Blue Collar Miami: A working-class joint wins with American comfort food and just plain comfort
Blue is the color of choice among collars these days. Whether as a backlash to white-collar crime sprees or because of pandering Republican primaries, the ethos of hard, honest work is back in vogue. This industrial infatuation has spilled over into the restaurant world as well. Honest American comfort food is as hot as a welding iron. Sell it at prices affordable to the toiling masses and you have quite a timely little concept. That's precisely what chef/owner Daniel Serfer has at Blue Collar.
The 25-seat room (with more tables outdoors) has been spruced up since American Noodle Bar vacated the premises last July. Metal lunch pails are lined up on a freshly painted gray wall, the plasma TV screen has mercifully been removed, and formerly communal seating is now segregated into tightly spaced tables; three stools form a minicounter where the cashier stand used to be. Classics from the '60s play, and the atmosphere is coffee-shop casual — a nice little neighborhood spot. "Bring your flip-flops and friends," Serfer says, and he's not referring to that white-collar Mitt Romney dude (although the Miami-born chef did major in political science and history at Florida State University).
Serfer was most recently executive chef at 15th Street Fisheries in Fort Lauderdale, but he is better known for the five-plus years spent as chef de cuisine at Chef Allen's.
We started off with what might have been considered breakfast food just a few years ago: pork and beans with nubs of Berkshire sausage, a fried egg on top, and grilled sourdough toast on the side. We didn't find much "smoky bacon" on the plate, but the yolk and sausage provided plenty of spunk for the tastily sweetened white beans.
Grits with bacon sounds like morning chow too, but the cornmeal mush and meaty nubs of Nueske pork are paired with shrimp and Piedmontese Trugole cheese in a New Orleans-style Worcestershire "BBQ" sauce — the most flavorful version this side of Kris Wessel's nearby Red Light (Miami's original chef-driven blue-collar restaurant).
Another of the eight "nosh/apps" introduces the Cuban sandwich spring roll: Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, and pickles wrapped in egg roll skins and deep-fried. That fetching filling, along with the extra fat from frying and mustard/mayo dip alongside, pretty much has to taste good — and it does. But the two rolls, cut into four pieces, were much too greasy.
Whatever grease factored into a quartet of vaca frita-topped tostones is more acceptably traditional. Plus the pulled frizzles of fried flank steak, tossed with chives and orange mojo and capped with dabs of aioli, were seriously delicious.
Wild-mushroom/goat-cheese croquettes (served with pomegranate-fig jam) are also obviously fried, and "Chanukah latkes" too are pan-fried in fat. Comfort foods, whether American or ethnic, rarely fit under the health-food hood; many of Blue Collar's offerings are fried, porky, or cheesy.
Any of three salads ($7 to $8) on the one-page menu can cut the grease. "Marsha's" composition is a bracing medley of iceberg lettuce, radish, cucumber, and bacon in grain-mustard vinaigrette that sometimes packs too much puckering vinegar.
But providing even more of a counterpoint to the meaty menu is an unparalleled selection of vegetables. It is a rare opportunity indeed to be able to select from some 20 farm-grown side dishes ($4 each or four for $14). We must have tried about half of them, and curried cauliflower purée was the most distinctive. It hardly tastes like cauliflower. The Madras and red curries are subtly applied, and it is chunky for a purée, but the flavors are steeped with potently delectable notes of garlic and spice and other things nice. Braised red cabbage is sweetly rewarding, as are roasted cubes of beets tossed with soft crumbles of goat cheese. Another favorite is German-style potato salad composed of warm Yukon Gold potatoes mixed with bacon and vinegar. Brussels sprouts were good too, even if a few of the caramelized halves came undercooked; "blistered" grape tomatoes with petite bocconcini balls of fresh mozzarella were too bland, perhaps because of missing basil.
The most popular entrée items seem to emanate from a chalkboard listing of "dailies": a rib item (short ribs, spare ribs, prime rib, etc.) with the aforementioned warm potato salad; a "parm" (chicken, veal, pork, etc.) with angel hair pasta and red sauce; and a braised meat such as pot roast, oxtails, or pork shoulder, with "braising juices" and mashed potatoes. Braised brisket was on board one evening; thin slices of the moist meat came draped over the mash — a tad salty, but satisfying.
Regular entrées are, on paper at least, less than inspiring. They include skinless grilled chicken breast; grilled mahi-mahi; grilled swordfish with mushroom/purple-potato hash; tempura-fried grouper with fries; and chicken Cordon Bleu with mashed potatoes, green beans, and double mustard cream. The last item brought a thick, moist breaded chicken breast topped with slices of Serrano ham and melted Manchego cheese. The beans were crisp and bright green, the mash of Yukon Gold potatoes was seasoned just right, and the cream sauce proved a proper foil. The only quibble: Cordon Bleu sounds a bit French and stuffy for a blue-collar meal, no? Then again, at only $16, the suspiciously upper-crust name can be forgiven.
A fillet of red snapper came crisp-skinned and plated with fried rice and red curry sauce. The rice was studded with rock shrimp and evidently any scrap of vegetable within reach of the cook doing the sauté. It all added up tasty enough, although the tomato-based sauce was unfortunately reminiscent, in texture and tomato content, of SpaghettiOs — albeit with a curry kick.
Next time we'll try one of the two proffered pastas: a "big ragout" of tagliatelle, pork and veal shoulder, and brisket in red sauce; and pancetta and clams with tagliolini, red onion, white wine, and butter.
A cheeseburger is as blue-collar as food gets, and the one here rocks. It's not clear, though, how many working stiffs are accustomed to shelling out 12 bucks for a burger, even if it comes with homemade fries. For $5 more, you might want to consider a hanger steak, which looked pretty big on the grill. Main-course prices top out at $18, although Friday and Saturday nights now bring a few additional "white collar" specials that can cost up to $30.
Except that Gallic chicken anomaly, the blue-collar theme is nimbly cohesive; the lunch boxes on the wall are in sync with the beverage offering of an unlimited thermos of Panther Coffee — which goes perfectly with a fresh berry cobbler served steamy-hot with a biscuit cap and a refreshing lack of sugary overload. The staff exudes a coffeehouse congeniality too and, like its diner brethren, provides competent if unpolished service.
Three-dollar cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, whose popularity has surfed the blue-collar wave, fit into the scheme. But you can also nab a Cigar City IPA from Tampa, Terrapin Rye Pale Ale from Georgia, or Heineken from over yonder for $5 each. Wines by the glass start at $5, with bottles from the $20 range up to $42 (for a Pouilly-Fuissé from Girardin, France, or Banshee Pinot Noir from Sonoma County). The menu descriptions are unpretentiously friendly: "not so oaky" Chardonnay, "juicy" Pinot Noir, "big-time" Malbec, "easy drinking" Cab, and so forth.
Serfer is behind the line cooking, and with his blue baseball cap and smudged apron, he looks pretty damn blue-collar himself — and at this point, that's precisely what he is. The space is small enough that the chef can simply turn around and scan the room to see how things are proceeding. If he catches your eye, he'll ask how you're enjoying your meal.
"Very much," we replied. We were being as honest as the food.
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