Tennessee’s Best Smokehouse (Formerly Hot Wachulas) – Lakeland, FL
Let me say one thing, and it’s important so I have to be perfectly clear. I’m making major assumptions because I don’t normally have a conversation with a restaurant owner or chef before dining. The owners of Hot Wachula’s BBQ and Burgers (which since this writing has changed to Tennessee’s Best BBQ) must have a burning passion for food and the locals who patronize their establishment. From what I can tell, everything at Tennessee’s Best is a labor of love, from the competition BBQ (count your blessings if you see this on the menu) to the special burgers made from a century old family recipe handed down through the generations. You don’t need a history lesson to enjoy this grub, all you need to know is that the food here is supremely ambrosial and honest as can be.
We don’t get a lot of restaurant openings to be proud of in my part of the world, much less new reputable BBQ joints that boast a world ranked “pitmaster” on duty. Normally we get a lot of fluff, and not in the tasty, immensely unhealthy marshmallowy way.
You know the type. They always have the same characteristics. That of an obese Porky Pig looking fool with arms wide open, bursting through the wall like the Kool-aid guy. The name of these kinds of joints will most likely contain the words Ol’, Bubba or Que, which reminds me more of standing in a long line than eating good food. The fakey looking place that would be more at home on the set of Hart of Dixie than in a sleepy central Florida town. (Listen… I know you don’t know the reference, but my wife is a fan of the CW, I’m contractually obligated to mention it, besides we only have one television). You get none of the cheese ball fake “low-country” atmosphere . There is no gimmick to hide behind. You get food. You get drink. You even get quality local musicians playing outside almost every night.
But let’s talk shop. Ribs are what I use to compare one BBQ joint to another. They use spare ribs which are the only worthwhile pig rib in my humble opinion, which is usually correct by the way. Tennessee’s Best also has rib tips on special occasions off menu of course, which as far as I can recall is only the second place I’ve ever seen them. The rib tip is likened in many circles to that of the fatty belly of a blue fin tuna. For years it was discarded and eaten by only the peasants (who are usually the smartest people when it comes to food), until some jerk figured out that it was the best part. That’s if you don’t mind eating around a lil’ gristle.
One thing that is also not on the menu is the competition style ribs, they offer these only at certain times and to a select group of clientele. It’s not a secret club, but they do make limited quantities when a competition is imminent, and I have never been so happy to be a guinea pig. The flavor of these ribs are completely different than what you normally get. They finish them off with what seemed to be a brown sugar chipotle mop sauce that started off sweet but left a smokey tingle around the back of my throat. The first time I took a bite I felt privileged. It met all the criteria of my stringent BBQ judge prerequisites. Firstly, a proper smoke ring, passing the bite mark qualifications, and the most important being the rib hitting the tongue with mouth watering effects. I firmly believe you could just get the ribs and go home happy, but there are just too many great things to limit yourself. I trust my friends not only with my life but also with assisting in the difficult task of finding the best of certain menus.
Normally you can’t trust a person that suggests you order cheese fries as an appetizer. When your friends are culinary geniuses the likes of which will never be seen again suggest it adamantly, followed by multitudes of “dude” I couldn’t reject the advice. It’s the real deal boy n’ girls. If there was such a thing as southern poutine, I’d imagine this would be the blueprint. The speculation at the table is that the sauce base starts with a roux which is then built from there with healthy amounts of quality cheeses and a necessary touch of tomato. It’s really more like a cheese gravy if you want to get technical about things.
Now if you’re like me and you’re jaded when it comes to burgers, look no further than the Tennessee Pool Hall Slaw Burger. It’s a combination grease smash burger accompanied with the best mustard slaw I reckon I ever did have. They also give you the choice of ordering two at a discount for all you Gordos out there that won’t be satiated by just one.
My visits have all been at different times of the day with different menu items in mind to try. I’ve been four times and have yet to eat the same thing twice. It’s impressive to me to see the level of quality spouting forth in my little town. If competition brings forth quality, we have a lot to look forward to.