9080 Collier Blvd, Naples, FL
In a town filled with sophisticated dining choices, Cracklin’ Jack’s is an unabashed throwback to a simpler style of eating.
Travel down Collier Boulevard to this “hole in the wall” carved out of the wilderness, and you’re going to see that the location is perfect for a down home restaurant more attuned to “tastes great” than “less filling,” as the old Miller Lite commercials used to say.
Cracklin’ Jack’s specializes in what is often called “comfort food.” Popular lunch choices include fried chicken, the grouper sandwich, half-pound Angus burgers (starting at $6.95 with pickle, french fries and homemade cole slaw), fried catfish and a shrimp basket. Prices are reasonable, portion sizes are more than ample, and during dinner hours, the ‘vittles’ or side dishes are served family-style and all you can eat.
Two lunch customers who were pointed out (with a smile) as “troublemakers, but good customers” let slip one of Cracklin’ Jack’s secrets.
“We call this place ‘The Hush Puppy Shack’ because they let us substitute hush puppies for our French fries,” said Tim Kragh, general manager of Forest Glen golf and country club, located just down the road. He always orders the Oliver Twist, a grilled sandwich with roast beef, turkey, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread. His lunch partner, landscape contractor Tom Super, is partial to the country fried steak.
In a nod to the trend toward healthful food choices, fish can be ordered grilled or broiled, and there are salads, including a grilled chicken salad. But the good ole character of Cracklin’ Jack’s is much more evident in entrees like pulled pork, frogs’ legs (the restaurant’s motto is “a taste of the Everglades”) and mouth-watering fried gator tail.
And of course, baby backs.
Baby back ribs are the most requested menu item at Cracklin’ Jack’s, and the way they are served here, the word “baby” hardly seems appropriate. Jack’s baby backs are twice the size of standard Danish-cut ribs served most places, and so tender the meat literally slides off the bone on its way to your mouth. The restaurant makes their own BBQ sauces (in tangy and sweet varieties), but co-owner and manager Rod Ellis won’t go into much detail on just how.
“There’s brown sugar in it,” is all he will say, plus confirming the ribs are marinated and slow-cooked for twelve hours to reach the peak of tenderness. Cracklin’ Jack’s also serves hickory-smoked barbecue spare ribs, for those who crave even more meat.
Ellis first came to Cracklin’ Jack’s to help evaluate it for sale after one of the original owners suffered a heart attack. He owned a restaurant in Gainesville, and had worked in the world of corporate restaurants for McAllisters and Schlotzky’s Deli.
“I knew the numbers, the P&L side of the business,” said Ellis, “but what really sold me was how much people loved the food here.” Along with partner Craig Steinhardt, he bought the place in May of ’02. Now, said Ellis, he spends most of his time in the kitchen.
They tried not to change the things people loved, but added some upgrades, including those healthful salads, and installed the restaurant’s first char-grill, so they could “put steaks on the fire and give it that flavor,” he said.
“We started buying whole loins and hand-cutting our own steaks. Now, if you want a 20-ounce rib-eye, instead of the standard cut, you got it.”
One thing people love about Cracklin’ Jack’s has always been the friendly, down-home atmosphere, and Ellis singles that out as a major attraction for him to get involved.
“This is like our own little family,” he said. “You don’t have the same pressures and politics you do in a chain restaurant. I love being in business myself — as long as I can pay the bills.”
He and his partner took a stab at a chain of their own, opening a second Cracklin’ Jack’s on Pine Ridge Road, but they couldn’t recapture the magic, and sold that restaurant last year.
“Our timing there was bad,” said Ellis. “The housing market crashed, and 23 restaurants — I drove around and counted them — opened up around us.”
Besides, Cracklin’ Jack’s is a restaurant whose identity is closely tied up with its location at the edge of the wild. They do take their show on the road, though, offering catering for groups of 20 to 500 people.
As with many popular Naples eateries, the off-season offers an opportunity for locals to enjoy some excellent food without the wait.
“The waiting area outside is just swarming with people in the season,” said waitress Nancy Barnard, who has worked at Cracklin’ Jack’s for four years, “and was a customer a couple of years before that. Now’s your chance.”
Come on Friday nights, and you can enjoy live music by the Skeeterland Band, a bluegrass group from Lee County.
If you’re 12 or under, you get your meal served on a Frisbee plate, which you get to take home.
And if you’re from the South, “like I am,” said customer Molly Ranck of Fort Myers, the country-style vegetables “will take you back to your childhood.”
No matter who you are, if the idea of “down home” gets your taste buds tingling, you can’t go wrong at Cracklin’ Jacks’.