Jeff Mitnick doesn't hide the fact that part of his cooking technique came from mimicking what he watched for hours on Food Network. He even repurposed some of the made-for-TV dishes for his homey, country-meets-Florida Keys restaurant. The bacon jam, a cult favorite since he and his wife Jo opened Crackers Casual Dining in Miami Springs in 2012, is one of them. It comes smeared generously onto burgers and fried chicken, though it's most popular as an appetizer, encircled by toasted rounds dusted with garlic, paprika, and parsley.
The sticky-salty amalgam that includes coffee, brown sugar, maple syrup, and apple cider vinegar is as balanced as it is addictive. "It was all trial and error; we tested it on friends who came over for dinner," Mitnick says.
Mitnick, 45, is that rare breed of Miami restaurateur: the native. He was born in Westchester to a Jewish-Cuban family and during the summers worked at his father's garment business in Hialeah. Before opening their 88-seater, he and his wife waited tables and worked bars around town for more than two decades. The leap to restaurant owners began in 2010 when Jeff's mother-in-law, who owns the nearby diner Cozy Corner, sought to hand the business over to her kids. She changed her mind, but not Jeff's, who set out to find what was missing in Miami Springs, a quaint town bridging Hialeah and Miami International Airport, where funky little buildings border the Miami River.
They strung a gray-and-brown-stone-covered building with white Christmas lights and regularly hire reggae bands to jam on a patio covered by a soaring thatched roof under which weathered oars flutter in the evening breeze.
Inside, where they offer a broad selection of Southern cuisine inspired by the massive swath of land between Louisiana and South Carolina's Lowcountry, there's little more in the way of decor than a chalkboard announcing the day's specials and Jo's desserts. They range from a sugar-high-inducing cookie dough pie to a refreshing cake with layers of pink cream flecked with bits of grapefruit sandwiched between buttery layers of angel food.
Though he's constantly peppered with questions about his place's epithet of a name, Mitnick is referencing its slang for the early Florida settlers who survived on crackers while exploring the state's untamed, mangrove-choked jungles a century ago. "We wanted to make sure we had those Old Florida dishes," he says.
Hence the reason he serves a fat catfish fillet dusted with cornmeal that adds a glorious crunch to the juicy yet firm flesh. The slightly sweet, piping-hot fry bread also has a Florida tie: It was a staple starch for the Seminoles, along with countless other Native American tribes. The golf-ball-size buns arrive bronzed, still sizzling from the fryer, and with a twinge of guilt for eating what seems like dessert for an appetizer. Not to worry, though. Simply split them open, pack them with bacon jam, and you're back to an appetizer.
Other choices aren't as tethered to Florida but still make for hearty, fairly priced fare. Chicken-fried chicken, a ubiquitous Southern delight, brings a skillfully seasoned and fried breast. Though the choicest cut of chicken is always the cheaper, fattier, tastier thigh, Crackers succeeds at serving a moist version that's worth ordering over and over. The meaty tiger prawns on the shrimp po'boy, however, are perfection. They're larger and more toothsome than pink and white varieties and stand up well against their cornmeal coating and the sandwich's spicy chipotle slaw.
A caprese burger with a Southern twist -- a fried green tomato replacing the usual red slice -- didn't hit the same high note because it was overcooked. The industrial mozzarella cheese could've been overlooked if the half-pound patty hadn't approached hockey-puck status.
Yet for all the comfort-food delights, the one dish neither Mitnick nor his servers (among them two of his three daughters) will let you leave without trying is the fried pudding. It may sound like an archetypal, over-the-top dessert, but something special happens when brioche soaked in sweet cream is cubed and fried. The outside becomes crisp in the hot oil, but the intensely sweet innards are nearly liquefied. Though some of it makes its way onto every spoonful, the huge scoop of vanilla ice cream on top is almost unnecessary.
Restaurants like Crackers, however, are indispensable. Jeff and Jo are on the floor daily clearing dishes and catching up with regulars. One recent evening, a large box propped near the entrance was stuffed with presents wrapped for a local charity.
Humming along successfully for more than two years, it's the ideal restaurant for this part of Dade. My guest one night likened the cozy spot, a stone's throw from Miami's traffic-clogged highways, to Narnia, the fantasyland created by C.S. Lewis.
Yet Crackers is better. It's real, and it has bacon jam.
Fry biscuit $3.50
Bacon jam $6.95
Shrimp po'boy $8.95
Caprese burger $8.50
Chicken-fried chicken $9.95
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Pan-fried catfish $13.95
Fried bread pudding $5.95