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I'll travel out of my way for good barbecue. I'll also go the distance, as it turns out, for bad barbecue.
Miami is woefully deficient in the slow-cooked rib arena. We've got a couple of places I'll settle for, one or two I like well enough, but nothing that's exceptional. So when I hanker after a dark, rich barbecue sauce dripping off meaty, juicy ribs, I drive up to Boca Raton. I don't mind the trip because I know what awaits at the end of my journey: A reunion with Mississippi Sweets, Tom's Ribs, or Lucille's Bad to the Bone BBQ, where I can pig out on perfectly cooked pork.
That's probably why I thought nothing of trekking down Krome Avenue to Reynolds Rib House, a two-year-old restaurant neighboring the U-Pic fields. The original of two locations (the second is in the Florida Keys Factory Shops in Florida City), Reynolds has all the surface accouterments of a rustic eatery -- varnished wooden tables, mounted animal heads (wild boar, alligator), even a bulletin board with ads offering mustangs for sale (horses, not cars). Though not extensive, the menu fits the bill too, with baby-back or spare ribs, grilled chicken, pork, beef sandwiches, and a full complement of side dishes. The restaurant mixes its own duo of barbecue sauces, one thick and sweet, the other tangy with pepper.
The problems begins with a lazy staff and ends with dried-up ribs. I've visited twice, and I found lunch to be a marginally friendlier time, perhaps owing to the fact that customers at this hour all seem to know each other as well as the waitstaff. But on a Friday evening about an hour before the restaurant was due to shut its doors, our party encountered such sullen hostility from the employees that you'd have thought we'd walked in five minutes before closing. Our order was taken reluctantly, our questions answered with shrugs or monosyllables, and our dishes served with neither utensils nor condiments. (Forks may seem superfluous, but barbecue sauce is kind of important in a barbecue joint.) Reynolds features both table and counter service; we chose table, but midway through the meal we gave up trying to get drinks refilled and simply walked up to the counter for what we needed.
The restaurant doesn't present much in the way of appetizers. Soup of the day is listed under "extras," while a garden salad appears under "side dishes." Homemade vegetable beef soup sounded good, made with ground beef (sometimes Jeanne Reynolds, who owns the restaurant with her brother Tim, uses shredded beef). But the oily bubbles floating on top didn't help a watery, insipid broth that tasted mostly of the pallid corn that floated in it, and the ground beef still held grill marks and the shape of a hamburger. We poked at the garden salad, a brown and wilting conglomerate of refrigerated romaine and disintegrating tomatoes, accented by Italian dressing that was served in its packaged container as if we were on an airplane. Later our waitress, scarfing her dinner (while still serving ours), pulled a cruet of better-looking salad dressing out of the fridge to pour on her own pile of greens. We walked up to the counter to ask her what it was.
"Vidalia onion dressing," she replied.
"Do you make it here?"
"No. It's Costco's."
"Why weren't we offered this dressing?"
Indifference may explain why much of our dinner was served cold -- it seemed the staff had already started to break down the line and put away the hot food and didn't much feel like warming it up. Side dishes in particular suffered. Beans -- syrupy pintos baked with plenty of bacon strips -- would have been delicious had they been hot; as it was, they looked as if they were about to congeal. The house potatoes, quartered red-skinned potatoes seasoned mostly with black pepper, were not only lukewarm but mushy besides, while "wild rice" was actually yellow rice that stuck together in unappetizing clumps. Texas toast, fluffy white bread browned on the grill, proved the best of the bunch, buttery with a faint charcoal taste that, depending on how much gunk is on the grill, can be overwhelming.
Ribs, of course, are the main feature. Reynolds serves dry barbecue, which means that the meat's seasoned but not sauced; you do that yourself at the table -- assuming the waitress has bothered to supply you with some. The baby-backs -- you can order a full rack (called the "porker") or a half rack (the "piglet") -- were heady with pepper, a little fatty but tasty nonetheless. Spare ribs (the "hog") weren't available the first time I went, so I returned another day for them. I needn't have bothered. Though meatier than the baby-backs, they were also larded with fat. As greasy as they were, however, they were also unquestionably overcooked, the meat curling away from the bone in petrified strips.
Rib dinners come with your choice of two side dishes and Texas toast, and these are pretty filling meals if you feel like finishing them. Beef or pork sandwiches are also large, overstuffed with hand-shredded meat that's served dry, like the ribs. A little sauce might have disguised how arid these sandwiches were, utterly bereft of juice and so overcooked that the meat, shriveled and hard around the edges, appeared frayed rather than hand-shredded. Two comparatively bright spots -- the sesame-seed burger buns that corralled the meat were soft and fresh, and the skinny shoestring French fries that partnered them were crisp and hot -- couldn't nearly make up for the fact that these sandwiches needed some major fine-tuning. If you're looking for a hearty meat sandwich, check out the hamburger instead. Sounds mundane, I know, but this hefty disk of ground sirloin was nicely chargrilled and served on a fresh bun with lettuce, tomato, and pickles.
Chicken turned out to be the pick of the menagerie. Reynolds cooks only breasts, but these were skin-on, bone-in beauties, plump and juicy. The slippery skin, easily peeled off for a healthier meal, had been treated with herbs and garlic, a redolence that had soaked into the white meat as well. Order two breasts with side dishes and toast as a dinner (the "chick"); at $7.99, this is a bargain. Here the lack of sauce didn't hurt.
Desserts aren't listed on the menu and weren't volunteered by our unenthusiastic waitress, who got vaguely friendlier only when it came time to give us the bill. (In fact, the staff had already put the chairs on the tables and turned the sign around to "closed" by the time we'd started thinking about sweets, though there was still fifteen minutes to go until the restaurant's nine o'clock shuttering time). We did spot one staffer eating what appeared to be Jell-O with whipped cream, a far from enticing choice anyway, so we couldn't bring ourselves to be too disappointed. We ripped open our moist towelettes instead, dismayed but not surprised to find them as dry as the ribs.
Reynolds is one of the only sit-down restaurants on this lonely strip of Krome Avenue, and as such, it's positioned to do very well for itself. The menu markets itself to tourists, welcoming "race fans, rodeo fans, boaters headed to the Florida Keys, hunters, fishermen, and Sunday drivers." But the point is moot if the fare and service don't improve. If the management doesn't care about the place, why should the customers?
Reynolds Rib House
24854 Krome Ave; 246-8866. Lunch and dinner Tuesday -- Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Lunch Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Side dishes (small)
Side dishes (large)