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Let's skip over the whole sweaty Top Chef thing and treat the new Bulldog Barbecue like any other barbecue joint. After all, chef/proprietor Howie Kleinberg is not doing spice rub demos in the dining room; his only competition, roughly speaking, is Beach Bar-B-Que, about 30 blocks south on Biscayne Boulevard; it is highly likely I am the only "official" judge currently chowing down here (although all customers are rightfully critics); and the food shows no sign of having been conceived or executed by a person with culinary knowledge any more substantial than that of, say, Shorty. Yet based on the crowds overflowing from this 50-seater since its February opening, a verdict has been reached: Bulldog is a winner.
Bulldog is also very smart, with much thought evidently devoted to details such as the striking red-and-black logo; easy-to-digest bill of fare; children's menu of hot dog, burger, chicken tenders, or sliders, with fries, for $6; and the genre-breaking decision to forgo the tired Western theme and instead effect a clean and modern décor — stainless-steel dining counter, open kitchen, and tall, unadorned walls of crimson and mustard colors. Sure, there are requisite homespun touches (Chicago brick, tables topped in brown butcher paper, plus a paper towel roll and wall caddy of barbecue sauces hanging by each booth), but this place is a boon to those who don't require that their barbecue be served by wide-grinning guys and gals dressed in cowpoke costumes.
Bulldog is a classier act than that: The waitstaff wears black T-shirts with "Big Racks" emblazoned across the chest. More important, the friendly crew hustles and bustles to get the job done. Also impressive is the cooking brigade, a larger-than-usual team for a barbecue joint, and one that puts out a huge amount of food — both in-house and for take-out — in silent, well-synchronized fashion. Kleinberg is on hand at night to orchestrate and troubleshoot, not to grandstand. Yet while systems are in place and there's plenty of help on the floor, robust weekend business puts a strain on service, and waits for tables and take-out orders can get lengthy.
If only the Bulldog planners would have put as much creative effort into the chow. The original menu showed promise, but it has since been tamed. Gone are shrimp-and-corn chowder, hot smoked salmon, and corn pudding — arguably three of the most intriguing choices. Still, the succinct selection that remains provides enough options to corral a wide herd of preferences. The "snacks" portion illustrates this versatility via Buffalo wings, pulled pork lettuce wraps, chicken on flatbread, and a trio of corpulent cornmeal-crusted Washington State oysters (starters are $6 to $9). Each of the last comes propped atop minced tomato-avocado salad and crowned with a dab of green garlic mayo along with a short length of crisp bacon. These are undeniably tasty shuckers — er, suckers — and the sort of thoughtful contemporary take on traditional American food that discerning diners might like to see more of.
Barbecue here is pretty much standard Carolina-style, if on the commercial rather than purist side. The staple duo of chicken and ribs inherits a degree of smoky flavor from slow cooking and a finish on the grill, and is enhanced by a mopping of sweet, slightly tart barbecue glaze (honey-mustard and a red-pepper-pecked barbecue sauce can also be squirted from bottles). One would imagine spice rubs and longtime smoking are at work here as well, but the flavor offers little evidence of either. Half a chicken costs $14, a rack of ribs runs $21 (half is $15), and a half-and-half plate of the two goes for $19. Main courses get married with a square of sweet homemade cornbread, a dish of crunchy "Carolina-style" slaw (which on our first visit never arrived), and choice of one side.
Try the shreds of pulled pork, a generous pile moistened with mop (the basting sauce, in this case sweet and vinegary). Thick rashers of brisket tasted more like smoky pot roast than meat that has been slow-cooked to melt-in-the-mouth texture, but it wasn't bad. More porridge-minded people might proceed with four luscious jumbo shrimp that lend a smoky/briny presence to an obscene amount of bright yellow corn grits speckled with scallions, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and chewy nubs of hominy. This is good stuff, but be prepared to take home a Bulldoggy bag.
"Burnt end beans," with soft pieces of brisket simmering in the legumes and frizzled onions sitting on top, is among the tastier of the side dishes, even if some diners at my table found it too molasses-sweet. Roasted corn-on-the-cob and sweet potato fries were also gratifying, but not skinny sticks of chipotle fries that undergo a post-fry toss with salty seasonings. Mac and cheese is akin to Kraft's version but with slightly larger elbows and a hint of smoke.
A trio of sliders offers an opportune way to sample Bulldog's brisket, chicken, and pulled pork, each served on a potato roll with coleslaw and either of the aforementioned fries. Other sandwiches (called biscuits even though no biscuits are involved) include grilled chicken breast, a black Angus burger, a smoked Portobello patty, a shrimp-and-oyster poboy (on what appears to be lightly toasted Cuban bread), and a griddled kosher hot dog garnished with cheddar cheese, grain mustard, and sauerkraut.
The wine list is a short compilation of well-regarded low-end, barbecue-friendly bottles for less than $25 (glasses $5 to $8). The beer list is too short, considering how well brew goes with 'cue; let's hope more interesting bottles will come in. Then again, nothing really cuts barbecue's smoky unctuousness quite like lemonade, made by the order (squeezed lemon, sugar syrup, water) and served in a mason jar — one of those down-home touches that are much appreciated.
Bulldog poodles out when it comes to dessert. If there is anything America does as well as barbecue, it is the whipping up of classic national sweets such as chocolate layer cake, coconut-custard pie, and sweet potato-pecan pie. Instead, the menu presents the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake (disingenuously called "hot chocolate puddin' cake"); fried apple turnovers (sounds interesting, but there was none on our visit); and "milk and cookies" (I'm not certain that milk, even for children, is the ideal beverage to cap off a meal of barbecued meats). We selected fruit cobbler — a bowl of mixed berries in a highly sweetened, slightly thickened soup of the fruits' juices, topped with a light scattering of crouton-like streusel and centered with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.
Häagen-Dazs is Häagen -Dazs, cornbread is cornbread, and ribs are ribs here. A couple of items prove better than prototype, most simply meet the bar, and a few fall short of that. Yet for all the barking over Bulldog's inadequacies, let's get right to the bite: This is a cool place to eat fresh food at fair prices, with no parking hassles, no dress codes, no reservations — no sweat!