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I come from North Carolina, where barbecue is more than just a food group — it’s a sport and a way of life. I’ve spent plenty of time at local BBQ competitions, chowing down on vinegar-based pork ‘til the autumn sun set.

As a self-proclaimed barbecue taste tester, I can vouch that Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie also know a thing or two about BBQ. And, in my opinion, they could even go head-to-head with the traveling Carolina grill-masters. Once I figured out that “y’all” don’t marinate your meat in sauce — but instead let people choose their own sauces — the doors opened to full, rich, smoky flavor you’ve got to try.

My fiancée Joel and I stopped at Tillman’s BBQ first, located on the west side of South Hutchinson Island’s bridge, it has a drive-thru, outdoor seating, and a large menu with something for all BBQ aficionados. We split a smoked chicken sandwich; double-stacked on a soft, melt-in-your-mouth bun, and mac and cheese were delicious!

You should know that Tillman’s offers an entire row of delectable sauces to choose from along one of their walls. It’s up to you to decide how much rich, tangy sauce you want to soak your sandwich in.

From the friendly staff to the rustic wooden booths, Tillman’s reminded me of good ole NC, and it’s great for a down-home meal.

But our BBQ adventure didn’t stop there. Our next stop was Park Avenue BBQ, tucked away off the main highway in Port Saint Lucie. We weren’t sure what to expect from the classy red-brick building and trim green awnings. Inside, we found a fun politically-themed joint that was cozy and welcoming.

As a Florida sun shower passed by rain poured down outside, we chowed down on catfish and smoked meat with sides of rich, creamy mac and crispy fries. And no matter which side of the political aisle you find yourself on, rest assured — Park Avenue’s tongue-in-cheek décor makes fun of everyone. From a sandwich called “The Dem Publican” to their “Extremist Sauce,” it’s all in good fun. We finished off our meal with sweet, sugary peanut butter pie drizzled with chocolate. If you stop into Park Avenue, take a moment to indulge your senses with their pie.

Fried catfish sandwich done to perfection.

You have to try the peanut butter pie at PA!

For the last two restaurants — which are the stuff of local legend — I enlisted my friend, St. Lucie native and food connoisseur, Nadia. After all, I needed the inside scoop on two strangely similar barbeque restaurants: Moonswiner’s and Dale’s.

We sat down at Moonswiner’s first — a cute, quaint little place with a blackboard covered in chalk drawings hanging above the kitchen — Nadia told me all about the local legend.

Now, Dale’s and Moonswiner’s have nearly identical menus. Both even boast the same kind of fries, and similar specials. And truth be told, they’re both amazing.

But just based on my dining experience, it seems like a younger crowd goes for Moonswiner’s, while the older crowd heads for Dale’s.

Nadia, who grew up eating at Moonswiner’s and cherishes memories of eating there during high school, prefers Moonswiner’s coleslaw. She eats a bite between each bite of her sandwich. I also liked Moonswiner’s unique way of providing a hard-plastic carry-out drink cup with every meal. It was just begging you to take it home and use it again. And my mesquite chicken was perfectly delicious.

Moonswiner’s corn fritters — the perfect combo of sweet and savory.

Mesquite chicken and steak fries-yum!

But…something about Dale’s drew me to it. Maybe it was the older crowd, the older building with BBQ smoke scenting the inside. Maybe it was the crispy garlic bread that came with my shrimp. Or maybe it was the nostalgic neon sign and the way it sat just off the highway.

Regardless, if you really want to dine like a local, you need to choose a side — and that means you have to try them both! Both picks have incredible steak-cut fries, tasty sauces (that you can buy to take home), and mouthwatering appetizers and sides.

A full spread of shrimp and sides at Dale’s.

Miranda Jade Friel is a freelance business copywriter under the name JFCopy. As a resident of South Hutchinson Island, she enjoys long walks on the beach and sampling the native cuisine with her fiancee, Joel. You can often find her at the Fort Pierce Farmer’s Market or local festivals.