Central Florida is loaded with stellar, and I mean Knock You Out Amazing, professional competition BBQ cook teams. Unfortunately, it’s also home to many lackluster BBQ restaurants. Chains abound, with food that they’re quite proud of (if you look and the price) and maybe shouldn’t be. That’s why I was very excited when Joel Vann of Good Buddies BBQ Team out of Lakeland, Florida announced the opening of Lakeland BBQ Company on October 24th of this year.
Joel ran Good Buddies BBQ in Downtown Lakeland, FL from 2006 to 2010 – closing it when the brunt of the housing bubble and the economic downturn hit our area. Now, he’s back with another local competition pitmaster run BBQ joint serving ribs, chicken, pork, and brisket from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM 7 days a week. The building is also home to Tony’s Studio B, which operates in the evening hours.
Before we get into the food itself, I want to give you some background on Joel Vann. I first met Joel on the Florida Bar-B-Que Association competition BBQ circuit a few years ago. I’d eaten at Good Buddies prior to our meeting, but had not had the chance to really talk with him to any extent. Over the years, he and his teammate Bobby King have become good friends of mine. I disclose that here, but know that Joel understands that this review is going to be straight up objective. He’d have it no other way. Back to Joel’s background.
Joel’s Father and Grandfather were big in the meat market business in West Palm Beach and Miami, FL. When Publix opened up its main meat plant in the Lakeland, FL area nearly 40 years ago, the company hired on Joel’s Dad and Granddad to run them. Both retired from Publix. You might think that because Joel’s Dad knew everything there is to know about all the different meats, that he’d be a master BBQer. Not so. As Joel put it – “It’s crazy, because although my Father was an expert with all the various cuts of meat, he wasn’t a very good BBQer.
“My Mom used to always love Dad’s ribs, but he’d always bake them in the stinkin’ oven. He’d put them in, slather them with sauce, and then just foil them. I thought that was what good barbecue was all about on through the time I was in my late teens.” Obviously Joel knows the difference now, and that knowledge came about by virtue of him starting up the Good Buddies backyard competition BBQ team as an off-shoot of a financially successful real estate business.
Turns out, Joel’s talents with BBQ – specifically chicken – were strong even back then, as he took 1st place in the Lakeland Pig Fest BBQ competition his first year out. Good Buddies still rocks strong on the competition BBQ chicken front, a point proven by their recent 2015 World Food Championships 1st Place Chicken win in the BBQ category (KCBS). You can check the results here.
2015 has been a very good year in competition for Good Buddies BBQ, with the 2015 World Food Championships 1st place chicken win, 2015 Alabama State BBQ Champion honors, 2015 Florida State Champion Ribs, 2015 Historic Cocoa Village’s BBQ & Blues Reserve Grand Champion honors, 2015 Smokin’ Pig Fest – Lake City, FL Reserve Grand Champion honors, and the 2015 FBA Fun Cook Grand Champion honors.
The food at Lakeland BBQ Company is what I’ve come to expect from any Joel Vann effort. On the menu, which you can find via a link below, are pork spare ribs, baby back ribs, pulled pork, and smoked brisket. The brisket comes chopped rather in slices. It must be really good, as they were sold out by the time I’d arrived at about noon.
I opted for the three meat combo and chose baby back ribs, a smoked chicken leg quarter, and the pulled pork. The ribs had great texture, but could have used some extra smoke. More on that later. They were unsauced, which as I later found out was a miscue, as they normally come with a light coating of sauce. I added my own to them and was pleased overall by the texture and tenderness.
The pulled pork again had great texture and tenderness, but required a little bit of a kick on taste offered up by some of the spicy BBQ sauce that comes served next to a sweet version in two squirt bottles on every table. That sauce is not your average shelf stuff. If I had to guess, I’d wager that it was something akin to Blues Hog BBQ Sauce. I didn’t ask Joel.
By far the chicken was the star of the show today. Moist and juicy, I didn’t need to add anything to it. The skin was a bit chewy, but pushing that aside left the amazingly flavorful meat open for attack. And that’s just what I did.
For sides, I chose the pit beans and the sweet apple slaw. The pit beans were off the hook amazing, with a great BBQ flavor that was very well-balanced by some great tasting peppers and onions. It had a real southwestern flavor to it that I really enjoyed. The slaw was extremely fresh as well.
I didn’t try the cheesy hash browns on this visit, nor the chocolate banana pudding for dessert – which will absolutely be rectified soon on another trip to Lakeland BBQ Company.
A note on the smoke profile of the meat today.
Lakeland BBQ Company uses a Master Range Smokehouse natural gas smoker that employs a wood chip box to smoke the meat. (See right) While this unit won’t win over any TrueCue Purists, I find that it turns out a great product overall.
If there’s one thing I’d like to see kicked up just a notch is the smoke profile in the food today. This is totally a matter of taste, and I want to be clear, the food today was expertly prepared. Again, a minor point.
Lakeland BBQ Company – Final Thoughts
Lakeland BBQ Company is a welcome addition to downtown Lakeland, FL and Imperial Polk County in general. The fact that they’re serving up a BBQ menu and sides cooked and prepared fresh daily is a testament to Joel Vann’s high standards. If you find yourself in the area between 11:00 AM and 2:30 – seven days a week, consider giving Lakeland BBQ Company a shot. I think you’ll enjoy the experience as much as I did.