Despite Kinks, Fat Maggie's Food Is Satisfying


Fat Maggie's offers brisket sandwich on brioche with a side of truffle fries

SCOTT WHEELER/THE LEDGER
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.

The message is clear: Fat Maggie's is not the sort of restaurant one seeks when looking to lose a few around the midsection.

Facts

FAT MAGGIE'S

1037 Dixieland Lane, Lakeland; 863-937-8962

Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

FOOD: 3 stars

SERVICE: 2 stars

AMBIENCE: 2 stars

THE GIST: Low-key, friendly spot for indoor and outdoor dining with a nod to barbecue, burgers and craft beer.

FYI: Future plans call for deck expansion.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards accepted.

PRICE RANGE: Most items under $12.

APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS: Yes, there's a menu just for them.

MUST TRY: Beef brisket, pulled pork, truffle fries, Nutella cheesecake.

But if you're hungry for a brawny burger spilling with candied bacon, or a gourmet chili dog, you've come to the right place.

Fat Maggie's is not the least concerned over how one squares the idea of a salad topped in bite-size corn dogs. The nest of greens serves merely as plush cushion to the show-stopping, artery-clogging nuggets of pure delight.

Ensconced in what amounts to a back-alley parking lot hidden from the clatter of busy South Florida Avenue, Fat Maggie's is a study in extremes. The tiny dining room is raucous, despite its out-of-the-way locale.

Better to dine outdoors on the sturdy deck, or beneath an oak at one of several picnic tables, where you will defend your meal from encroaching bumblebees but revel in fresh air and serenity.

I was particularly defensive with a slice of Nutella-flavored cheesecake, an indulgent sweet that was not available during an earlier visit when I settled on a very good bowl of banana pudding, the sort of comfort food that is attracting, well, plenty of buzz.

Having opened in December, the restaurant is an appendage of a Lakeland catering business owned by Dustin and Heather Olson. The couple included partner Kevin Berry in their Fat Maggie's enterprise, named for the Olson's English bulldog.

Berry, 32, and Dustin Olson were classmates at Evangel Christian Academy. Conceptually, their restaurant seeks to elevate the experience of eating barbecue. After downing one of their smoked brisket sandwiches, anointed with grilled onions, a scattering of deep-fried jalapeņos and peach barbecue sauce flavored with a kick of whiskey, I'd say mission accomplished.

I like the idea of the restaurant's build-your-own sandwich concept, where you choose from a short list of main ingredients, such as the Kobe beef brisket, $7, or burger, $5, then tailor to your taste with choice of bun, brioche or Texas toast, cheeses and other toppings, including premium items like fried egg, $1, or garlic aioli, 50 cents.

Several sides are quite ample, suitable for sharing, including frightfully delicious fries flavored with truffle oil and parmesan. The restaurant offers a short, albeit thoughtful list of beer, along with Captain Eli's handcrafted sodas from Maine's Shipyard Brewing Company.

Can you build a restaurant on a foundation of brawny burgers, smoked meats and truffle fries? Certainly. The trick is consistency, and service swift enough to meet the demands of the daily lunch crowd.

I found service to be a bit strained on two recent visits, but one can't argue with the popularity of this fledgling restaurant, where waits can stretch into 20 minutes or more on Fridays.

No doubt they were not overly eager to be serenaded by the likes of Charlie Daniels and other honkytonk coming from the restaurant's outdoor sound system. Or, once seated, to be proffered a bottle of water and a menu, only to get lost in the shuffle as servers dart hurriedly from deck to dining room. Or to be told, sorry, we're out of fries, and it's only 1 p.m.

But these are the sort of kinks yet to be worked out as Fat Maggie's finds its footing, and its clientele.

A humble suggestion: Ditch the gummy, tasteless broccoli casserole. After all, it is just a pretense to serve anything vaguely healthful.

Where Fat Maggie's shines is under the dome of its smoker, where pork shoulders are rendered for sandwich stuffings, or piled into tacos and on top of nachos.

During its initial inspection back in December, the restaurant was cited for six violations, five critical, including an unlabeled spray bottle and lacking proof of training and certification.

Having taken advantage of city Community Redevelopment Agency grants to kick-start their business, the owners are part of a growing restaurant scene in and around the area's historic neighborhoods, bringing good food and drink within walking distance.

It proves you don't have to have fancy to attract a crowd. So far Fat Maggie's is packing them in with satisfying food, friendly service, and a menu that's slightly offbeat.

Eric Pera can be reached at eric.pera@theledger.com or 863-802-7528.

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