Born in the Caribbean and perfected in the United States of America, few cooking styles are as American as barbecue.
The word is believed to be derived from the Spanish barbacoa, a term the conquistadors used to describe the cooking methods of the natives of the Caribbean who slowly cooked meats on wooden platforms over hot coals.
Over the next 500 years, barbecue has evolved. The cuisine has taken on unique characteristics from its various strongholds across the American South.
Texas has brisket, the Carolinas have whole pigs, and southwest Florida? Well, we get what we can get.
This area isn’t exactly the barbecue mecca. But when you crave slow smoked meats and homemade sides, these are some of my favorite places that are more than capable of scratching that barbecue itch.
Black eyed pig bbq
You know the signal is good when the smoke lingers in your skin and hair long after you are gone. At Black Eyed Pig, that smoke hits you like a delicious misty wall. As if the smell was enough. Here, the ribs are dry rubbed with house spices and smoked hickory. The smoked chicken wings are also dry rubbed and fried to perfection. But that hand-pulled Boston butt – peppery at first, then sweet and buttery – is why I go back every time (and for those jalapeño corn muffins). (5307 Shirley St., Naples North; 593-5006; blackeyedpig.com)
“Best ribs in America” proclaims the sign on the front in large red letters. The same goes for the polystyrene take-out boxes, adorned with stars and red, white and blue stripes. Not much has changed at 40-year-old Michelbob, including the back ribs, the back slowly smoked and iced in a tangy, sweet sauce. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. (371 Airport-Pulling Road, Naples; 643-2877; michelbobs.com)
FOLLOWING:Michelbob marks his 35 years in Naples
Porker BBQ takes his Tex-Mex style mobile barbecue with a charcoal black food truck that makes me dizzy when I see it parked around Collier. But don’t think that just because it’s portable, Porker skimp on meats. Kenny Holland is the new one behind the wheel. He smokes the ground beef brisket and pulled pork long and slow on the food truck. Then he stacks it in tacos with tangy chorizo or smother it with smoked chili cheese and bama sauce (a creamy horseradish sauce) on the bovine love burger. Now it’s “Merica”. (follow to porcerbbq.com)
Texas Tony’s represents the best of Texas barbecue, but with a Florida twist. Here, the meats are smoked with orange wood, giving these tender ribs a slightly smoky flavor and a delicate ring of smoke where smoke permeates the meat. The result? Meat that falls off the bone in the best possible way. I’m a huge fan of ribs that don’t need a gravy mousse. But I’m also a fan of Texas Tony’s spicy sauce – a touch of sweetness behind its spiciness. I found a happy medium. (4529 US 41 E., Naples East; 732-8392; texastonys.com)
Jimmy P’s charred
The Pepper family brings the meats. If you’re looking for a fancy tail, you’ll find tasty cuts of Wagyu beef brisket, the perfect smoked chicken, and the best heirloom meats straight from the nearby Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop & Deli. A third-generation butcher, Jim Pepper Sr. had operated the neighboring butcher’s shop for 13 years before launching charred in 2015 alongside his son, Jimmy Pepper Jr. Sometimes I just want smoked pork at a roadside stall. Other times, I fancy a 32-ounce tomahawk rib eye with tobacco onion straws and demi-glace. The heart wants what the heart wants. (1833 US N 41, Naples; 643-2424; jimmypscharred.com)
These coasts linger. They live in your dreams with their fluffy bark and perfect pink smoke rings. This longtime Bonita Springs food truck moved to a brick and mortar location in May, taking over the old Big Block Sub Shop space on Old 41 Road. The new digs aren’t much to look at yet. There is a counter where you order and a few tables through an opening in the back. I wish my pulled pork was as good as my ribs. But I couldn’t ask for much more from my side: smoke-kissed mac and cheese; tender beans, not from a can, sprinkled with pieces of pork and soft onions. The sauces (sweet, spicy or tangy) are excellent. But believe me, ribs don’t need it. (27792 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs; 348-9555; smokinrs.com)
A recent order of smoked chicken wings from BurgerQue reminded me why I love this place so much. Like the ribs, the wings are charred to order with a light, medium or heavy bark – your choice. I like mine mean. They’re big and meaty, with that mouth-watering touch of umami smoke. A recent order for baby back ribs brought back equally good memories. Burgers might be what this quick, laid-back spot is known for, but the What part can’t be overlooked. (3852 Cleveland Ave, Fort Myers; 277-5700; burgerque.com)
The only chain on my list, Mission earned its place with a good brisket, strong ribs and really good pulled pork. In an area almost devoid of Texan beef brisket, Mission is an oasis. Its beef isn’t perfect, but it has the crisp rind and fatty juiciness that a lot of other places lack. And it’s available all day every day, which is a feat in itself. The sides can be stuffy and salty at times, but the service is genuine, the sauces are varied, and the tea is as sweet as you make it. (12984 S. Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers; 603-6700; mission-bbq.com)
You can’t say the word “barbecue” in this town without mentioning Mr. McCarter. The man is a local legend. He has no sign, no tables, no credit card machine. What he has are ribs of meat smoked so that the meat clings to the bones. And juicy chicken quarters encased in a smoky, crispy skin. Mr. McCarter does not advertise. In fact, he hates the press. I think he prefers to do his thing. The puffs of sugary smoke emanating from his screened-in take-out area is all the marketing he needs. (2675 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Fort Myers; find him on Facebook)
This is another rare beef brisket oasis in the Southwest Florida pulled pork sea. Beach Brothers only have breasts on certain days. It is best to arrive early, before the beef is too long in foil. If you’re missing the brisket, Beach Brothers Ribs are a nice consolation prize, all fluffy and skinny. And while everyone has pulled pork, Beach Brothers has some really good bark-speckled pulled pork. The sides are excellent and the waiters make you feel like family. (601 Del Prado Blvd. N., Cape Coral; 772-5040; beachbrothersbbq.net)
Smoke’n Pit Bar B Que
This northern Fort Myers joint is a classic, known as much for its sweet tea bar and vittles as it is for its bark-riddled smoked pulled pork. The ribs are OK, the sliced beef is meh. But quick, door-to-door service – everyone’s called hun, and everyone gets a giant cup of tea to go when they leave – makes up for the shortcomings. (1641 N. Tamiami Trail, North Fort Myers; 997-7982; smokenpitbbq.com)