For Florida foodies, the South Beach Wine and Food Festival is the year's monster event. But spring brings an entire season of food festivals smaller, to be sure, but revelatory in their own locals-oriented way. For instance: At last month's Miami Wine and Food Festival a sort of "boutique" food fair which, at twelve years old, is actually twice the age of the SoBe fest I had a barbecue rib that may have been the best I've ever eaten in my entire sparerib-scarfing life.
It was dinosaur-size. It was definitively, yet not overwhelmingly, smoky, as only real pit barbecue can be, flavored by slow smoking over hardwood (rather than from soaking in sauce). Yet oddly, the rib was not from North Carolina, Memphis, or some other traditional 'cue capital it was from South Beach. Needless to say, I rushed immediately to the source: Bar-B-Que Beach.
Opened a few months ago in a spot formerly occupied by a Fuddruckers, the expansive space (two big indoor rooms and a sidewalk cafe) has been redecorated in a style that can only be described as eclectic. One room is cowboy rustic, the other beach-bum raffish. I recommend this surfer room, because it's the location of the board of daily specials, something my server didn't mention. Another much more annoying thing not mentioned until the check arrived: the restaurant automatically applies a fifteen percent service charge even on take-out orders like mine. And it's not negotiable. I tried.
Also highly recommended (to anyone but a fat-phobe): the barbecue beef brisket. Normally I far prefer pulled pork or ribs (the Southeast's favored barbecue meats) to brisket, because even in Texas (where beef barbecue rules), the well-done meat is often dry. Bar-B-Que Beach's sliced beef, wood-smoked for twelve hours, was not only as beautifully smoke-imbued as the festival rib, but drippingly juicy and melt-in-your-mouth tender.
The pulled and chopped pig on a "whacked pork" platter was a bit drier, but not dried out. And as is standard at the South's best barbecue joints, the serving featured a good mix of mild, moist inner meat (plus a little luscious, fatty skin) and dark brown-burnished outer chunks of strongly smoke-saturated lean meat that pleased even a fat-fearing friend.
Skillful wood fire-searing, along with a last-minute basting with the eatery's tangy tomato-based "original" barbecue sauce (one of six sauces available, ranging from sweet Canadian maple to spicy Florida orange) produced an unusually good chicken. Even most of the white meat was moist, rare when breasts and thighs are cooked in one piece.
Only a "bucket of bones" starter was disappointing. Described as a sampling of the restaurant's spare ribs, they were nothing like the rib I'd tried at the fair. In fact, they weren't spare ribs at all. The strips appeared to be trimmings hacked off crosswise from the tops of rib racks, resulting in strips full of circular bones that were difficult to eat around, with meat. Ordering a real rack is the way to go.
Several other starters were superior, including gargantuan housemade onion rings with horseradish dip and battered deep-fried dill pickles, an Old South standard. And sides (two come with barbecue platters, one with sandwiches; they're also sold a la carte) were terrific. Two crisp slaws (one spicy vinegared cabbage, the other a "creamy apple slaw" which was pleasant, though apple-free) were a nice counterpoint to the 'cue. And a lovely, nut-studded sweet potato mash, embedded with banana chunks, was enough like festive holiday pie filling to make the $5 to $8 desserts unnecessary nearly making up for that shameful service charge.
Bar-B-Que Beach, 1555 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-538-7201. Open Sunday to Thursday 11:00 to 2:00 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 to 5:00 a.m.
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