No Pause for Claws
Howie paused momentarily at the edge of the crowd, waiting for his field of vision to clear. He danced right, then faked left, spinning away from one obstacle after another. Then he spied an opening and took off, darting through the defensive line and into the end zone, where he celebrated his victory by ... sitting down.
Howie just scored a table at Joe's Stone Crab.
Like all the players who eat at the legendary 83-year-old Joe's in Miami Beach, Howie has a method for beating the equally legendary two-hour, high-season wait for a seat. He doesn't give the maitre d' a twenty-dollar handshake. That's for tourists, he scoffs. No, Howie skips the host altogether and heads straight for the dining room, where a waiter Howie knows only by his nickname -- Bells -- will soon give him the nod to occupy a just-vacated table. No money changes hands until after the meal. First Howie takes care of the bill, tipping on the food. Then he takes care of Bells.
But how do you befriend a waiter in the first place? "You have to have an in," Howie explained once we were seated. His advantage was having grown up in Miami: "My grandparents knew the waiters, and they brought me here all the time. Now I'm the regular, and it's my turn to introduce someone else." He looked pointedly at me.
Fortunately there were other guests at the table Howie could initiate, because not only must I remain anonymous in any restaurant, the truth is I've never been much of a player. I hate the twin elements of condescension and superiority that often go along with being one. Scoring points by eating at the right places and talking to the right people holds no appeal for me. And I'm very uncomfortable with the idea of paying someone for a seat at a restaurant while others stand in line -- a practice that, along with ordering stone crabs and mustard sauce, seems to be standard at Joe's.
As a result, for the most part I've avoided this very popular restaurant. The few meals I have experienced there, usually at the behest of out-of-town guests, have been beat-the-crowds failures, where neither the food nor the atmosphere was up to par. Still, I'm fascinated by everyone else's infatuation with the place. So I decided to review it. The timing may look odd to some, as just last week this paper published a story about the lawsuit brought against Joe's by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a lawsuit charging that the restaurant discriminates against women in the hiring of servers. (The judge is expected to rule soon.)
In fact, I had no advance notice of the story. My interest in reviewing Joe's now was a coincidence of timing. If there were myths to be debunked, I wanted to do so under the best possible circumstances, when the restaurant supposedly shines -- during season, at peak hours, and under the guidance of a player. I guess it's no wonder I had a really good meal.
Joe's Stone Crab founder Joe Weiss was the first restaurateur in Miami to discover that the ugly, tough-shelled crustaceans were edible. He boiled them, chilled them, and served four or five of them for 75 cents. Now the restaurant is run by fourth-generation Stephen Sawitz, and the once-abundant crabs are a pricey delicacy, protected by conservation laws instituted in the Sixties that mandate only the claws can be harvested.
But the crabs are still the main reason for eating at Joe's. The kitchen had run out of jumbos -- the largest claws -- the night we dined, so we ordered as appetizers one plate of large (five in number), the next-biggest size, and another of select (seven), the size between large and medium. One rumor I've always heard is that smaller claws are sweeter, but after sampling the large and select side by side, we could detect no difference in flavor. We all preferred the heavier, meatier claws, dipped alternately in lemon-scented drawn butter and in the rich, Worcestershire-spiked mustard sauce. Perfectly cooked, perfectly cracked, they were delicious.
Fried oysters were a great starter. Plump, buttery oysters were rolled in bread crumbs and sizzled until golden. Grease-free, they were slathered with a thick tartar sauce. The mixed green salad, a light balance to the oysters, was a generous and crisp if typical assortment of lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes, dressed in a tangy vinaigrette. The waiter suggested spiking up the salad with a sprinkle of Roquefort and brought us a huge wedge of the blue cheese to mix with the dressing. A tasty combo.
Main courses are served steak-house style, a la carte slabs of fish or meat dominating the plate. Having consumed our stone crabs first -- immediate gratification -- we enjoyed a juicy grilled swordfish fillet, just touched with salt and glistening with juice, as an entree. Lamb chops, an alternative to seafood, were a little bit dry but a beautiful medium rare, the double-thick chops generously fleshed and pleasantly hinting of musk.
The biggest surprise of the evening, however, was the fried chicken. Another Joe's item that is frequently whispered about but not lauded like the crabs, the chicken was fantastic -- moist inside, all crackle and crunch outside. A true Southern experience, and something of a bargain in addition.
Where you find main courses a la carte, you'll also find side dishes a la carte. Joe's is known for its garlic creamed spinach, but we were disappointed by the flat metallic taste of the batch we got. The brown and disintegrating spinach looked as old as the restaurant itself, and did not improve the grilled tomatoes, another vegetable dish, on which it was layered. The anemic beefsteaks were soggy, joyless. A third side, the lyonnaise hash browns, was also rather flavorless. The chunks of browned potatoes actually required ketchup, a request that horrified our waiter.
Though we did experiment a little with the fare at Joe's by ordering stone crabs for a starter and fried chicken for dinner, there's only one way to go out, and that's on a slice of Key lime pie. This truly is a delicious dessert, the filling dense and tart and ideally counterpointed by a graham cracker crust.
Joe's expanded last year. Parts of the restaurant, including the bar, have been redone and a parking garage added, with a general sense of spaciousness the welcome result. Things aren't as hectic as they used to be in the foyer and on the sidewalks. The tables aren't so jammed together, and it's possible to experience something close to privacy in certain dining areas. But the question remains: Can you enjoy a meal at Joe's if you're just a regular Joe? No matter how good the crabs, I'm not waiting in any line for two hours to find out.
Joe's Stone Crab
227 Biscayne St, Miami Beach; 673-0365. Open for lunch Tuesday -- Saturday from 11:30 a.m to 2:00 p.m. Open for dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.
Large stone crab claws
Key lime pie
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