Thursday 4 September 2014

Where is the best BBQ in Miami to be found?

In June I moved to Miami, which is not a real place. It exists in a strange, unnatural bubble that is many times removed from the rest of America and from the real world. One of the few things that, I think, connects it to reality is BBQ, that most American of foods. Florida, and Miami in particular, are not ‘classic’ BBQ territory in the way that, for example, Tennessee is. However, there is a real history of BBQ in these parts and it seemed appropriate to visit as many of Miami’s BBQ restaurants as possible in my first few weeks here and to compare them accordingly.

In alphabetical order, five BBQ restaurants in and around Miami…

Brother Jimmy’s BBQ
When I spent a week or two in Miami last December looking for a place to live I found this restaurant and was super excited that it would be a few minutes’ walk from where I was likely to end up living. That did turn out to be the case; I could be sitting outside Brother Jimmy’s in ten minutes from where I am writing this. Just a shame that it is barely worth the walk! The brisket and pulled pork platter looks better than it tastes, even with the array of sauces on offer it is rather bland, especially the brisket. I think what this place is good for is drinking a beer at the bar and watching the world go by; with perhaps a little BBQ on the side after you’ve had a few. Drink-led, not food-led.
900 South Miami Ave., Miami, FL 33130 |

Pit Bar-B-Q
This place is a good 45+ minutes away from downtown Miami, on the Tamiami Trail / 8th St. out towards the everglades. First of all, it looks awesome, and epitomises the first rule of BBQ…

The more run-down the BBQ establishment, the better the food.

(And to say that The Pit looks run-down is something of an under-statement!) I’ve read a lot about this place and recently it seems that the ownership has changed and the current custodians don’t seem to be quite keeping it together as well their predecessors. Unfortunately, I have to agree with that viewpoint. Much like Brother Jimmy’s, the pulled pork was bland and the sauces added little to the taste. However, the sides were perfectly acceptable : rice and beans, BBQ beans and plantains were all good, especially the latter.
16400 SW 8th St., Miami, FL 33194 |

Shorty’s Bar-B-Q
This is another one that requires a car journey, something like 15 minutes south on US1. Shorty’s has been serving BBQ to South Florida since 1951; the owner, Edward Louis ‘Shorty’ Allen died in 2013 aged 104 and Miami lost one of its most iconic gastronomic figures. I’d driven past this place a few times and had barely noticed it until a new friend took me for dinner one night. On my first visit we had chicken and brisket which was very good; on my second, third and fourth visits I had the pulled pork which was fricking awesome! Unlike any other restaurant reviewed here, the pork comes ready-seasoned with BBQ sauce; taking away the option of personalising your pork is a brave thing to do but the taste is all the better for it, and remains hot for much longer than a lot of the other food reviewed in this post. The second rule of BBQ…

The sides can make a BBQ.

Shorty’s has some great sides : the cornbread is excellent, as is the mac and cheese but the clear stand-out sides are the okra and the fried green tomatoes. I’m a big fan of the former, but in my experience ‘ladies fingers’ served in Europe are often mushy and tasteless, the opposite is true here and they are delicious. However, the latter is THE best side I’ve eaten anywhere : juicy, flavoursome, crisp breadcrumb on the outside and a delicious Ranch dip.
9200 South Dixie Hwy., Miami, FL 33156 |

Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue
This was my first BBQ experience in Miami and I’m going to just come right out and say it : I love it. A 20 minute walk (or 10 minute ride on the MetroMover) over the Miami River into downtown. At lunchtime it is always busy, but I’d never been in the evening before so went last weekend with a mate. An after-dark walk around downtown is not a great experience, and I can’t even tell you what my mate saw a homeless man doing in the street almost opposite Sparky’s! But that didn’t at all detract from sitting at the bar with a craft beer and a brisket / pulled pork platter, all of which was great. Mac and cheese and BBQ beans on the side were great too. This place is a ‘banker’ any time of day (I've been twice for lunch this week), laid back with super-friendly staff and a fantastic beer selection. Oh, and the Key Lime Pie is great too!
204 NE 1st St., Miami, FL 33131 |

Uncle Tom’s Barbecue
Another Miami stalwart that has been serving food forever, and another one located on the Tamiami Trial / 8th St., not far from the heart of Little Havana! The food is good here, but not as good as a couple of the other places covered in this post. However, it is a short drive from the office so can be visited at lunchtime with ease… and that counts for something for sure. Pulled pork is good but not great, mac and cheese is good but not great, ribs are good but not great… you get the picture. Bizarrely, the high point is the chilli, which is awesome! Great atmosphere inside and another restaurant with a good (but not great) selection of beers.
3988 SW 8th St., Coral Gables, FL 33134 |

So, five restaurants. Let’s see them on the BBQ-o-meter…

Shorty’s for me is a clear winner, better by a noticeable margin than any other restaurant here. However, Sparky’s is also very good and its proximity to my apartment makes it the place I am likely to visit most often, and it'll never disappoint. I’m spoilt for good BBQ in Miami, but I know that there are at least 12 other BBQ restaurants in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties… so watch this space. And finally, the third rule of BBQ…

BBQ is awesome. Thank you cows and thank you pigs.

Monday 14 July 2014

Black Brick, 3451 NE 1st Ave, Miami, FL 33137

Regular readers will know that I have an uneasy relationship with Chinese food, you may recall that I even have a rule that I swear is true, at least in the UK…

9 out of 10 Chinese restaurants are bad.

…which is why when I eat out it is rarely for Chinese, preferring the safer bet of (in my opinion) every other type of cuisine I can think of. So when a friend took me to a Chinese restaurant I wasn’t expecting anything particularly special, even after I had read the glowing review from a local Miami newspaper.

Black Brick is the brainchild of a chef named Richard Hales, who is apparently something of a culinary figure in these parts, with a couple of successful restaurants to his name. The restaurant was in the Midtown district, somewhere I hadn’t visited before, so a new experience in a couple of ways.

My strategy? To mix it up by ordering something very familiar and something very different.

The familiar : salt and pepper squid. This is in many ways a dish that has been done to death and shouldn’t be ordered as often as it is. This is because a) the squid has to be SO fresh and b) the spice has to be JUST right before this is anything other than a massive damp squib. The squib was very much a squid and met both key criteria admirably; it was a very enjoyable dish. Was it the best squid I have ever eaten? No. Was it close? Yes it was. I know what great salt and pepper squid tastes like so a good ‘tell’ of a dish for sure and a great start to a meal.

The different : ox tail and egg. I know already that this isn’t a dish that will appeal to a lot of people, but any dish that includes whole hard-boiled eggs is already a winner in my book. As indeed it was, I won’t review the egg as all I’m doing here is congratulating (or not) a hen who is unlikely to be reading this. So I’ll focus on the ox tail : it just fell off of the bone, it was incredibly tender and there was a lot more meat than I was expecting. This was not at all just bone. And the sauce was great too, a non-descript named Szechuan sauce that seemed to contain a lot of oyster, delicious.

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese food this side of the Atlantic is any better than it is in the UK, but Black Brick was a GREAT start. Totally familiar, yet completely different, delicious.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Eggs benedict... an obsession!

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or so ‘they’ say. I don’t normally get time to break my fast in the mornings, except when in a hotel or occasionally (frequently) on a weekend visit to the golden arches for a Sausage McMuffin. Or a Sausage and Cheese Bagel. Or both (always both).

However, whenever I see the ‘B’ word on a menu I am completely overcome with an insatiable, obsessive need to order eggs benedict. It is the best breakfast known to man, I think not least because it comes with some real provenance, a great back story. There are conflicting stories, but this seems to be the most common…

Lemuel Benedict, a retired Wall Street stock broker, claimed that he had wandered into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 and, hoping to find a cure for his morning hangover, ordered "buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of Hollandaise." Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître d'hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham for the bacon and a toasted English muffin for the toast.

Whatever the origins, it is a truly great thing. It MUST contain : an English muffin, thick-cut cured ham, a lightly poached egg and fresh hollandaise sauce. It also SHOULD contain : paprika and chopped chives sprinkled on top, in my opinion. Recent travels across the USA have revealed at least half a dozen variations on the theme, my favourite being a Southern version with some spicy Cajun-style hollandaise sauce.

I have just devoured a plate and would estimate that I eat eggs benedict at least once every two weeks, any more often and I fear it would not be considered a treat. It is one of those rare dishes where getting it right is relatively easy, a few fresh ingredients and a little love and there is no better way to start the day… the REAL breakfast of champions!

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Where should you go for the best liver and bacon?

This is one of my favourite dishes of all time, something that I consider to be a real treat, mostly because I am the only person in my house who likes it. Therefore, it is served in Chez Stokes very infrequently. Liver and bacon is one of those things that seems hard to get right and is always at either end of two extremes : great or awful, never anything in-between. In my experience, approx. 10% are great and the remaining 90% are awful. This is what makes a great one really special, and a rare (no pun intended) find. So, where is the best place to get one, in London at least?

For me, it has to be at the London Steakhouse Co., in Kings Road, Chelsea; part of the Marco Pierre White stable of restaurants. The liver is cooked PERFECTLY; just the right shade of pink and deliciously tasty. I could eat this every week and never tire of it. For the record, the rest of the menu is good too, but nothing is quite as great as the liver and bacon. An easy SUPER-DISH, go and try it NOW!

N.B. for non-British readers, liver and bacon refers to calves liver; anything less just isn't cricket.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Superior Grill, 4701 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

I’ve visited Birmingham, AL twice now and I have been really surprised by how great the food has been. I’ve never even had an average meal anywhere in this city, it has always been excellent. On a recent visit, my new friend Arthur recommended this place for lunch and we sat down starving hungry at 12:01pm ready for some food!

We both had fajitas, which is what Superior Grill is famous for, quite rightly. The beef was truly amazing, the kind that is easy to find in America but so much harder to find in Europe. It was flavoursome, tender and it melted in the mouth. The portion size was also very generous and I struggled to finish, as well as being very reasonably priced. With a small bowl of bean soup on the side and a large glass of root beer, this was a lunch to die for. And die is what would happen to you if you ate it every day, but you would at least die happy!

Bizarrely, every bit as good as the beef fajitas were the nachos. Freshly cooked and crispy and served with a beautifully fresh salsa, these were so moreish… I’m going to award these a SUPER-DISH as these were a revelation; I need to learn how to make nachos that taste this good!

Another great meal in AL. On my way out at the airport I bought an Alabama cook book, by a guy who has visited over 300 local family restaurants all over the state and collected some of the very best recipes. From curried ginger salmon burgers to Oka Uba (a local beer) mustard sauce to Hartley’s (restaurant name) fudge pie, I can’t wait to try some of these out.

Jon McClure has pulled together some GREAT recipes. My job is hopefully going to take me to at least 25 out of the 50 states over the next few years, will try and buy a recipe book from each one; much better than a snow globe!

Monday 19 May 2014

Five Guys, Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent

I wanted to write a few brief words about Five Guys. Everybody knows that Five Guys make EPIC burgers and hot dogs. There are five or so in central London and (having been a few times) have never had anything less than a great experience. Cheese and bacon burger with BBQ sauce and pickle is my favourite, with an embarrassingly large portion of fries on the side, with the excellent Cajun powder.

However, when places like this start to go big, and to open locations in shopping centres, this is not necessarily a good thing. This can dilute the quality of the offer and even ruin a hard-earned reputation. Given that this company have plans to open more locations within shopping centres, this question of quality is important. Has this reduction in quality happened with Five Guys at Bluewater?

In a word: no. Not at all. The burger in Bluewater a few Saturday’s ago was every bit as good as any other experience in a central London outlet. So, nothing to worry about then. You’re welcome.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Food hygiene certificates… when the chips are down, do they really matter?

Readers from the UK (which is exactly 25% of you) will, I’m sure, recognise the image above of a food hygiene certificate; introduced by the Food Standards Agency in the last few years. This scoring system is designed to help the public to make informed decisions about where to eat based upon hygiene and cleanliness, as well as the normal quality and service. On paper this is a good idea, forcing certain restaurants to raise their game because this information is now in the public domain and easily accessible on-line.

In my local newspaper a few weeks ago there was a list printed, detailing six take-away restaurants that had failed to score a single point out of five, all had a zero rating. This list was no great surprise, as I was already familiar with a few of these and don’t eat there (take-away or restaurant) because I have visited once and decided not to repeat the experience. This tends to be for two reasons. In the case of a take-away it is because the food has made one of the family (at best) feel ropey or (at worst) made somebody actually sick. For a restaurant the ‘tell’ that I employ is the state of the toilets… if these aren’t clean, I assume that the kitchen won’t be much better; although a restaurant can also have a double-whammy, i.e. somebody was ropey and/or sick and the toilets were disgusting. Reading the article, I was somewhat shocked… my favourite fish & chip shop was listed as a zero rating establishment.

“Well, we can’t eat there again” said Mrs. Stokes, and I instantly agreed with her. I know a few people who religiously look at the food hygiene score before every meal out or before every take-away, which I find a little pointless and have sometimes mocked. However, a zero rating sounds serious, so maybe they were right to check after all. I went on-line and started checking my other favourite places (all scored 4 or 5, incidentally) and then I stopped myself and thought about it… I decided that it doesn’t matter really, depending on what you eat. One of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London was closed down at some point due to a lack of hygiene (and an abundance of rats) but I still go there regularly, in fact I wrote about it a few months ago. And fish & chips, do I really need to worry about that? I typically order the same thing…

Cod, chips and a pickled egg on the side.

The fish and the chips are cooked in a deep fat fryer, so I really don’t think that anything dangerous could survive that intense heat… and if it does I deserve to get whatever ailment it carries. And pickled eggs are surrounded by vinegar their whole lives, another substance in which nothing is likely to survive. I'm going to give the buttered bread and HP Fruity Sauce from home a clean bill of health.

So, there might be a dirty floor (there definitely is) and the work surfaces might benefit from a more frequent clean (again, they definitely could do) but none of this affects my favourite Friday night dinner from my favourite local chippie so I’m not going to stop. I visited for the first time since the newspaper article at the weekend and ordered the usual, giving the server that knowing “I know this place is filthy but the food is great” look. I stopped short of a wink, but I think he got the message!

Monday 10 February 2014

Is it possible to get good food at Disneyland Paris?

Is it possible? No it isn’t, not at all.

My daughter, who has the same relationship with food as her dad (i.e. a glutton), couldn’t even stay awake for most of what we ate! My tip would be to drive 15 – 30 minutes out of the park every night and find a little restaurant for dinner, and whilst out visit a supermarket to buy something to make sandwiches for lunch the next day. If you absolutely have to eat in the park then the buffet restaurants offer the best option. If not quality, then at least they offer quality. The Park Side Diner in Disney’s Hotel New York is the best (least worst) of a bad bunch. Pretty much everything we ate (with very few exceptions) was deserving of a TOTAL STINKER award.

This situation is very annoying, given that (generally speaking) the food at Disney parks in the USA is pretty good. It makes no sense to me that the gastronomic French can’t improve the quality of the food here… scarily, the best meal we had all week was at the Buffalo Grill in Calais on the drive home!

Monday 3 February 2014

Manolya, Ware

I love a bit of Turkish food, but unfortunately don’t get to have it too often. In fact, I can’t remember eating out at a Turkish restaurant for the whole of 2013. Some ‘friends’ of mine (selfishly) visited this restaurant without me a few months ago, so have been really keen to visit since then.

A few weeks ago that was rectified and it didn’t disappoint at all.

Starter was a standard meze fare with some extra taramasolata and humous. The meze consisted of five elements: hellim (traditional grilled Turkish goat’s cheese), sucuk (grilled beef garlic sausage), borek (deep fried filo pastry wrapped over feta cheese and parsley), mittite kofte (char-grilled minced lamb kofte with onions, parsley and sweet red pepper) and kalamar (squid rings fried and served with tartare sauce). This was all very good but at the time it felt like it was too small a portion, as only one plate arrived (enough for two) between the four of us who were dining. In hindsight this was serendipitous, as the main course was immense.

A massive plate of meat! Chicken, pork and lamb with rice and a lovely fresh salad. Even the doner meat was good, which is always a surprise. A very big dish but I couldn’t leave a single bite of this behind, it was just too good. I finished with baklava, which is a favourite of mine.

So, live in Ware? Where? Ware. Go!