Many times, it seems like good, fresh, authentic barbecue can be hard to come by. But for Lake County, a welcomed addition to the local restaurant scene is raising the bar in Mount Dora. Black Bear Smokehouse has only been open since January, but it is already becoming a fast favorite with locals who crave quality barbecue.
Outside, Black Bear has an impressive look with its eye-catching brick-and-mortar front. Inside, the rustic style carries over into an open, casual space fitted with a striking brick architectural centerpiece, beautiful wall art, and local black-and-white photography that highlights Lake County’s Golden Triangle (Tavares, Eustis, and Mount Dora).
Owner Jason James greeted me promptly upon arrival. After a quick tour, he told me the idea to start Black Bear began with his uncle, Robert Brown, who had a passion for barbecue and wanted to start his own restaurant. Tragically, Robert died before he could make the dream come true. Then when Robert’s oldest son also passed away, Jason — after much thought and with support from his family — decided to make it happen.
When you enter Black Bear, your first stop will be at the back counter where you can order meat on (or off) the bone. Patrons can then choose from a number of toppings for a sandwich and any two made-from-scratch sides. The most interesting feature I found in the restaurant was the sauce bar where people can choose from 15 different regional sauces. “Barbecue can be subjective, so the meat only comes in a dry rub,” Jason says. “Then you can come back to the sauce bar and choose what you would like. For example, our Kansas barbecue sauce is more traditional while Alabama has more of a white sauce and Louisiana is a bit spicier.”
I first tried the St. Louis-style ribs. With just the dry rub, the ribs taste fantastic and are fall-off-the-bone tender. Jason suggested trying them with a little bit of the house sauce, which was his uncle’s recipe. The sauce has a nice sweet yet spicy tang that pairs well with the smoky ribs. To wash it down, I had a wonderful cup of sweet tea.
Next, I savored the beef brisket, which is juicy and perfectly spiced. Slow cooked for 16 hours, the meat falls apart with just the cut of a fork. I also sampled a number of sides. The sweet potato casserole is pure satisfaction because it isn’t bogged down with extra sugar, which allows the natural sweet potato taste to sing. The three-meat chili has a good balance of spices, and using chicken, pork, and beef makes it extra hearty. And the smoked BBQ beans are rich and tangy with a delicious smoky zest.
However, my favorite side had to be the spoon bread. It is packed with delectable sweet corn and has the right constituency of sticky sweetness and lightness to make it a savory side item. I also thoroughly enjoyed the collard greens. Coming from a family with deep roots in the South, I can say Black Bear’s greens rank high in tenderness and tastiness.
With just a tiny bit of room left for dessert, I had the popular fried Oreos and a maple bacon milkshake. The latter had me a little skeptical, but if you love maple and bacon, this shake will be satisfying. The maple flavoring is on the mark — not too sweet or overwhelming — and the bacon helps create a nice salty balance. As for the fried Oreos, they are an almost-sinful delight and a must-have when you visit.
As a man of great hospitality, Jason is happy to be serving up excellent barbecue in a county he calls home. However, he also wants to offer up his restaurant as a place for the community, whether it is hosting church groups or holding fundraisers for local schools and organizations. “We’re here not just as a business,” he says, “but as a part of the community.”
18750 U.S. Hwy. 441, Mount Dora, FL 32757 • 352.383.2327
Hours of operation: 11a.m. to 9p.m. seven days a week
Popular meats: Smokehouse brisket: $8.50 • Smoked turkey leg: $7.50 • Slow smoked chicken, half: $9
Popular sides: Collard greens • Smoked BBQ beans • Spoon bread • Custom coleslaw • Smokehouse mac & cheese
Popular desserts: Fried brownie: $3 • Fried Oreos: $2 for three. • Peanut butter pie: $3.82 for a slice.
Written by Shemir Wiles Photo by Caleb Wayne Jensen