It's been nearly four years since Kris Wessel had a flag planted in Miami's northern reaches. His beloved Red Light Little River shuttered in 2012 after he lost the lease. Come late February, he'll be back with the pocket-size spot Tropical Barbecue.
Situated three blocks north of Churchill's Pub on NE Second Avenue, the place will riff on Caribbean barbecue flavors while holding over the healthy focus from his last project, Oolite. That gluten-free concept, though loved by some, shuttered in the summer of 2015.
The menu here will be meat-centric, featuring grass-fed beef, heritage pork, organic poultry, and local seafood, Wessel says. All of it will be prepared in accordance with the tradition of the indigenous Taíno and Timucua tribes that populated the Caribbean and Florida prior to the arrival of conquistadors, colonists, and plunderers.
"Wood-burning grills, wood propelled in-line smokers will keep the most notable aspect of this ancient style forefront," Wessel says. "It's the simple technique of cooking over wood, not real pit, charcoal, or mesquite, but mostly Jamaican pimento and dried fruit tree wood from Florida growers."
Wessel is a Mango Gang acolyte who worked for Mark Militello in the late '90s before setting off on his own with a handful of Miami Beach restaurants. In more recent years, the towering, spindly chef has inextricably linked his cooking with his family tree, which is rooted in Miami as far back as the 1920s. In recent years, Wessel's projects have sought to highlight Florida and the Caribbean's indigenous ingredients that have been molded into new types of cuisine after centuries of reinterpretation by the never-ending waves colonists and immigrants.
A draft menu shows the cornucopia of meat can be prepared in two styles: dry or wet. Choosing the former means your meat (perhaps brisket or baby-back ribs) will be peppered with a "Latin" rub of cumin, smoked dry peppers, and black pepper, or a tropical blend of citrus, curry, cumin, turmeric, and fruit dust. The wet preparations can be either applied while the meat is cooked over a fire or offered on the side. The guanabana option includes fruit pulp, garlic, peppers, and honey. The fiery jerk will blend cilantro, garlic, onions, plantain, almonds, and lime juice.
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Also in the offing will be an array of $7 sides, ranging from a gluten-free mac 'n' cheese to white corn grits and malanga chips. Sandwiches spanning pulled pork ($8) to curried goat ($11) will be offered on either gluten-free brioche or roti. The latter would be a real coup if Wessel's roti could match the starchy, savory varieties proffered at places like L.C. Roti Shop in Miami Gardens and 79th Street's B&M Market.
And for those longing for the past, Wessel's barbecued shrimp — the smoky, buttery dish that helped drive his success at Red Light and were reinterpreted into an equally stunning gluten-free variety (no Worcestershire) at Oolite — will also be available, but don't count on them indefinitely. "I will take it off the menu if I think it overshadows the statement I really want to make," Wessel says.
"My rubs, sauces, and regional dishes will set this 'style' of Barbecue apart from your Kansas City, Athens, Memphis, and Carolina institutions that lay claim to the best style or roots of barbecue,” he says. “I’m challenging the institution with its real roots."