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Where to eat, drink in Pensacola, Florida

Heading to Pensacola, Florida? Don't miss these restaurants. 

Heading to Pensacola, Florida soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for ribs and pulled pork complete with lemon pie or an exquisite bowl of bacon mac and cheese, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

Hot Spot Barbecue

901 E. La Rua St., Pensacola, FL 32501 
This review of Hot Spot Barbecue originally appeared Feb. 13, 2017. 

We’re going to tackle a very serious topic today. My purely anecdotal research has found a condition that afflicts at least half of our nation’s pitmasters, and we need to stop judging and start offering help. If we don’t, Low Barbecue Self-Esteem could spread to the rest of the barbecue community.

What is Low Barbecue Self-Esteem? It’s a condition that forces pitmasters to dump sauce on meat before serving it instead of proudly serving it naked and letting the diner choose whether it needs sauce. Properly cooked meat requires no sauce, but this affliction creeps inside the brains of even the most proficient barbecue cooks and whispers It Dumps The Sauce Upon The Meat Or Else The Diners Will Retreat. This is an awful lie, and it can lead to pools of sauce masking the flavor of perfectly cooked pig.

I ran into a case a few weeks ago at Hot Spot Barbecue. Hot Spot is a wonderful place with thick, meaty ribs and juicy pulled pork. The service is sublime. The place might have the nicest staff of any barbecue joint in America. (I promise I thought this even before I learned every first-time diner gets a free cookie.) But I should have staged an intervention when I read the menu.

It stated that meat would be served sauced unless requested. I was so shaken by this statement that I forgot to order my two-meat combo unsauced. Also, I was a little worried the meat would be dry or otherwise substandard. After all, why would anyone try to hide perfectly good ribs under sauce? I had forgotten, of course, about Low Barbecue Self-Esteem. LBSE is an insidious creature. It can worm its way into the psyche of even the best pitmasters, and the only way to fight it is to beg those pitmasters to take the sauce bottles out of the kitchen and leave them on the tables in the dining room.

The ribs and pulled pork at Hot Spot needed no sauce. The Brunswick Stew was divine. The lemon pie provided the ultimate exclamation point. Everything about Hot Spot was excellent except the forced saucing. Every time they prepare a plate, the proprietors need to repeat the following, which was adapted from the late 20th century philosopher Stuart Smalley: 

The ribs are meaty enough.

The pork is moist enough.

And doggone it, people like it.

Either that or I just need to remember to ask for no sauce next time I visit. But I think that would be a cop-out. It would solve my individual problem, but it wouldn’t stop the spread of LBSE. And if we band together, we can eliminate this awful malady.

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Pensacola Cooks Kitchen 

3670 Barrancas Ave, Pensacola, FL 32507
This review of Pensacola Cooks Kitchen originally appeared Jan. 23, 2017 

In my younger days — or maybe just a few months ago — I would have solved the dilemma I faced at Pensacola Cooks Kitchen by not choosing at all. But as the gray hairs have begun to sprout from my head, I’ve started thinking more about the future. It simply isn’t in my longterm best interest to eat meatloaf with gravy and two sides as well as a BLT on Hungarian fried bread with potato chips and an additional side in one sitting. That might make for an epic meal and a beautiful photo, but it might also take several hundred future meals off my proverbial plate.

So I compromised. Since Langos, the aforementioned Hungarian fried bread, is ostensibly available as a wrapper for any sandwich on PCK’s menu, I ordered a meatloaf sandwich with brown gravy on that glorious golden dough with a side of macaroni and cheese and those homemade potato chips.

What? You thought I would order a salad instead? I’m trying not to die, but I’m not trying to stop living*.

*There is nothing wrong with ordering just a salad. I do that quite frequently when not eating at places I plan to review here. Remember, there are 20 other meals each week that don’t get reviewed. They’re usually pretty boring and mostly healthy. 

This was the second deal I made with myself while holding the PCK menu. Earlier, I decided I’d try chef Frank Woolfolk’s chicken adobo on a later visit. Woolfolk’s mom is Filipino, and sitting at the counter watching him make one of the most popular dishes from her native country caused a genuine comfort food crisis in my stomach. This is not a place that serves churched-up versions of family dinner staples. In fact, every dish I saw Woolfolk send out seemed crafted from a specific memory of some relative’s table. There are flourishes—the BLT on fried bread, for example—but for the most part the dishes stay faithful to what made them classics in the first place.

The meatloaf in the monstrosity I created mixed pork and beef and very little filler. It didn’t fall apart when poked by a fork. Instead, it soaked up that brown gravy until I could scoop out hunks of meat coated in the product of the union of pan drippings and love. Alas, my “sandwich” could never truly come to fruition. A giant slab of meatloaf covered in gravy can’t be contained by a round fried flatbread. My attempt to create the world’s deadliest chalupa failed, but I after I ate the meatloaf, the gravy provided the ideal dipping sauce for the bread. 

The bacon mac and cheese from Pensacola Cooks Kitchen.

The bacon mac and cheese from Pensacola Cooks Kitchen.

The bacon mac and cheese, meanwhile, was exquisite. I usually steal the recipe from Michigan’s Clarkston Union when cooking mac and cheese for family gatherings, but I might have to try to learn to make this version. It features a five-cheese sauce that envelops each noodle. Once cooked, it’s as if the pasta never knew a life without a cheese and bacon coating. Even the potato chips were great. Usually, when a restaurant brags about making its own, I wonder why the staff wasted its time. Not at PCK. The chips were at once crispy and soft a boasted a richness that probably wears off after a few hours out of the kettle.

So now I need an excuse to get back to Pensacola. Because that chicken adobo awaits. And the pork schnitzel. And the oxtails. And the spaghetti and meatballs. And the meatball sandwich. Every one has to be someone’s favorite dish dating back to childhood. I’ll need to do more research to figure out mine.