Classic 'Cue, Miami-Style
My barbecue travels recently took me down South—way down South, in fact, all the way to Miami, where I had a chance to sample the city's long, proud barbecue tradition.
What's that? You didn't know South Florida had a long, proud barbecue tradition? I didn't either before I started digging into it. As it turns out, locals and visitors alike have been enjoying barbecue in South Florida since at least the 1930s, when Miami was transitioning from an exclusive resort town to a major tourist destination.
"It has been years since Miami has been regarded as strictly a rich man's playground," the New York Times reported in 1940. "Every year more and more people with moderate incomes find themselves able to acquire a first-class sunburn in February."
While the fancy new hotels on Miami Beach went for $20 a night, on the outskirts of the city one could rent a tourist court cottage for just $3 a day. And there were plenty of dining options, too, the Times noted. "The roads are lined on either side with barbecue stands, beer gardens and . . . establishments that offer something called ‘Chicken burgers' for a dime."
The chicken burgers may not have lasted, but barbecue did. The number of restaurants continued to grow after World War II, as one enterprising Floridian after another threw up a gaudily bedecked stand to try to siphon off a few tourist dollars with slow-smoked meat. For whatever reason, those 1950s barbecue restaurants had neither a tropical theme nor a Southern one. Instead, they tended toward a whole Texas ranch theme, complete with coiled ropes, cow skulls, and wagon wheels.
Most of those 1950s era joints are long gone, but a few are still around, serving the same Southern-style barbecue as they did a half century ago. These old joints don't draw much attention these days. They're unassuming places—not flashy shrines to smoked meat where the cool kids line up for prime-grade beef ribs or heritage breed pulled pork. Instead, they are just neighborhood restaurants where local workers stop in for a hearty lunch or families sit down for a big dinner at night.
The menus tend to be broad, encompassing brisket and pulled pork along with rarer items like smoked andouille and beef short ribs. To my mind, though, the classic South Florida offering is a big chicken and ribs platter. You may note a few tropical touches—a slice of lime instead of lemon adorning a cup of iced tea, a citrusy tang to the house-made barbecue sauce—but in the end it's just good old-fashioned Southern barbecue, even if the parking lot is surrounded by palm trees.
Here are a couple of old South Florida classics that you can still enjoy today while acquiring that first-class sunburn.
Shiver's BBQ 28001 South Dixie Highway Homestead, FL (305) 248-2272 www.shiversbbq.com
Head southward on US 1 from Miami for about 30 miles and you'll find, amid endless palm groves and plant nurseries, Shiver's BBQ in Homestead, which has been serving chicken, ribs, and more since 1950. It's a big lodge-like place with open rafters and long wooden community picnic tables, and the scent of hickory smoke is strong the minute you step through the front door. Shiver's meaty ribs have great texture and flavor to match, smoky with plenty of little charred bits around the edges, and the chicken is top notch, too. The house sauce, a vinegary, pepper-laden concoction, has notes of spice and citrus reminiscent of mojo criollo, and a big bottle of sweet yellow mustard sauce awaits on the table, too.
Shorty's Bar-B-Q 9200 South Dixie Highway Miami, FL (305) 227-3196 www.shortys.com
E. L. "Shorty" Allen opened his first restaurant in 1951 on a busy stretch of U.S. Highway 1 on the South side of Miami. After motorists on the highway complained the smoke from Shorty's pits was so thick it obscured their vision, Allen was forced to install an anti-pollution device in his chimney. In 1972, a spark from the device started a grease fire, and Shorty's burned to the ground. Allen rebuilt, though, and diners still line up today to sit side-by-side with strangers at the long communal tables and dig into plates of chicken and ribs with butter-drenched corn on the cob and pitchers of cold beer to wash it down.
The Pit Bar-B-Q 16400 SW 8th St Miami, FL (305) 226-2272 www.thepitbarbq.com
On the western outskirts of Miami, just before the Tamiami Trail begins its plunge into the Everglades, stands The Pit, a half-century old spot that has evolved over the years into a curious fusion of classic Southern barbecue and Caribbean flavors. The building is flanked on one end by a big red brick chimney—the sort you'll see in Lexington, North Carolina—and on the other by a series of thatched-roofed tiki huts covering outdoor tables. The chicken has an unusual kiss of sweetness to the skin, while the ribs are super smoky. There's a tempting slate of Caribbean-style starters, too, like conch fritters, yucca frita, and delicious fried sweet plantains, and adventurous diners can try a few South Florida novelties like gator ribs and Everglades frog legs, too.