Best Of :: Food & Drink
— Hello, everyone, and welcome to Miami's Chophouse. We're perched in the newly installed press box high above the classic dining room, waiting for the business crowd to file in for the lunchtime action. I'll tell ya, Jer, it's always a thrill to come to this downtown restaurant, which was formerly named Manny's Steaks.
— Sure is, John, and what I like is that it combines the classic attributes of the old arenas — the white-clothed tables, leathery booths, and all those dark woods — and yet it also has the curves and windows and general light touch that young folks seem to like these days. Plus you can't beat those outdoor seats. I remember back in 1959, we...
— Thanks, Jer. I spoke with the chef during pre-dinner prep, and he's relying on the same winning formula that made the original Manny's a fan favorite in Minneapolis: big red meats, big red wines, big side dishes, and friendly, professional service. Wait, they're starting to roll the meat trolleys into the room now. Wow, what a sight!
— I remember once walking into this Minneapolis bar...
— The folks watching at home can expect to see plenty of our hefty participants cutting through USDA-certified, dry-aged 20-ounce New York strips and 24-ounce bone-in rib eyes while simultaneously cutting diminished deals with their broken brokers.
— Looks like it's going to be another packed house, which always adds to the excitement.
— And so do the waiters. You and I have been around this industry a long time, but I can't recall a feistier crew than this one. They remind the fans that dining is supposed to be about having a good time.
— Except the crowd here, at lunch, is composed of businesspeople, and well, John, you know they're not having much fun these days.
— I'm not sure about that, Jer. That group of suits sharing the 25-ounce goblet of whiskey bread pudding doused with Maker's Mark sure looks satisfied to me.
— Well, I suppose if they can afford entrées running from $30 to $40, they haven't been too adversely affected by things. Credit limits or not, power lunches will always exist — it comes down to businesspeople being businesspeople.
— We'll be back after this word from Citibank.
Burgers are big — as in big across-the-board sales during stressed economic times. There are big profits for burger barons, and big-shot chefs putting 'em on their big-price restaurant menus. Govind Armstrong and the folks at Table 8 took things a step further by opening 8 oz. Burger Bar in South Beach. It isn't difficult to locate a great burger in this town — if someone claimed that Clarke's, Kingdom, or Grill on the Alley made the best one, we really wouldn't argue. But Burger Bar's eponymous eight-ouncer brings a few distinctions to the table. The beef is culled from hormone-free cows; ground in-house from Black Angus sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck; and grilled over live oak. Then it's plunked onto a soft, fresh brioche bun. House-cured bacon, house-pickled pickles, hothouse cucumber relish, and homemade heirloom tomato ketchup are among a long list of cool accouterments; there are lots of cheeses to choose from too. Price for the signature burger is $10, a dollar or two less for those culled from turkey or Niman Ranch lamb. Burger Bar bops from 5 p.m. to midnight, and until 2 in the morning Thursday through Saturday. You're gonna like this place. Big time.
Family-owned for 37 years, the small, old-timey joint is now run by brothers David and Joe Arbetter, who insist that the chili used on their dogs be made fresh every day, that the buns be pillow-soft, and that the ambiance stay unpretentious. Simple snacks such as the "All Around" (mustard, onions, and relish) are the brothers' forte, and prices are recession-worthy at $2 to $3.05 per sausage. Inside, the place is a throwback to the shakes-at-the-parlor days when the term veggie dog would have just confused folks. Large sweaty cooks call out orders. Lunchroom dining means grabbing a seat at the counter. And cash is the only way to pay.
Since 1982, Casola's has been serving up delectable, eternally melting (we swear, it's like the Niagara Falls of cheese) New York-style pizza so addictive you might wander back here in your sleep. Slices are so gargantuan that the lifting of one piece has been known to cause hernias. And a single pie can easily feed the entire nation of Zimbabwe or, perhaps, one of the chickens butchered for the jumbo wings. Honestly, this is the only practical explanation for the pterodactyl-size delicacies that come, wrapped in tinfoil, in rations of 6 ($6.99), 12 ($9.99), 24 ($17.99), and 36 ($23.99). Crisp and super-meaty, each wing is fried up fresh and lets out a small stream of steam with the first bite. And don't bother being fussy about sauces — the wings come dry with sides of traditional Buffalo and tangy barbecue dips. Blue cheese is extra (75 cents, to be exact), but as blasphemous as this might sound to wing lovers all over the world, it isn't even necessary.
You place your order in a bar/lounge that feels like a cross between Hustle and Flow's Memphis backwoods and a From Dusk Till Dawn outlaw biker hideout. But you're at the southern edge of Liberty City, on a crossroads with Little Haiti and Allapattah. You order a chicken sandwich, a tall Arizona fruit punch, and a sweet potato pie. You smile, walk your handwritten order to the barbecue man out front, and then pay less than $10. "Extra hot sauce, please," you say.
"You like that, don't you?" he answers with a grin.
"Best chicken in Miami, sir."
You sit down and wait as he removes artfully fire-crisped yet incredibly juicy and tender chicken pieces from the grill and lays them on his cutting board. He lowers the cleaver with guillotine-like precision, splitting bones at the joints and throughout. Then he tongs the chicken, still on the bone, onto a piece of white bread nestled in aluminum foil; douses it in a vibrant red spicy barbecue sauce made in house by secret recipe; and tops it with another slice of white bread. Smiling, he wraps the sandwich in the foil, places it in a paper bag, and hands it to you. You were gonna take it home, but you can't wait, so you rip open the package, take a seat, and revel in the abundance of flavors and textures. This is perfectly executed barbecue chicken. You can get it Thursday from 2 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tomato or mustard? Tangy or sweet? Every barbecue lover has his or her sauce preferences, but in all honesty, the sauce is just windowdressing. It's the meat that matters and it's James's meat that draws customers to parking lots across town. To cover James's ribs with any sauce, even your favorite, would be a tragedy akin to putting a burlap sack on a beautiful woman. The flavor is simply inspiring and the bones so tender you can gnaw straight through them to the marrow. Save the sauce for that filet mignon or other slab of tasteless meat you bought at the supermarket a few feet away. Call James now to find out where he will be setting up his smoker this weekend (he's usually at the edge of the parking lot behind the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 48th Terrace). Then get a rack of ribs or some chicken, add a couple of cobs of roasted corn, and head home to eat — if you can hold out that long.