It’s the perfume of the South: smoky, savory and sweet, with come-hither notes of charcoal-kissed pork fat. Whether wafting from backyard pits or rising from restaurant chimneys, the smell of barbecue is seductive. It guarantees that people will gather, roll up their sleeves and hunker down over a shared gastronomic orgy of pulled pork, ribs, chicken, brisket and a whole mess of sides.
In Jacksonville—which is arguably the most culturally Southern of Florida cities—barbecue is a centuries-old tradition and might well be the local signature dish. It’s certainly the most beloved.
Although cities in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas claim barbecue-cult status, the fact is that Northeast Florida is home to hundreds of designated barbecue restaurants, a few dozen restaurants that serve great barbecue among other things, and the headquarters of three national barbecue chains. Add in the trendy offerings of new-wave chefs (barbecued gator ribs anyone?) and the area’s proliferating food trucks, and there’s a barbecue meal within arm’s reach of anyone with a passion for ’cue.
Of course, that leaves the other arm free to indulge in the First Coast’s more-recent love affair: craft beers. Jacksonville’s first craft brewery debuted in 2008. The city now has eight independent breweries, which, along with a few breweries in St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach and a healthy smattering of brew pubs, means no one need thirst for good beer.
Locals know what they like when it comes to barbecue. Words such as dripping, succulent and falling-off-the-bone come to mind.
Tammy Cipriani, the marketing director for Woody’s Bar-B-Q, a Jacksonville-based chain, was born and raised in Jacksonville. Like most locals, she learned the essential elements of barbecue at a young age. “I remember the first time my dad took me out to ‘school’ me in good barbecue,” she says. “The barbecue joint was dark, smoky and generally not too attractive. But after tasting an inside-cut barbecue pork sandwich and fries, I was hooked.”
Cipriani elaborates, “People in Jacksonville know good barbecue. Good barbecue has to be done on a smoker with real wood-fired—not gas or electric—smoke, and cooked on site without sauce, using A-plus quality meat. When it’s perfectly juicy and tender, then and only then, do you add your preferred sauce.”
Jacksonville’s preferred sauce is a dark golden elixir that Woody’s calls “Tangy Mustard” sauce, though other venues just call it “mustard” or “house” sauce. Mustard-based barbecue sauce reigns in the Lowcountry areas of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeast Florida, and is a gift from German and French immigrants to the area. Although recipes abound, the main ingredients are mustard, tomato, onion and seasonings, often with a bit of brown sugar or a little heat.
Because Jacksonville is a crossroads where business and pleasure travelers check in and drive through, one can also find true North Carolina-style vinegar sauce for pulled pork, Memphis and Texas-style tomato-based sauces, and a variety of proprietary house blends at area barbecue restaurants.
Jacksonville-based Mojo-Q runs several Memphis-style barbecue restaurants around the First Coast, each with a Deep-South ambiance that includes live blues music and a barbecue-plus menu that adds shrimp-and-grits and fried catfish platters to the mix. Orlando-based 4 Rivers Smokehouse specializes in Texas-style brisket and Southern sides like cornbread salad and baked cheese grits.
Other sides at traditional Jacksonville barbecue restaurants run the gamut of Southern favorites: baked macaroni and cheese, green beans, fried corn on the cob, corn fritters, baked sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, garlic bread, corn muffins, green salad, fried squash and “redneck risotto,” (grits and fresh corn).
Nancy White, food blogger and author of “Jacksonville Food Trucks: Stories and Recipes from the Road” says that barbecue is king on the food-truck circuit, too. “Driftwood Barbecue out of Atlantic Beach and Monroe’s Smokehouse have had trucks since the beginning of Jax Truckies, the leaders of the local food-truck movement. But they were just the first two. Now there are countless options when barbecue is all that will do.”
Meanwhile, in high-end eateries around town, pulled-pork quesadillas, barbecue pizzas and smoked-pork Cuban sandwiches can be found on menus. Trendy emporiums such as Black Sheep or Hawkers Asian Street Fare, both in Five Points, and Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails at St. Johns Town Center offer barbecued duck confit sandwiches, barbecued pork char sui and crispy pigs ears.
South American gaucho-style barbecue falls from spits at Brazilian steakhouses and from kiosks offering skewered and smoked chicken and beef. And then there’s Chef Kenny Gilbert at Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen (UK) in Fernandina Beach. He’s planning to open a barbecue restaurant on Amelia Island, but in the meantime, he’s drawing attention at UK with his gator ribs, prepared with a dry rub and smoked slowly. He serves it by the slab or pulls the meat off the bone for Brunswick stew, a popular dish with origins in Brunswick, Georgia just north of Amelia Island.
Atlantic Beach restaurant Ocean 60 mixes fine dining with a laid-back beaches ambiance and an embrace of world cuisine.
"Barbecue isn’t just a dish,” says owner-Chef Daniel Groshell. “It is a ritual that brings in a lot of preparation. You’re selecting cuts, marinating, adding rubs and then using just the right cooking techniques. The popularity of Southern barbecue may very well relate to the outdoor lifestyle provided by our climate and our love of getting people together. We have the perfect backdrop to spend time cooking outdoors, and enjoying friends, family and food.”
In the spring and early summer (and sometimes on request), the Groshells host a monthly Cuban Pig Roast, with all the traditional sides, including mojo yucca, papas fritas, sweet plantains, chorizo-laced black beans and rice. Luau Kalua Pork—which is Hawaiian barbecued pork—and other cultural variations on barbecue turn up regularly on their menu as well. “Last night we had a Southern pulled-pork slider with the native, tropical datil pepper barbecue sauce and fresh herb-Parmesan fries,” says Daniel’s wife and special events coordinator Mariela Groshell.
Back to the Basics
Rose Sarkees, the owner of popular family sports bar The Players Grille in Jacksonville’s San Jose agrees with other Northeast Florida food and beverage aficionados: when visitors take time to indulge in locally produced barbecue and beer, they come very close to capturing the essence of Jacksonville. “We work hard, we embrace our natural resources, and when it comes time to kick back, we do it with casual flair,” she says. “There’s nothing fussy about Jacksonville. Barbecue and beer suit us perfectly.”
History suggests that barbecue landed in the United States with the Spanish at St. Augustine. The conquistadores who first came ashore in the Caribbean discovered natives slowly cooking meats over hot coals in a dug-out pit and termed the method “barbacoa.” They brought the method with them to America’s first European city—St. Augustine—and undoubtedly added a few tricks from Florida’s Timucua natives.
The term barbecue likely derived from barbacoa, although some argue it could be from the French term for roasting a whole pig, which is barbe a queue, meaning “from beard to tail.” Although Caribbean-style barbecue spread north and west from Florida, it’s likely the method arrived in Texas, Louisiana and the lower Midwest via Spanish explorers moving through Mexico. Regional variations in U.S. barbecue—the types of meats used, the sauces, the seasonings—can be attributed to adaptations made by later settlers of the areas.
Barbecue and Beer Pairings
Step into a tap room anywhere in the area and you’ll find an egalitarian cross-section of residents sampling and sipping. “In Jacksonville, craft beer is not a generational thing. It’s a local thing, an artisan thing,” says food writer White. “We’re blessed to have such a strong local craft beer scene on the First Coast, and so many places to grab a craft brew.”
Zeta Brewing Company in Jacksonville Beach is the area’s newest craft brewery and tap room. “We’re selling our beers in several locations around town and at the Beaches,” says Manager Sunny Montes. “Restaurants are definitely very excited to order beer from local craft breweries. Without a doubt, they’re looking for ways to get involved in the trend. The craze for local beer is very high right now.”
If you’re out sampling Jacksonville’s plethora of barbecue choices, you might well wonder what local craft beer would be the best accompaniment. Ed Stansel, co-author of The Florida Times-Union’s Amber Waves beer column, has tried them all (over time, of course) and offers these suggestions:
- Pulled pork with a vinegary sauce: Aardwolf Brewing’s Belgian Pale Ale should take the edge off the vinegar brightness, adding spicy and fruity notes. Another good choice is Scout Dog 44 amber ale from Veterans United Craft Brewery.
- Texas-style beef brisket: I-10 IPA from Intuition Ale Works has a citrusy bitterness to punch through the fat and keep your palate clear. Pinglehead Red from Pinglehead Brewing also would pair nicely with this dish.
- Dry-rubbed spicy ribs: Duke’s Cold Nose Brown Ale from Bold City Brewery helps balance the heat with its light, roasty maltiness and chocolate notes. Nut Sack Imperial Brown Ale from Engine 15 Brewing Co. provides more of the same.
- Chicken with a mustard sauce: Raging Blonde Ale from Veterans United has a clean maltiness and a balanced hop bitterness that won’t overwhelm the taste buds. Or try a Route 90 Rye from Engine 15.
- Baby back ribs with a sweet-smoky sauce: Aardwolf Brewing’s Wreck It Rauch, a German-style rauchbier, provides a complementary smokiness without being heavy. Double Overhead IPA from Green Room Brewing is another good choice.