When the Chips Are Down
When a barbecue restaurant in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was recommended to writer Calvin Trillin, a true barbecue enthusiast, his first instinct was to ask whether it used plates. "Of course they have plates," he was told, at which point Trillin lost interest. "I have eaten fine barbecue on plates," he explained, "but I would hesitate to eat barbecue in a place that has plates 'of course' or 'naturally' or 'certainly.'"
Very likely, then, Trillin would be disappointed by two local barbecue joints, Shorty's and People's. Not because they use plates (though they do), and not because their respective food isn't good (it is); rather, it's a matter of time. Real barbecue places, which are few and far between, cook their meats slowly over wood chips -- imagine ribs smoldering over an open pit for half a day or more. And yet most barbecue spots, Shorty's and People's among them, cook their ribs and chicken on a grill for considerably less time than that, and therefore don't, strictly speaking, serve what purists consider the authentic article. Still, the meats do get cooked in a relatively slow manner, becoming imbued with the smoke of specific wood chips. This process creates flavors quite distinct from those of back-yard barbecues, where chicken or burgers sizzle on gas grills or char quickly over an inferno of fat drippings, charcoal, lighter fluid, and the hair on Dad's arm. (The charcoal that Dad uses, incidentally, has nothing to do with coal. These briquettes consist of wood, along with various filler, that has been "charred" in a kiln without oxygen.)
In truth, Shorty's started out as something of a back-yard barbecue. Georgia native E.L. "Shorty" Allen moved here in the late Forties. While driving his meat-delivery truck between Miami and Homestead he noticed a dearth of places to eat. Not long afterward he set up a barbecue stand just south of Miami, which at the time was undeveloped to the point of resembling one big back yard. In 1951 a log-cabin-style restaurant called Shorty's Bar-B-Q replaced the successful stand. Back then some diners still hitched their horses outside, and food was cooked over an open pit. The place burned down in 1972; two years later it was rebuilt in a manner faithful to Shorty's original Western motif, with screened-in windows, cement floors, and weathered log walls adorned with rusty stirrups, cowboy hats, American flags, stuffed animal heads, wagon wheels -- you get the drift.
Other aspects of Shorty's have remained constant through the years, such as sweet, personable, and ever-hustling waitresses, a lively turnover of diners, the buzz of people enjoying themselves communally at long, family-style picnic tables, and an overall good-timey environment. Of course not everyone is into the communal thing, and it's possible that an uncomfortable situation could arise if fate seats one such person next to a chatty, hyperactive eater with sharp elbows.
The look and feel of Shorty's may not have changed much, but in the Seventies a tightening of the codes regulating open pits precipitated a new means of cooking. Nowadays the flavors of Shorty's old pits are simulated in large, gas-fueled, wood-burning convection ovens with rotating shelves. After absorbing the swirling hickory smoke, the meat is transferred to a grill to finish cooking. Technology marches on.
A generous platter's worth of food comes crammed on a plastic oval plate, the main course cushioned by a piece of bread and supported on one side by a large stack of crinkle fries nearly hot enough to melt the plastic. Clinging to the other side of the overburdened plate is a cup of fresh, creamy cole slaw, a fundamental version of finely chopped cabbage tossed with mayo, vinegar, celery seed, sugar, and, according to one of Shorty's veteran managers, "a couple of other things" (Mulder and Scully would have a hard time getting to the truth behind many of Shorty's "confidential" recipes).
Another mystery: Is barbecue sauce applied to the meat before cooking? Shorty's claims a small amount is brushed on, but our chicken was clearly unsauced, as well as underseasoned. On the positive side, it was juicy, crisp of skin, and infused with the deep, smoky aroma of hickory. And one can easily remedy the bird's nakedness, either with a squirt of commercial barbecue sauce from a squeeze bottle on the table, or with a splash from a shaker of the homemade variety that's brought out hot (temperature-wise) with dinner. The former has a sweetened ketchup/chili sauce taste; the latter is a stick-to-the-ribs combo of horseradish, tomato paste, numerous spices, and a pungent, smoky flavor, either derived from meat drippings or from droplets of Liquid Smoke (another of Shorty's secrets).
Speaking of sticking to the ribs, choose the meaty, succulent pork baby backs (the pink Cadillac of the menu at $12.99), not the regular pork ribs, which carried more fat than flesh and, like the chicken, were insipidly seasoned. No such problems with the pork steak, a large, thin cutlet whose robust flavors owe more to soaking in marinade than smoking with chips. Nor with the sliced beef or pork, either of which can be ordered as a platter ($5.99 for beef) or tossed with sauce between two halves of a soft white roll for a terrific sandwich ($3.65 for beef). Wash it down with a cold beer or tall cup of pink lemonade.
A la carte side dishes include baked potato, baked sweet potato, superior homemade baked beans, and corn on the cob, which, after having evidently spent more time underwater than the Titanic, has few surviving nutrients. Maybe mushy kernels would be a concern at Norman's, but here the steaming corn, skewered and easily twirlable atop a cob-size paper container of melted butter, seems appropriate and tastes mighty good.
Desserts are few: vanilla or chocolate frozen yogurt plus a creditable key lime pie, white and velvety with a chilled whipped-cream topping ($2.49).
Shorty's has two additional locations (11575 SW 40th St.; 5989 S. University Dr., Davie), as well as a catering operation that's directed by Larry Greenstein, the son of one of the four owners who took the reins from Shorty in 1980. Greenstein attributes Shorty's success to "good and consistent food at a reasonable price -- and a friendly atmosphere." It's an astute and accurate description of the place.
Those same words also define the appeal of People's Bar-B-Que, even if the Overtown eatery is worlds away from Shorty's in both distance and design. In 1996 brothers Derek and Carl Lewis, whose parents started People's 38 years ago, moved the business across the street from its original location. The new site is bright and clean, its peach walls with white and teal highlights providing a toned-down pastel version of the Miami Dolphins team colors. (The L-shape room is decorated like a poor-man's All-Star Cafe, with a plaque commemorating Rickey Henderson's stolen-base record, a Wayne Gretzky autographed hockey stick, and other sports memorabilia showcased here and there.) At People's the communal experience pretty much consists of a shared view of I-95's support beams and the inescapable soundtrack of a television blaring in an upper corner of the room. As at Shorty's, though, the down-home friendliness of the staff and clientele provides an ambiance that delivers much more than is evinced by the decor.
The menu here is diverse, with items such as oxtails, ham shanks, and even chitterlings lending a decidedly Southern accent. Side dishes, in particular, represent pure Dixie soul food: collard greens with bits of ham hock, pigeon peas and rice, extremely sweet and cinnamony candied yams, black-eyed peas, way-greasy macaroni and cheese, baked beans with bacon and molasses, exemplary creamed corn, string beans that have spent even more time underwater than Shorty's corn on the cob, and a half-dozen other selections. Dinners -- with a choice of two of those lip-smacking sides and a densely moist and buttery cornbread muffin -- start at $7.00 and putter up to $8.75 for a T-bone steak, the only item more than $8.00. Oak (well suited for all types of foods) is the wood of choice for smoking here. The wood chips are scattered in an open pit (the Lewises spent more than a year in court to win the right to install one in their new space), over which are piled chicken and ribs. Both are brought to the table bathed in barbecue sauce, a "secret family recipe" (courtesy of the brothers' father) that's tangy with vinegar, a surprising toffee-brown in color, and mildly spiced, though they'll kick up the heat upon request. The chicken is tender, with juicy and aromatic white breast meat, and the ribs are thick with smoky pork (the barbecue meat of choice in the hog-rich South -- cattle-raising regions west of the Mississippi prefer beef). The "small ends" are particularly porky, and are well worth the 50-cent surcharge over the regular cut ($7.25). And don't hold it against the Lewises, but their barbecue is served on real plates, with real silverware. Giant beverages of soft drinks, lemonade, and iced tea come in plastic cups, however. Alcohol is not sold here.
Oxtails are also tasty, though I'm so accustomed to eating them braised that in their dry-cooked state the six discs of sauceless meat seem barren. Not the case with two substantial pork chops, which are smothered in a sweet and savory beef-based sauce augmented by chopped onions and peppers. Only the barbecue beef sandwich disappoints, the hearty pile of thinly sliced brisket sabotaged by a tomato sauce that tastes as though it belongs on pizza. An enormous breaded and fried grouper fillet on white bread with lettuce, tomato, and mayo is far more satisfying ($4.25).
There's just one constant in People's random world of rotating desserts, and that's their homemade bread pudding, a glorious rendition that includes raisins, pineapple, and coconut ($1.40). After that it's pretty much the luck of the draw as to whether the pound cake will be flavored with coconut or 7-Up, whether the chocolate cake will be German or red velvet (the latter topped with a sour-cream frosting), and whether the luscious banana pudding will be available. It doesn't really matter; they're all good.
To partake of barbecue that enthusiasts such as Trillin thrill to, you'll need to travel the side roads of America, which, come to think of it, isn't a bad vacation plan. (Start with Memphis and Kansas City.) Otherwise, you can make do with the delectable fare at People's and Shorty's. It may not be bona fide barbecue, but all that's required to enjoy it is a hearty appetite.
Shorty's Bar-B-Q 9200 S Dixie Hwy, South Miami; 305-670-7732. Lunch daily 11:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday 4:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:00 p.m.
People's Bar-B-Que 360 NW 8th St, Miami; 305-373-8080. Lunch Monday and Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Wednesday -- Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday 2:00 to 10:00 p.m., Tuesday 4:15 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:15 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
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