’t find anything but a blurry half of a menu from 3 years ago. It’s as if this place doesn’t exist to outsiders, save for a handful of short, mixed reviews.

Walking in, you’ll likely find a group of minions huddled around the counter, counting the seconds until their rations are ready. They’re all waiting for take out orders. There isn’t much space to breathe inside, it’s narrow and lined from wall to wall with small tables that are all filled with either hungry patrons, or soon to be stuffed ones. The aroma of sizzling beef emanating from the flat top, would send Wimpy into a state of euphoria, though he’d still have the gall to pay for his burger days after consuming it. To be honest though, after sounding a little wimpy myself, S&L is very pleasant inside. The waitresses are sweethearts and very accommodating, which is impressive, considering how fast paced and cramped the room is.

Our order wasn’t placed due to my incompetence. I couldn’t decide what to order before hand, based on what little information I could find online. When we sat down, my dining companion ordered a bacon cheeseburger without bothering to look at the menu. Less than 10 seconds went by and I spotted the patty melt. Easy choice. With onion rings. Easier choice. You always have the option to “bigger” size your burger for a $1.00. Easiest choice I made all day since deciding to rise and shine. My bud followed suit and requested his “bigger” as well. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

S&L uses the ol’ grease burger technique. Straight on the griddle, cooked ’til they’re done. They don’t ask your preferred doneness, you get it how they cook it and that’s just the way it is. When the food came out, I realized the error in making my burger bigger. I said “bigger” but I wasn’t aware they were going to try to kill me with meat! I recommend just a single patty so you can leave in a less rotund state.

Visually, the food was sexy, with a nice bit of charred crust encompassing the outer layers. The burger then was subject to the squeeze test. This is very technical and needs to be performed properly by a trained professional to avoid damage. You take the palm of your hand directly on the top of the bun, or rye bread in this case. By pressing down at the rate of 32 pounds of pressure per square foot, for 3/10 of a second, you can deduce if a burger is juicy or not. The test was administered and S&L passed with room to spare. I sampled an onion ring while my burger cooled a bit. It had a surprising hint of beer used to wet the batter. They were perfect and passed the rigorous “Crispness Coefficient and Onion Anti-displacement Test” perfected by my colleague here at Eat a Duck. If you wish to read about the Jimmy’s test on onion rings, please read the review of Hottie Hawgs BBQ.

The burgers were not only huge, they had character. They were everything the legend had made them out to be. I felt joy and pain all at once. With every bite my love for S&L grew, at the same time I cursed myself, for procrastinating all these years. Normally, I’d sit here and give you a long, drawn out description of how it all tasted, but it’s just something you have to try for yourself. The one thing I would give you a heads up on is that, as far as I know, they only use American cheese, which to me is like someone drawing a moustache on the girl with a pearl earring. It’s my fault for not asking if they had other choices, but can you blame me for being stricken by burger blindness? I’ve also been told by many friends that the breakfast is just as good as the burgers that made them famous. Great, now I have even more shame to deflect. I think I might need to lie down for a minute or two. The guilt is to be too much to bear.

S&L Restaurant – 2915 South Combee Road – Lakeland, FL 33803 – (863) 665-0731

S & L Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Spice – Lakeland, FL

It seems like some of the most delicious and memorable foods I’ve had, for the most part, have been the least complex. A few choice ingredients given proper respect can linger in your brain forever. This happened on a recent lunch visit to a local Thai/Sushi restaurant simply called Spice. Not to beat a dead horse, but in my opinion, the local food scene here in Lakeland is suffering from rigor mortis. I struggle to think of even five restaurants I’d recommend to a curious visitor. Spice, however, makes the cut. Granted, making the cut in Lakeland isn’t necessarily a glowing endorsement. I will tell you though, judging from specific menu items, Spice is a must for locals. If you go, and you should, you will find yourself dodging the obstacles of house fraus in large SUVs trying to make their way through the parking lot of the encapsulating strip mall that Spice calls home.

Before you even look at the menu, commit to asking for this one thing. As part of my lunch, I was given a bowl of liquid with cubes of non identifiable vegetables. When I quizzically asked what it was, they simply called it vegetable soup. What strikes you first is its amazing clarity. You can see straight to the bottom. I really thought that was visually appealing. It tasted like someone was giving my tongue a big hug on a cold day. The broth had such clean flavors, so distinct and straight forward right off the bat. You got a slap of what tasted like tomato water, which I love, with a soothing bit of lemongrass at the finish. As your spoon dives down into the broth sea like a submarine, you find little cubes of perfectly cooked celery and tomato. To add a final touch of textural composition, there are slices of fried shallot along with raw green onion floating to the top, waiting to be whisked away.

 

Calling this masterpiece “vegetable soup” is an enormous understatement. That’s like sweeping aside Ben Savages’ defining opus, Boy Meets World, as just another show. Tomato and celery consomé, with lemongrass and crispy shallot is a more appropriate description. It’s more attractive than the underwhelming title given to it. I’m not knocking the waitress, as it’s probably easier for a novice of Thai food or sushi to order vegetable soup. This is what makes Spice a success, it’s a great starting point for beginners. People just starting to explore the boundaries of what their palate feels is tasty. The Thai selections are all the ones you’d expect. nothing that pushes the limits, that goes for the sushi as well. The majority of the menu is what you’ll find at any similar place in the area. Lots of rolls that cater to the American sensibility, with about 20% more tradition thrown in. They execute this balancing act extremely well. They are one of the few places in town I can be confident of having a memorable evening with delicious food. What say you?

Spice – 3615 S Florida Ave. Lakeland, FL 33803 – (863) 709-8321

Spice Thai & Sushi Rest on Urbanspoon

Take-out Redemption • Chop Shop – Lakeland, FL

Just last week I had some pretty negative things to say regarding the skulduggery practices of a “ne’er to be mentioned” dining establishment here in town. As I intimated in the take-away trash post, I get pretty frustrated when my money is wasted on sub-par cuisine. I’m not just talking about when I give my money to a restaurant, actually I get more upset when I’m the one cooking the sup-par food. But we don’t have to worry about that on this fine Monday, because I returned to an old stomping ground of mine to pick-up some redemption lunch.

The Chop Shop in Downtown Lakeland opened about 3 years ago. At the time, I was delivering to customers in the Downtown District. This retro style burger joint, owned by Ty Starkey, was one of my regular lunch spots. Sadly though, I was forced to inherit another position which took me too far away to make the Chop Shop a viable lunchtime option.

So many places have come and gone over the years on the downtown food scene. One place that has seemingly come away unscathed is Chop Shop. They have even expanded since opening, so business must be doing quite well. Even though I don’t get to stop in for a perfectly cooked burger as much as I used to, the joint is always jump jiving no matter what time of day I go.

The atmosphere is fun, with Rockabilly or “Real man” Country blasting from the speakers at all times. You can tell that the owners want this place to be a hang out, and it is for the most part. Ty has become an aquaintance of mine over the years, probably because he used to see my ugly mug deliver his mail everyday for about a year straight. I get the feeling he is like that with most everyone that frequents Chop Shop. Niceties only go so far though, so let’s get down to brass tacks. The food, is all that matters in the long run right? And it’s really, really good. Its like any neato place you would find on diners, drive-ins and dives. In fact, I think they deserve their own segment. Are you listening Guy? You’d better get your little red Camaro down here stat!

You have to start by ordering a burger, as it’s easily the best thing on the menu. They have about 10 different choices. I think I’ve had all 10 and I would highly recommend all of them. It’s not on the menu but if you want a kind of healthy alternative just say you want your burger Salad style. I dont need to explain salad style do I?

Note: I hate Chili…I love Abbys Chili. I love it on Tater tots. I love it in my mouth.

I think I’ll stop there. To explain what to order at Chop Shop would require me to read you the entire menu. Even though they have tweaked the menu a few times (R.I.P. Chicken Parm, maybe one fine day, you will be part of some sort of resurrection).

Oh bother. I almost forgot to mention the reason I even thought of writing about the dang place to begin with.

I walked in today and ordered a Cobb Salad, to-go mind you, even though I had a game changing experience at this exact time last week just a few blocks down the street. I thought to myself, “If anyone can allow me to enjoy a meal from my stinky desk, it’s these guys”, so there I sat, nervously awaiting my take-out.

You see a guy walk out of the kitchen holding a plastic bag containing a square styrofoam box and he begins walking in your general direction. You turn off the game of Family Feud you were playing on your iPhone because you think he is coming for you, but, like a ship on the horizon, he passes you as if you were a castaway. The next time out of the kitchen, you try to lock eyes with the food runner as if that will make any difference, overlooked again. The third time he emerges from the curtain, he’s walking with purpose, he calls your name. Did he called my name? He called my name! Yeah, we go way back. No big deal.

You grab your loot and hit the road. Before taking your vehicle out of park, you check your food. This can’t be! Everything you ordered was exactly the way you expected! A perfect Cobb topped with freshly chopped blackened chicken and hot bacon honey dressing? I mean I know it’s a burger dive, but just look at that composition! Talk about taking pride in your work. 

The Chop Shop Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon