No Woes for Joe's
South Florida tourist agencies are gauging where the local economy stands by reading lines on comparative graphs. I got to thinking that a more accurate way to assess the matter would be by studying a real line -- like the one that forms at Joe's Stone Crab. Or used to form; since the renovation that took place six years ago, diners now wait for their names to be called while sitting at patio tables or taking part in the lively bar scene that occupies the restaurant's forefront. So I had to be content with compiling the waiting times instead, which, during the first two weeks of stone crab season were: one hour on a rainy Monday night, two hours for our return on a more clement weekend evening, and no wait at all when dining at opening time, 5:00 p.m. (arriving at this hour has always been the best way to get seated quickly here). G.M. Brian Johnson says the waiting periods are the same this year as in the past, and that although Joe's was "planning for a worst-case scenario," they've been "pleasantly surprised" by just how robust business has been. This doesn't gel with the dismal preseason slump being experienced by most South Beach restaurants.
My study was doomed to failure from the start, based as it was on the false premise that Joe's can be compared with other South Beach ventures. Joe's is anything but average. It has been an exceptional success story since 1913, when Joe Weiss opened the first eating house in Miami Beach and staked claim as the sole purveyor of what turned out to be a very popular crustacean. The continued good fortune of this family business is largely predicated on its legendary status (it was designated a historical landmark in 1975), which in turn has led to national recognition as the gastronomic tourist attraction on Miami Beach. But status and stone crabs aside, the consistent food, truly professional service, free parking (or just four dollars to valet), and surprisingly affordable prices (excepting the crabs) are reason enough for people to flock here.
And then there's the stately ambiance that only a restaurant large enough to seat 450 to 475 people can provide, a vintage environment that cannot be counterfeited: Bills get slickly slipped into palms, tuxedoed waiters whirl through the rooms with sizable oval trays of food held high above their heads, and the ebullient buzz of diners subtly occupies the air like the intangible gathering of ions before a thunderstorm. The diversity of clientele adds to the pleasantness of the unpretentious atmosphere -- not just a mix of locals and tourists but a mingling of varied races, ages, sizes, and income levels. It's difficult to imagine so sizable a dining room being any cozier, or so esteemed an establishment being any more inviting for the average diner.
The back of Joe's menu cites the huge amount of food products used over the past year: 23,639 quarts of cream for creamed spinach, 69,833 pounds of cabbage for coleslaw, and so on. The visualization of these numbers doesn't exactly serve to whet one's appetite. The most important stat, of course, is the 550,491 pounds of signature stone crabs cracked and served with signature mustard sauce. (This menu has more signatures than the Declaration of Independence.) It's true that Joe's stone crabs come from the same waters as everyone else's, but they seem to taste a little fresher and sweeter; perhaps this is because of a subconscious awareness of how quickly they're being turned over.
An order of four jumbo black-tipped claws ("jumbo" being defined as those that weigh more than 6 ounces each) goes for $49.95; five large (3 to 6 ounce) crabs for $34.95; eight medium (2 to 2.75 ounces) for $19.95. This pricey delicacy obviously subsidizes the lower-priced items on the rest of the menu, but just the same it's unseemly that insignificant restaurants with ill-assembled little dining rooms and no track record routinely charge so much more than Joe's.
To wit: A pair of thick, juicy, sweetly charred pork chops, with what tastes like apple pie filling on the side, is $17.95. Rack of lamb: $23.95. Four slices of sautéed calves liver, all a bit more well done than the medium rare requested, topped with crisp curls of bacon, is a mere $8.50 -- less money than some places charge for an appetizer the size of a thumbnail. And the wide selection of wines, always reasonably priced, have been marked down by 20 to 25 percent, Joe's sole concession to troubled times.
Years ago I took a tour of Joe's kitchens, a labyrinth of prep rooms, meat rooms, fish rooms, crab rooms, pastry rooms, dishwashing rooms, panwashing rooms, and walk-in refrigerators and freezers so large that Admiral Byrd could've gotten lost in them. That the back of the house looks more like a food factory than a kitchen is fitting, as the meals that come from there exhibit a workshoplike uniformity.
That Joe's is the same as it ever was is overwhelmingly a good thing, though I wouldn't complain if they changed their seafood bisque. It tastes like a sherry-splashed cream of tomato soup and is too thickly pudding-textured. An alluringly seasoned Manhattan clam chowder was far better, as was a chopped salad of lettuce, tomato, red onion, black olives, carrot, cucumber, feta cheese, chopped egg, and honey-roasted nuts.
We then segued into seafood, starting with a pair of golden fried jumbo lump crabcakes plumped with a seasoned filler of finely minced red pepper, scallion, onion, parsley, garlic, and hints of mustard and Worcestershire. A side of salsa dip is a sprightly nod to modern sensibilities, though I believe the crabcakes would be better complemented by a traditional tartar or remoulade sauce.
A dozen types of fish, including mahi-mahi, swordfish, halibut, pompano, and filet of sole, can be ordered straightforwardly prepared according to preference: grilled, broiled, blackened, fried, or sautéed. Some fish also are prepared in a specific manner, like garlic-herb crusted snapper, grouper with cucumber-pepper salsa, ginger salmon, and a sesame-seared tuna that was the size of a porterhouse and meltingly tender within but wasn't cooked in a hot enough pan -- the crust lacked the crunchy texture that contrasts so appealingly with the soft center. Pickled pink ginger slices atop the fish and a dish of seasoned soy sauce were apropos accompaniments to the otherwise tasty steak. Combination options include a fried seafood platter of cleanly cooked conch fritters, fish fingers, shrimp, scallops, and oysters, and a cold seafood platter of stone crabs, oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels, and Florida lobster -- for only $21.95.
Signature sides are steak-house plagiarisms. I've never been enthusiastic about the whole hash brown-lyonnaise-cottage fries triad of starches. I do, however, enjoy the traditional creamed spinach, which Joe's offers with or without garlic; both versions are velvety smooth and nicely nutmegged. When ordering sides, keep in mind that most potato dishes can feed at least four, while the spinach is portioned for one or two. Some might consider the half-dozen slices of crisply breaded fried green tomatoes generous enough for a couple to share, but my wife and I always order two portions -- not only because they're so good, but because we know it might be months, or years, before we spot them again on another menu.
Not so the ubiquitous key lime pie, which is Joe's, um, signature dessert. Its reputation as one of the best is validated as the first bite from the tall, creamy wedge dissolves in the mouth like pudding.
Chocolate cake, cheesecake, flan, and a wonderfully dense crumb-capped apple pie also are up for grabs, though nearly everybody around us was ordering key lime pie key lime pie key lime pie. Evidently its sterling reputation, backed by quality and consistency of product, has done wonders for that dessert's appeal. The same formula also explains why, after all these years, even during a time when so many other restaurants are hungering for patrons, thousands of people are willing to wait, and wait some more, to get into Joe's.
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