There's KFC, but then there's Church's; there's Taco Bell, but then there's Baja Fresh; there's Blimpie, but then there's Quizno's. Which is to say, just because food is chain-restaurant fast food doesn't mean it's bad and/or boring food. Case in point: Golden Krust, which is certainly a chain, if a small one compared with McD's; starting from a single shop in the Bronx back in the late 1980s, the place has expanded to 60 outlets nationally, including three in Florida. Two of these are in Miami-Dade County: a three-year-old mother ship up in North Miami and a branch along a still-iffy but increasingly gentrified stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that opened not quite six months ago. And at both, the food is tasty in a largely uncompromised-by-franchising, gutsy way ... and bargain-priced, too.
Golden Krust's national rep was built on Jamaican-style patties; every Latin nation has a take on empanadas, but Jamaica's substantial meals-in-a-crust seem the unofficial national food. What's great about the bakery shops is that they offer way more than just the varieties sold (mild and hot beef, chicken, and vegetable), packaged in the company's familiar stylized-sunny boxes, on supermarket frozen-food shelves -- nine in all.
What's not so great is that the most interesting varieties often aren't available at the more centrally located Biscayne shop. All baked goods are made uptown, and shipped down according to a system that defies logic. "Yah, when people see the callaloo in the window, they want them," the very sweet server cheerfully told me to explain why he'd sold out the limited quantity allotted by uptown of my favorite patty -- stuffed with a Caribbean green similar to spinach but with an appealingly heftier kalelike crunch -- early the day before. Also unavailable were soya (which I mainly get for nostalgic vegetarian friends; the texture is remarkably similar to ground beef); meat loaf, ground beef with bits of onion and peppers in an unusual sourdough crust; and jerk chicken, a new variety that I prefer to regular chicken due to its piquant spicing and chunky texture, though the pulled chicken patty's curry flavor is admirably assertive, too.
In contrast, shrimp patties, which are also supposed to be curried, tasted mostly of hot peppers; they are also supposed to contain shrimp, but there was no evidence of any in the pasty filling save an unpleasantly overfishy odor. No surprise that there were plenty of these available. Also disappointing was a vegetable patty; my memory of these, from Golden Krust's upper Manhattan shop years ago, was of a thick stuffing featuring diced carrot, broccoli, and cabbage, but the filling in this veggie version was sparse, mushy, and mostly all cabbage.
Fortunately classic beef patties were terrific, flaky crusts filled with succulent stewed beef that comes mild (but not bland) and, better, hot -- a just slightly spicier mixture that's not incendiary but enough to wake up one's mouth. Patties run $1 to $1.50.
The rest of Krust's bakery is nothing special unless you favor breads that are mostly super-sweet, often luridly colored, and no fresher than you'd find in a supermarket. But the place's "grill" component turns out some terrifically tasty -- if not actually grilled -- meals that are both big and big bargains. Especially good was the highest-ticket item, escoveitch fish ($8 small, $10 large) -- a deep-fried whole fish in chili-spiked vinegar, topped with a tongue-tingling sautéed onion/pickled carrot tangle, and accompanied by a heap of peppery herbed vegetables. And jerk chicken ($5.99), which came with the same flavorful vegetables plus a rice/pigeon pea mix, was outstanding: moist, marinated chicken with plenty enough oomph that its accompanying hot sauce could be saved to liven up our town's many blander birds.
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