By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Joe Allen, the restaurateur, once remarked, "Life is a cruel joke, but less cruel and more of a joke when you're in a good bar." Joe Allen, the restaurant, has a good bar. It is also one of very few casual, unassuming restaurants on South Beach that offers affordable American fare without any fuss. It doesn't matter much if the night belongs to Saturday or Monday — the place gets packed to the point that an out-of-towner might surmise this to be the only food joint for miles.
The bar itself is forged from galvanized sheet metal, and on most nights local folks like Joe the Plumber, Jo the Lawyer, and Joe the Downsized Journalist gather for five-dollar pints of draught beer, affordable quarter-liters ($8.50 to $15.50), or bottles of wine (most $25 to $40).
The rest of the 110-seat space looks like an upscale film noir scene (patrons enter through an unmarked side door, as though slipping into a speakeasy). It's a simple yet exceptionally inviting setting. No artwork is displayed, unless one considers tiny silver surfboard figurines floating among wave-like cuts on a wall to be art. Eight windows with thick-slotted Venetian blinds dominate the other pale gray walls; a single shiny chrome fan spins between each one. Globular light fixtures suspended from the ceiling and votive candles on the tabletops emanate a faint amber glow.
The menu undergoes minimal tinkering from day to day but always offers the breadth of selections common to diners and coffee shops: soups, salads, starters, sandwiches, pizzas, and entrées (42 choices in all, plus 14 desserts). Much of the food can be called homespun American, but there are global side trips such as gazpacho, yellowfin tuna tartare, and rigatoni alla Bolognese. Sampling the chicken quesadilla and Thai vegetarian stew might spark a suspicion that the further one meanders from American cuisine here, the greater the chances for trouble.
The quesadilla boasted three layers of flaky tortilla, which yielded six ample triangles of melted Monterey Jack pleasure. I could have overlooked the deficiency of onions, and even the lack of chicken, but the fra diavolo sauce served on the side was an ethnic mismatch that made the whole thing seem like a regrettable T.G.I.Friday's concoction. Fresh tomato or tomatillo salsa would have made a world of difference.
The stew tasted too similar to that tomato-based fra diavolo, seemingly Thai'd together with a dash of red curry paste. If coconut milk was added, as suggested by the description, there wasn't enough to register. Mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, tofu, and onions composed the listlessly stewed comestibles, with toasted peanuts tossed in and brown rice centering the bowl.
The soup of the day — a soothing, satiny carrot-ginger — exuded the sweet character of its namesake vegetable, punctuated by a penetrating whisper of the pungent root. We relished the smoked trout salad as well, and though it seemed stingily portioned for $16, there was no griping about the way roasted red peppers, chickpeas, red onions, arugula, and tangy lemon dressing briskly complemented the fish. A crisp-crusted Margherita pizza pie was also surprisingly petite for the price ($11.50), but its size was not as problematic as the dull, doughy taste.
Ah, but Joe Allen's cuisine from the U.S. of A. is A-okay. Thin, quivering cutlets of tender calf's liver crowned with a mound of frizzled fried onions and bacon strips were terrific. On the side sat creamy white mashed potatoes and crunchy green beans sautéed with a light touch of garlic. Juicy, grilled skirt steak and moist, firm meatloaf were prepared with similarly flavorful aplomb. An ideally thick bacon cheeseburger, served with thin, crisp fries, was marred only by being a bit overcooked. It was tasty enough that we didn't return it, but had we done so, one of the accommodating waiters surely would have brought us another without complaint.
There was only one exception to the staff's agreeable nature: We had trouble getting a spoon for soup, and after finally snaring the attention of our waiter, he told us to "wait a second" while he and a co-worker fawned over a journalist dining nearby. He eventually got the maitre d' to bring us a teaspoon. Service was otherwise swell from the beginning — with waiters promptly bringing a carafe of ice water and a basket of warm ciabatta bread to the table — to the end, when the check was delivered in an equally timely fashion. The emphasis on making customers feel comfortable has as much to do with Allen's success as the fare.
Banana cream pie really can't be bad, but this version, bereft of banana, came pretty close. It was just pudding (with an artificial taste), a flimsy crust, and fresh whipped cream topping. A solid wedge of warm pecan pie was much better, and cherry cobbler, with a scoop of whipped cream melting into a steamy-hot battered crust and sweet/tart berries, captured our hearts. And if life is a cruel joke, a dish of Rice Krispies Treats with butterscotch sauce is as good a punch line as any. The larger point, though, is that when you're dining at Joe Allen, life isn't cruel at all.