Legoland Florida's Pirate Island Hotel has only been open for a few months, but its already earned a big title from this theme park food enthusiast: Inside its doors is my favorite meal in all of Legoland.
In fact, the Pirate Platter, a heaping plate of mouth-watering barbecue served at Shipwreck Restaurant, is so delicious, I'd consider making the two-hour drive to Legoland Florida just to eat it.
At Shipwreck, guests are served family-style amongst giant Lego Minifigures and other Lego décor. Kids are given pirate bandanas and there's a play area where they can run off some steam while parents enjoy a glass of wine and recover from their day in the theme park.
Based on the campy, kid-focused vibe of the place, I had low expectations for the dinner we booked there during our stay at the Pirate Island Hotel.
Arrgh, was I wrong.
The Pirate Platter is served in an enormous cast-iron skillet and includes pulled pork, sausage, rotisserie chicken, brisket and ribs, with a smaller skillet of mashed potatoes in the center.
As if this wasn't enough to convince me, we were also served a delicious salad along with even more skillets filled with baked beans, green beans and macaroni and cheese.
"And this is all refillable," our server said, smiling.
My daughter, 10, took a few bites of the salad and macaroni and cheese and said, "We're going to need a refill on these."
And she was right — every side at Shipwreck was amazing. But the real star was that pile of barbecue in the center of our table. The brisket was moist and flavorful, the pulled pork fell apart and melted in our mouths and the ribs were perfectly seasoned and cooked to fall right off the bone.
I had to learn more about this unexpectedly amazing meal, so I talked to Jose Aleman, the executive chef at Legoland Florida resort hotels.
Aleman said there's (surprisingly) no pitmaster on-staff at Shipwreck. In fact, the chefs, who load two smokers in the restaurant's kitchen with pork, brisket, sausage and ribs at the end of each night's shift and let it cook overnight for 12+ hours, are all self-taught.
"We kind of learned with time," said Aleman. "We kind of had to learn as we went but it definitely was something fun and exciting to do."
Aleman says the secret to good barbecue is simple: patience.
"Patience is a virtue and 'low and slow' is the trick," he said. "If you want a good product, you’re going to have to wait for it, but it’s worth it in the end."
Another pro tip? Leave the fat cap on your pork butt while smoking.
"The fat just melts into the meat and gives it a whole different flavor," said Aleman.
Aleman shared some of Shipwreck's recipes with TODAY Food, walking me through the preparation of the restaurant's signature salad, macaroni and cheese and rub used for both the pork butt and ribs served on the Pirate Platter.
Sweet Pork Dry Rub
In addition to Aleman's "low and slow" rule, barbecue at Shipwreck is all about the rub.
“Our pork rub is a little bit on the sweeter side," he explained. "It has brown sugar as a base and an extensive spice blend. Pork in general blends well with sweet flavors and that caramelization the brown sugar gives it just takes it up to a whole different level."
Shipwreck's rub includes spices like garlic powder, onion powder, chile powder and paprika. Aleman recommends making the rub in advance and keeping it in the pantry in an airtight container to keep all the flavor locked inside.
Like the dry rub, Aleman says the dressing on this fresh, flavorful salad should be made at least a day in advance to let flavors mingle.
"The longer it sits, the better it gets," he said.
When dressing the salad, Aleman has another game-changing tip: Getting your hands dirty.
"There’s nothing better than your hand for dressing a salad because your hand allows you to feel the lettuce and be delicate with it," he explained. "Sometimes tools will damage the lettuce and wilt it but with your hand you can love on that lettuce.”
The ingredients are simple and combine to make one of the most colorful and swoon-worthy salads I've ever tasted. With bright yellow and red grape tomatoes, dried cranberries, almonds, apple slices and red onion, the dish is so festive that Shipwreck plans to leave it as the only dish from their standard menu to appear on their special Thanksgiving Day menu.
But the real star is the flavorful Grana Padano cheese, which Aleman says can be subbed with Asiago or Parmesan in a pinch.
Creamy Mac and Cheese
Since Shipwreck is a kid-friendly restaurant, Aleman says they wanted to create a macaroni and cheese recipe that wasn't topped with breadcrumbs or baked. In lieu of serving boxed mac and cheese — usually a kids' menu staple — the chefs at Legoland came up with a creamy alternative.
"We use a blend of American cheese and cheddar because the American has that cream in it and that easy melt, but also cheddar gives it some sharpness," Aleman explained.
To make the dish feel a bit fancier for the grown-ups, Shipwreck uses orecchiette instead of macaroni.
Once your barbecue meal is ready to plate, Aleman recommends serving the pork with a variety of barbecue sauces (whichever ones your family likes most) and keeping things simple with the presentation.
"You don’t want to overdo it, just put a variety out there and don’t pile it on," he said. "Less is more."
After all, barbecue this tasty doesn't need to hide behind any frilly garnishes.