Mojo Federal: BBQ in a Funky Americana Setting

Federal Swine. No. Mojo Whiskey. Or is it Mojo pronounced moho? Mojo Federal Swine & Spirits is the official name.

Downtown Lakeland’s newest barbecue place is located in the old Federal Building at Tennessee Avenue and Lemon Street.

Editor’s Note: Karyn Johnson is a mom and a paralegal who has lived in Lakeland since she was 3. For 15 years before she started in the legal field, she learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business as a server at restaurants ranging from diners to fine dining. She’ll occasionally share her perspectives on local restaurants at LkldNow.com.
David Dickey Jr.

When you walk up the front steps, you get a sense of the word Federal. This building is a stately brick, with grand white columns supporting the pediment above, and shading a small portico below.

The sense of grandness and old Americana is not lost when you enter the dining hall. The high ceilings (about 16 to 18 feet tall) show off the exposed ductwork and original wooden beams. Archways separating the lobby and dining tables look like original stucco. The south and west walls sport exposed brick with big, white, framed windows, almost as high as the ceilings, and the southern wall has a glass door leading to the outside seating.

David Dickey Jr.

The huge American flag and portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the west wall complete the early American feel of this iconic building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The local art on the north wall along with bluesy recorded music give it a funky vibe.

David Dickey Jr.

After taking all this in, the bar takes center stage. There are four open shelves that host their liquors, each about 20 feet long and wide enough to hold two to three bottles deep. I cannot accurately say, but if I were to guess, there are about 400 bottles of liquor there; I’m sure most are whiskey.

In addition to the regular menu, a separate menu lists drinks. This is a book, not a menu. It starts with happy hour choices. Happy hour is every day from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.and includes draft beers, wine, liquor, and cocktails. Next in the book of drinks there is a column dedicated to “Appreciating Whiskey”. If you are even a little bit interested, I suggest you skim it over. It is lightly written while being informative. It told me things I didn’t know I didn’t know. This will prepare you for the pages and pages of Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, American, Canadian, Scotch, even Japanese-styled whiskeys.

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Mojo is a restaurant chain that started in North Florida in 2003, and now has eight locations in Jacksonville, Gainesville, Ocala, and their newest addition here in Lakeland. Their website states that Mojo comes from the Blues, and when they mixed the Blues with BBQ, Mojo was born. (This tells me it is pronounced Mojo, like Mojo Risin’.)

They say their goal was to have BBQ from different regions, not just one type. Kansas City sweet and sticky ribs are nothing like the vinegar-based sauce North Carolinians dip their smoked and pulled pork butts in, which are both worlds away from Texas’ dry rubbed-beef brisket. Thankfully, Mojo doesn’t disappoint.

To start, the appetizer portions have more than enough to share. The Kansas City Burnt Ends (the bark of the brisket with just enough of the pink smokey meat attached – by far my favorite) were plentiful. The Disco Fries could have been a meal for two, piled high, dripping with gravy, and finishing with gooey cheese stretching as they come off the plate. The onion rings were not only thick cut, but colossal in diameter. I dipped them in the Chipotle Ranch dressing, and was immediately addicted.

Photos by David Dickey Jr.

The soups and salads section boasts a signature “Brunswick Stew – traditional stew of chicken, pork, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, lima beans and corn.” They also have a Texas Style Chili which has brisket, chilies, onions, garlic, tomatoes but no beans. I had no idea Texas Chili had no beans. Apparently, the traditional recipe has no tomatoes either, but I was happy to see they didn’t leave them out.

I am also happy the beef in the chili is brisket… Did I say the brisket is my favorite? There is also a house salad ($8), which is a simple “spring mix, jack and cheddar cheese, tomatoes, cukes, croutons”. The rest of the salads read like a meal ($14-$15): basically a salad topped with pulled pork, smoked turkey, pulled chicken, and/or beef brisket, blackened shrimp, or grilled salmon, or a smoked and grilled portobello cap.

Mojo’s menu also has “Jumbo BBQ Sandwiches”, and “Specialty Sandwiches” section ($10-$13). The Specialty Sandwiches boast a “Sloppy Mojo – Chopped beef and pork tossed in a spicy Chipotle BBQ sauce” and a BBQ Rueben (choice of beef brisket or smoked turkey).

The middle of the menu is dedicated to the BBQ. First things first – Pulled Pork Shoulder. All the classics follow: North Carolina Pork, Beef Brisket, Smoked Turkey Breast, Dry Rub Spare Ribs, Pit Smoked Chicken, and Texas Hotlinks. There is a two-meat combo, and a “Whole Hawg” that is basically everything – pork, beef, turkey, chicken, sausage, and ribs – for $37. There are five sauces on the table – Mojo, Carolina Vinegar, Jax Mustard, Classic Sweet, and Chipotle. This is the fun part, in my opinion. I like to pour small amounts of each sauce on the plate and try each one. The Mustard is my least favorite, although it is very tasty for a mustard. It just doesn’t compare to the smoky Chipotle, or the hybrid of Classic Sweet and Mojo swirled together.

To wrap up the menu, Mojo offers “Southern Platters” like Delta Fried Catfish, Fried chicken with cream gravy, flat-iron steak (the most expensive thing on the menu at $22) and shrimp & grits. Both the BBQ and Southern Platters come with two of Mojo’s homemade sides. The list begins with the king of all sides in southern BBQ: collard greens. They are followed by the staples like mac n cheese, dirty rice, coleslaw, green beans, baked beans (loaded with pulled pork), sweet potato mash, smoked corn, and even hand-cut fries.

They clearly think you will be stuffed on the drink and dinner because their dessert choice is banana pudding. And a Cheerwine float. I found out Cheerwine is a cherry soda from North Carolina. Although the dessert menu may be a little presumptuous and otherwise disappointing for the dessert lover, I would have to say the overall experience is a little grand, a little funky, and a little high with all the whiskey.

The service isn’t exceptionally fast, and one time they forget my appetizer, but it is friendly and welcoming, and they strived to make their shortcomings right, right away. Let us know what you think of downtown’s newest BBQ place in the comments below.