One thing you have to say about Miami diners: We know our retro.
We might be seduced by celebrity chefs who assemble their dishes with tweezers and sauce them with eyedroppers, or distracted by bling-laden rappers flashing their grills in this week's latest hot spot, but when a restaurant begins dishing out crappy meat loaf or mediocre mac and cheese, we knock them down faster than we would Fidel attempting to become our next mayor.
Case in point, the Diner, or rather JJ's American Diner.
The former just-plain-Diner was about as retro as a jewel-encrusted iPod. For one, the look of the place was all wrong. With its slickster purple, gray, and black color scheme, blond wood furnishings, and wavy, sculpted-metal ceiling, it had all the bland, generic modernity of an anonymous European airport lounge. Although the menu offered a handful of retro staples in addition to "Tuscan-style" lobster, sesame tuna, and mojo-marinated chicken most of them sucked.
Enter Jeff Howard, whose family ran a chain of popular JJ's American Diners for almost a dozen years until the economy during the mid-Nineties swept them off the plate. A few months ago he took over the failing Diner, threw out the faux-Tuscan, faux-retro menu, installed a jukebox and some flat-screen TVs, and christened it JJ's. It still looks as retro as a European airport lounge, but the meat loaf, chili, and mac and cheese are back, they're affordable, and they no longer suck.
Well, maybe the mac and cheese puckers a little. The portion, albeit large enough to feed a family of four, is bland in spite of the heavy dose of neon orange cheddar cheese, and the penne pasta is cooked a few too many minutes beyond al dente.
The crisp and tender fried shrimp are quite good, leaving behind only the tiniest film of oil tasty stuff when dredged in a modestly spicy, surprisingly fresh-tasting cocktail sauce. Chili is reminiscent of what Mom used to make, maybe better, because Mom probably didn't grind sirloin into the chuck an upscale touch for such a down-home dish. It's stand-a-spoon-up-in-it thick, with lots of meat, not too many beans, and garnished any way you like.
Meat loaf is like Mom used to make, too, that is if she had a serious garlic jones and Dad didn't mind her breath potent enough to crisp his whiskers. Two fat, meaty slabs are laden with whole garlic cloves detected first by your nose and then eyes. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your relationship with garlic.
The kitchen also knows how to treat a burger, beginning with the meat a hand-shaped patty, not a cookie-cutter perfect circle expertly cooked to a precise medium-rare and slapped onto a fluffy bun with all the fixings. Only one quibble: It's served with potato chips instead of French fries, which if you're not paying attention (as I wasn't), you don't realize until it's too late. Note to Jeff: Throw in some fries, raise the price by 50 cents if you must, but a burger needs frites.
If you're tired of all that red meat, choose the chicken half a bird decently roasted and a cut above the tired old cluckers that rotate for days on the supermarket rotisserie. I would have skipped the feathered option if not for the accompanying cornbread a chunk the size of a city block, studded with Anaheim chilies and crunchy corn kernels.
For dessert, nothing beats carrot cake, and this one is a killer six layers of moist pecan-and-raisin-laced cake spread with a rich, unctuous cream cheese frosting. It's a wedge so huge you could almost snowboard down it.
We know retro, and so does JJ's.
1450 S Dixie Hwy, Coral Gables; 305-669-2698. Open daily 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
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