PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin+Gary Corsair
No bones about it, our grillin’ is thrillin’
We can’t even spell the word for the smoky, grilled meat we can’t get enough of, so it’s a given we can’t agree on who serves the best barbecue.
Or is it barbeque? Bar-B-Que? Bar-BQ? BBQ?
Barbecue (we’ll use the spelling recommended by the finger-licking folks who publish the Associated Press Stylebook) is a very personal subject.
You like pork. He favors chicken. She goes for ribs. That guy swears by mustard-based concoctions. His wife can’t live without a sweet red sauce, but her cousin is a dry-rub guy.
People are downright passionate about barbecue. But you already know that if you’ve lived here for any length of time. There have probably been as many fistfights over wood vs. charcoal as there have been over whether Chevy is better than Ford.
Well, let us not fight brothers and sisters. Barbecue is about love, not angst.
Besides, there’s a barbecue joint for every taste. We can all have it our way.
There are two dozen barbecue restaurants in Lake and Sumter counties — and another two dozen eateries that serve decent barbecue.
That’s a lot of smokin’ chimneys, yet we seem to have room for more barbecue. Newcomers Jdance Smokehouse (formerly Hook ‘Em Horns BBQ) is doing brisk (and brisket) business in Leesburg, Barnwood BBQ has quickly become the talk of Eustis and the old Dinner Bell restaurant in Fruitland Park is being converted into a barbecue establishment.
With so much barbecue to choose from, it would be virtually impossible to say who is the best. Or would it?
We’re about to take a slab, er, stab at it. So put on a bib and break open a package of napkins. It’s about to get messy.
And the winner is… Barnyard BBQ
… according to diners who posted reviews on the Internet.
Yes, we know that friends and relatives (and competitors) post biased opinions, but we believe most reviewers are genuine — and many know good food. Besides, we didn’t gather data from just one website, we combined reviews (of 1 to 5 stars) from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google and Facebook.
1. Barnwood BBQ (Eustis)
57 reviews, 5-stars: 51. Avg: 4.85
2. Sully’s Smokehouse (Leesburg)
124 reviews, 5-stars: 105. Avg: 4.74
3. Old Crow BBQ (Umatilla)
188 reviews, 5-stars: 125. Avg: 4.63
4. Oakwood (Lady Lake)
426 reviews, 5-stars: 352. Avg: 4.48
5. Uncle Kenny’s BBQ (Clermont)
476 reviews, 5-stars: 352. Avg: 4.47
6. King’s Taste BBQ (Eustis)
117 reviews, 5-stars: 85. Avg: 4.47
7. Dam Smoker (Eustis)
226 reviews, 5-stars: 146. Avg: 4.43
8. Sugarboo’s (Mount Dora)
145 reviews, 5-stars: 95. Avg: 4.41
9. Oakwood (Eustis)
194 reviews, 5-stars: 116. Avg: 4.40
10. Oakwood (Clermont)
190 reviews, 5-stars: 110. Avg: 4.36
11. Jack’s Barbeque (Minneola)
243 reviews, 5-stars: 152. Avg: 4.34
12. Texas Roadhouse (Clermont)
100 reviews, 5-stars: Avg: 4.24
13. Black Bear Smokehouse (Mount Dora)
356 reviews, 5-stars: 207. Avg: 4.16
14. Sonny’s (Leesburg)
247 reviews, 5-stars: 122. Avg: 4.09
15. Burke’s BBQ (Fruitland Park)
109 reviews, 5-stars: 58. Avg: 4.06
16. Sonny’s (Eustis)
316 reviews, 5-stars: 154. Avg: 4.05
17. Texas Stockyards (Lady Lake)
221 reviews, 5-stars: 116. Avg: 4.05
18. Sonny’s (The Villages)
258 reviews, 5-stars: 119. Avg: 4.02
19. Sonny’s (Bushnell)
250 reviews, 5-stars: 118. Avg: 3.96
20. Woody’s (Wildwood)
85 reviews, 5-stars: 17. Avg: 3.31
About this list: Yelp, Facebook and Google ratings are 1 to 5 stars. Note: We converted TripAdvisor’s 5-tier rating system to stars. Excellent=5 stars, very good=4 stars, average=3 stars, poor=2 stars, terrible=1 star.
Here Comes The Judge
And the winner is… Barnwood BBQ … Uncle Kenny’s … and Mount Plymouth IGA …
… according to long-time barbecue judge Dolores Mann, who lives in The Villages.
Mann, who was trained by the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Florida Barbecue Association, has judged more than 55 competitions.
We asked all two dozen local barbecue restaurants to allow Mann to judge their food, but only nine accepted our invitation, and only seven were able to accommodate our judge’s schedule.
Mann was certainly pleased that Barnwood agreed. “The brisket was the best I’ve ever had, anywhere,” she gushed. “And everything else was wonderful. Hands down, they are the best of the restaurants I judged.”
Barnwood, which won first place at the Lakeland Pig Fest 2005 (out of 60 teams), scored 119 out of a possible 120 points on Mann’s scoreboard.
Uncle Kenny’s BBQ was a close, close second, which isn’t surprising since Uncle Kenny’s was named Alabama State Champion in 2014, Florida State Champion in 2010 and recently finished fourth out of 165 teams at the World Series of BBQ.
Mann scored on a 1 to 10 scale based on appearance, tenderness and taste.
Note: Not every restaurant had all four items. Highest possible average: 30.0. Highest score possible for 4 items: 120. Highest possible score for 3 items: 90.
* Mt. Plymouth IGA also served what it called brisket, but our judge believed the meat was thin-sliced prime rib and didn’t include it in her ratings. With that said, she gave it 10 for appearance, 10 for tenderness and 10 for flavor — as prime rib. If you factor in those scores, Mt. Plymouth IGA’s score jumps to 114 and an average of 28.5
Finally, we thought about asking the grilling experts — the pit masters themselves — “Who serves the best barbecue?” but we knew they’d say, “We’re the best.” So we promised them anonymity and asked, “Assuming your barbecue is the best around, who is second best?”
And the winner is … Jack’s Barbecue, in Minneola.
Jack’s received three votes. “They still BBQ the old fashioned way,” one competitor said. Another remarked, “Probably Jack’s in Minneola. They still use wood, not propane.”
Sully’s Smokehouse received the other two votes.
Eight pit masters responded to our question, but two refused to name a competitor, and one named a restaurant outside Lake and Sumter counties.
What the pitmasters want you to know:
“We are St. Louis style but we pay respects to all the different regions of BBQ. We serve competition style BBQ where we inject every brisket we serve. No. 1 meat is our pulled pork. It is smoked with our rib rub for 12 hours and sauced in our original sweet sauce.”
— Kenny Nadeau, Uncle Kenny’s
“What sets us apart is our flavor, being consistent and serving directly from our ‘old-fashioned’ BBQ pit to the plate! We have been in business 14 years and have won numerous awards and been recognized in several magazines, recommended on TripAdvisor and Yelp, and in a BuzzFeed article that recommended Sugarboo’s BBQ as being where you need to eat!”
– JT Williams, Sugarboo’s
“We serve real food, real fast and the largest selection of fresh sides available anywhere. And the largest selection of barbeque meats.”
— Tim Burke, Burke’s BBQ
“Since 1948, our commitment to serving fresh, slow-smoked barbeque in a friendly, family-style atmosphere has not changed. We smoke our meats on a custom-made smoker that is wood burning only, and uses no electricity or gas. Our family recipe sauce originated in southeast Alabama and southwest Georgia. It’s a mustard-based sauce that we believe perfectly compliments our meats.”
– Eileen Costigan, Jack’s Barbeque
“What sets us apart from other BBQ restaurants is our employees first, then our consistent food. Our staff at the Lady Lake store [approximately 60 employees] boasts almost 400 years of employment with our company … Our preparation staff in Lady Lake, Sammy and Josie, have a combined 26 years between them, which means our food will always be consistent as one would expect when they visit our restaurant.”
– Will Henderson, Oakwood
“We feel that our family-run business and atmosphere and customer relations are No. 1, ensuring that people are pleased when dining with us. Here at Sully’s, our meats are cooked fresh daily. Our best meat would have to be the pulled pork, which is hand pulled with no sauce mixed in, smoked to perfection daily.”
– Trent Sullivan, Sully’s Smokehouse
“We prepare all our BBQ meats from scratch, right down from getting it from our fresh meat market with real meat cutters, seasoning them, marinating them, and cooking them to perfection. Our smoked meats are freshly smoked several times throughout the day.”
– Nisha Patel, Mt. Plymouth IGA
“We are family-owned. We smoke with wood only. Our sauce and seasonings are currently sold at select stores in the central Florida and Jacksonville areas. We were recently voted top 3 barbeque restaurants in Central Florida via a Channel 6 Facebook contest. Everything we make is from scratch. We smoke our pork and brisket for a minimum of 20 hours.”
– Dan Backhaus, Barnwood BBQ
New (Old )Kid on the Block
The local barbecue scene is already a mouthful, but John Dance has reason to believe there’s room for another quality barbecue establishment. And full parking lots at Jdance Smokehouse indicate the former Leesburg High School graduate who operated award-winning barbecue restaurants in Kentucky and Texas is turning up the heat on the competition.
Jdance Smokehouse, on South Street in Leesburg, hasn’t been open long enough to accumulate many reviews, but the word is spreading.
“Our trademark BBQ is prepared from signature recipes that are proven successful spanning 30 years in the business. Signature dry rubs, sauces and seasonings enhance flavor, while only premium meats are selected to achieve best results,” Dance says. “The ‘smoking process’ is characterized as an art form taking years of dedication to achieve an award-winning product.”
As for sauce, well, we choose not to touch that subject. To do so would mean joining the great “Is it really barbecue if you have to put sauce on it” debate.
“Sauce is not what makes the BBQ, despite what people say,” says Oakwood owner Will Henderson. “We believe that quality meats makes the experience.”
With that said, we know a great sauce can make the difference between a good meal and a great one … or make a great meal even greater. That seems to be the case at Uncle Kenny’s. “We have four nationally-ranked sauces,” says owner Kenny Nadeau. “Our original and mustard have won 1st place at the World Series of BBQ two years in a row and also won 1st place at the National BBQ Festival and the World of Hot Sauce.”
Barbecue judge Dolores Mann was especially impressed with five sauces — Sugarboo’s (mustardy tang), Sully’s (spicy red), Burke’s (Texas thin and spicy), Uncle Kenny’s (sweet, but not too sweet) and Barnwood’s (sweet, yet tart).
We restricted our judging to meats, but our judge and Style staff were impressed by a number of sides. Pitmasters and chefs throughout Lake and Sumter Counties are serving up some super side dishes. Here are our favorite must-order items:
Summer Corn Salad at Oakwood. Crunchy and bursting with flavor from roasted corn, seeded cucumbers, diced red peppers, cilantro, red onion and apple cider/mayo cream dressing.
BBQ Pork Egg Rolls at Uncle Kenny’s. Hand rolled every day with award-winning pulled pork and coleslaw.
You can’t go wrong with Beans at Jdance Smokehouse, Uncle Kenny’s and Jack’s. All three are loaded with goodies like meat and onions