Sit down to a meal at Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach, and you’ll find the usual barbecue suspects: sliced brisket with a glossy bark, a pile of tender pulled pork, and juicy sausage links. After one bite, you’ll notice that something’s different. The brisket is brushed with a coffee-infused barbecue sauce; the pulled pork has notes of orange, lime, and garlic from a mojo marinade; and the sausage is made with a classic Florida protein: alligator. Round out your plate with Caribbean coleslaw and sticky sweet plantains plus Southern-style collards and cornbread. It’s a cross-cultural mash-up, and it’s all good.
Even though Florida isn’t known for its ’cue, chef and co-owner Rick Mace has made it his mission to put this state on the barbecue map—and not as an homage to Texas or any of the other regional styles. “Florida doesn’t have the same sway as Memphis, St. Louis, or North or South Carolina, but it does have an identity,” he says. “We were lacking a well-defined style, and that has become my focus.” Mace’s creative offerings marry Southern fare with Latin and Caribbean influences and take advantage of South Florida’s unique and bountiful produce, like the sour oranges used in a glaze for chicken wings.
Before opening, Mace dug deep with his research—learning about everything from the boucan (a wooden grill-like frame dating back to the 1600s used to slow-roast meat in South America and the Caribbean) to the ancient technique of barbacoa to the Old Florida tradition of smoking fish—and wove these things together to develop the menu.
Equally important was designing a true neighborhood restaurant where people could pick up dinner on a weeknight or gather with friends. “If I was going to live in this town and call it home, I wanted to create a restaurant that people would really use,” he says. In 2021, the casual “tropical industrial” spot (think: exposed brick, metal light fixtures, and colorful prints on the walls) opened on Dixie Highway in the city’s Antique Row district and soon earned a devoted following and a James Beard Award nomination.
Seafood is king in the Sunshine State, and while it’s rare at most barbecue joints , Mace says it’s the cornerstone of this place—from the Spicy Wahoo Dip to smoked mahi. He uses a 500-gallon smoker to prepare whatever’s freshly caught, which, depending on the season, could mean swordfish or spiny lobster. Like at any good Florida restaurant, there’s Key lime pie on the dessert menu.
Tropical Smokehouse keeps it traditional with a tart filling piled high with whipped cream. (During the summer, they dip it in chocolate and freeze it on a stick.) It’s just the right thing to balance all those smoky, spicy flavors.
Or you could order a frozen margarita and enjoy it on the small patio twined with bougainvillea and jasmine. Out there, locals share plates of Brisket Empanadas and no one seems particularly concerned about anything besides another round of drinks.
Watch out, Texas. Florida barbecue might just be the next big thing.
eattropical.com , 561-323-2573, 3815 S. Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL 33405