On a sunlit Wednesday afternoon in early December, Myron Mixon sits at a wooden picnic table on the back patio of the new Wynwood barbecue joint Pride and Joy. His long white hair is pushed away from his fleshy face. His thick beard is speckled with dark whiskers. His black short-sleeved shirt fits snugly around his proud, round belly, hinting at a love of whole hogs and brisket sandwiches dipped in au jus. In the distance, the sweet smell of burning wild cherrywood wafts across the restaurant's 220-seat indoor dining room.
"These girls are looking skinny!" he says in a lilting Georgia accent to a passing waiter while referring to my colleague and me. "Get me an order of the baby-back mac 'n' cheese." Judging by the amount of food he's ordered, it appears he's intent on wheelbarrowing us out of the place, which has been open only about a month.
A few minutes later, a bowl of piping-hot, buttery mac 'n' cheese arrives. The creamy pasta is laced with rich slivers of meat, which are shredded from fatty, smoked baby-back ribs. After one bite, our mouths curve into wide grins. This is delicious Americana.
Then, with a pounding thud, Mixon plants his right fist on the table. On his ring finger rests an oversize gold band. It is engraved with the words World Champion and a sketch of a hog, whose body displays the phrase Good Stuff.
"Kiss the ring, girls," he says with a deep chuckle. "Then go tell 'em other Miami barbecue joints to change their menus and shut their doors. 'Cause once you had the best, ain't no need screwing with the rest."
If you don't know this celebrity chef, here's the story: Myron Mixon got his start in barbecue as a teenager in southern Georgia. At 15 years old, he was firing up pits and shoveling coal while helping his father, Jack, with a barbecue sauce company. In 1996, he participated in his first competition as a way to promote the sauce. He won. Since then, he has competed in 40 to 50 competitions a year.
Mixon is known as the "winningest man of barbecue" — a title and reputation he earned after trouncing the competition in three world championships. He is a judge on TLC's BBQ Pitmasters and the best-selling cookbook author of Smokin' With Myron Mixon. In short, he is one of the most experienced, renowned, and loudmouthed barbecue figures in the United States.
This past year, five South Florida locals — Mike Saladino, Chris Mayer, Paul Thielecke, Jose Santa, and Pablo Cardenas — approached Mixon's manager, Michael Psaltis, about a possible business venture. They wanted to open an eatery named Pride and Joy. They aimed to launch a destination restaurant in Miami's young Wynwood neighborhood. The partners saw potential in the budding arts district, where Wood Tavern, Joey's, Jimmy'z Kitchen, the Electric Pickle, and Bloom have shaped a tiny cornucopia of art, food, and nightlife joints. Mixon agreed. The project became the chef's first large-scale restaurant concept — complete with a draft house, honky-tonk, and beer patio.
To Mixon and his partners, Pride and Joy would be about serving authentic barbecue in an attractive setting. They considered themselves pioneers. There wasn't any "real barbecue" being smoked in the Magic City, they say. (Of course, dozens of barbecue joints rightfully consider that claim, um, hogwash.)
"This restaurant is about educating people about authentic barbecue — meat that's well smoked, with distinct flavor profiles. You got to taste the natural flavor of the meat and some smoke," Mixon says. "It should always be about the meat, with none of that fancy, 'fufu' fine-dining stuff. This is food that's meant to stick to your ribs."
Fufu, he explains, refers to heavily garnished food served in small portions. The chopped chives sprinkled atop his signature cupcake chicken — dry-rubbed skin-on thighs smoked in cupcake tins with butter and chicken stock — are about as fufu as Pride and Joy gets.
But despite Mixon's vast experience in the competitive circuit, the restaurant has encountered many challenges since opening its doors in early November. "Like all restaurants, we went through some growing pains," he says. "We got hit and slammed on our first few days, even without a bit of advertisement. We wanted to open and quietly work through the pains, but it just didn't happen that way."
Growing pains are, perhaps, an understatement. I attended opening night and found the restaurant packed. An eager crowd had lined up near the bar to wait for a table. Servers were running around frantically. The kitchen was so overwhelmed that, by 9 p.m., it had already run out of many menu items, including barbecue chicken, brisket, and fried pulled-pork egg rolls.
Several weeks later, on a weekend evening, I found the dining room a quarter full. The brisket, served on a boat-shaped tray atop an aluminum baking sheet, was dry, tough, and difficult to swallow. Seasoned with Mixon's signature 30-ingredient dry rub, the baby-back ribs were excessively charred. Paired with a smooth, sweet peach butter, the cornbread was slightly stale. The cuisine wasn't at all what I had expected from an icon like Mixon.
When I approached partner Mike Saladino about the inconsistent fare, he responded with an invitation to lunch with Mixon, who was in town for Art Basel Miami Beach. The restaurant had undergone many changes since our last visit, he said. Modifications included additional training for staff as well as layout alterations for the kitchen and prep areas near the two monstrous smokers. Combined, the custom-built smokers can cook more than 1,200 pounds of meat, he added.
Indeed, the fare Mixon offers on our most recent visit is extremely different from what we had previously experienced. This time, the brisket cheesesteak is perfect. Tender, juicy slivers of beef mingle with sautéed onions and mushrooms, all topped with a rich cheese sauce. "They wish they could do something like this in Philly," Mixon says.
The burnt ends swim in a bowl of dark, savory au jus alongside buttered Texas toast. The baby-back ribs exude a sweet aroma of maple powder and fragrant spices. The meat, Mixon explains, isn't supposed to fall off the bone. "When you bite into real barbecue ribs and let go of 'em, they'll stay put, held up by your teeth. If you want falling-off-the-bone pork, get the pulled pork."
This barbecue is not only among the best I've tried in Miami but also among the best of my life. But it's also a giant leap from the fare we ate just days earlier. Mixon assures us the quality of barbecue at Pride and Joy will now match this level.
"We are turning out a good product now," he says. "And even when you tried the food before, it was still better than anything else you had in Miami."
Myron Mixon is a confident man who knows barbecue, probably better than any other chef in the nation. But the greatest challenge here will be consistency. In order to live up to expectations, it isn't enough to serve the best barbecue to two food critics one day. Pride and Joy must provide good barbecue every day. Once Mixon achieves that goal, he can tell the rest of Miami to just eat some ribs and kiss the ring.