Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 9 a.m.
We Southern girls take to the scent of barbecue like pigs to mud on a sunny day, so when I spotted the neon Uncle Tom's sign flickering in the distance last week, I steered in. A barbecue place on Calle Ocho? Near the Gables? What a delightful surprise!
It looked like a barbecue spot should, with a red-and-white striped canopy, rustic wood railings, and neon beer signs in the window. The name alone stopped me in my tracks. I grew up with the decadence that was Tom's Place in Delray and then Boca Raton, followed by Tom Jenkins'
in Fort Lauderdale. Uncle Tom's? They must be related, I surmised.
Smoky scents poured out the front door, filling the air and taunting my nostrils. And I saw people outside dining and chirping all the while. Oh, glorious day! I'd found a barbecue spot close to my home! My heart sang as I called my boyfriend, instructing him to stop defrosting those Thanksgiving leftovers tout de suite. We're having true, blue barbecue tonight, I announced gleefully. Looking back at that moment, I never would've imagined this love story was going to have such a tragic ending.
I walked in and grabbed a stool at the bar, taking in all the scenery. The expected wooden picnic tables provided seating, sure, but what was with all the wine bottles and glasses on the tables and the huge, inflatable Corona bottle hanging from the ceiling? Who drinks Corona and wine with ribs? And espresso? And why were plastic grapes strewn around the bar? Is that Spanish music I hear? Why all the unsigned photos of classic Hollywood stars on the walls? The only comfort I found was a framed copy of New Times'
2007 "Best of Miami" award
as the bartender asked me something in Spanish.
Unfortunately, because nobody obliges when I keep requesting Rosetta Stone
for my birthday every year, I still don't speak español
. Still she understood when I responded. "Uh, take-out menu, por favor
?" At this point, the confusion really began to set in. Looking for corn fritters, I came across cod fish croquettes, roasted blood sausage, and ceviche. Under the listing "Genuine Pit BBQ" was churrasco steak, and under "Special of the House" was grilled liver steak, chicken "parmesano," and salmon fillet with seafood sauce. Sides included cassava with garlic sauce and fried sweet plantains. What kinda place was this, then? Yeah, Uncle Tom's had baked beans, barbecue chicken and ribs, and coleslaw, but these items comprised only about 40 percent of the menu.
Yet I kept hope alive, ordering a half-slab, a barbecue beef sandwich, and French fries. Even through Styrofoam boxes and a plastic bag, their scent infiltrated my car in mere seconds, making me virtually drool at the thought of being covered ear to ear in sweet red sauce. By the time I arrived home, I was giddy with expectation. My boyfriend greeted me with open arms and some interesting news. "Yeah, so I looked up this Uncle Tom's online and it turns out some Cuban family took it over a while ago. Hope it's good." (For the record, Cuban food tops my list of faves, just below barbecue and Japanese.)
But it wasn't good. It was horribly, horribly bad. His sandwich was decent, albeit a bit dry, as were the fries, but the first thing I saw when opening my box was a rack of some part of a pig or cow I've never come across. Instead of seeing sticks of mostly flat, slightly curved ribs, I found a nearly round rack of something slathered in sauce. I carved off a piece and masticated, debating if I dared try more, not actually knowing what I was eating. I opened the cole slaw container to find it not chilled, nor warm, but downright hot. And then I found a small, black hair in the box and the deal was done.
Lesson learned: Just because it looks like a pig and smells like one, doesn't mean it is one.