Right up the road from our first house was this fantastic place, Potbellies. They were later purchased by another restaurant owner, but he kept both locations until the lease was up. (and it was replaced by yet another 'que joint, but it wasn't nearly as good). Then there was another 'que joint about 2 miles from the house in another direction. If we drove down to Brandon, between our house and the mall one could find a half dozen places, each pretty darn good.
Then we moved to Lakeland.
We had a Smokey Bones right by the mall and back then, it was good stuff. Then Darden sold off that concept to someone else, and it is now horrible. We also have Sonny's, another chain that is okay. Put it this way-if you can have Golden Corral or Ruth's Chris for steak, which would you go for? The independent 'que joints are much less common in a bigger town. It makes no sense.
However, there are a few decent options. Over by the Poly campus, there's Boss Hawg's, a weekday lunch operation by the owners of the place where we bought our grill. There's a few more on the south end of town, a decent independent, Jimbo's and then there's BubbaQue's, a quick casual place where you order your food, then they bring it out to your table and check in with you throughout the meal.
It's a smaller chain, small enough that you feel like you're going to the independent guy who knows what he's doing (read: First Choice, in Brandon and Plant City). It's not so big a chain that they've lost all sense of uniqueness that 'que places need. They've got a bigger menu, but they still focus on the things that are important when you're looking for smoked and grilled meats:
They also have the complement of sides that make us happy: sweet baked beans, homemade macs and cheese, fries, baked potatoes, broccoli, onion rings and my favorite, sweet potato fries. I love how they come out crispy and slightly caramelized from frying.
There are platters and sandwiches. The platters have two sides, one piece of Texas toast and the sandwiches are one side and served on that same Texas toast. I find the
sandwich and side the perfect size for me, but I suspect Ed would probably be happy to spend the $1.99 more on extra meat with his dinner.
The meats have the perfect amount of smoke ring, burnt ends and tender center. They don't need a stitch of sauce, but there are plenty of options. The Tractor Grease is the most popular, slightly sweet, slightly tangy and a hint of vinegar flavor. Old Yeller is a nice mustard based sauce. In all, six sauces are on your table to satisfy a variety of palates.
And if you have someone who likes their chicken (like Chef), the Mother Clucker is his favorite. It has all his favorites, like chicken, cheddar, sauce and bacon.
There are desserts and daily specials and the best part, BEER if you like some suds to wash it all down. We haven't tried yet, but it looks like it's Miller products IIRC.
When in Lakeland, skip the big chain locations near the mall. Head out 92 and get some decent 'que.