Drunken Dragon opened just a few weeks ago, but already it's one of the buzziest places in town.
Located in a strip mall on a patch of Alton Road that more resembles a war-torn town than South Beach, the small restaurant is unassuming from the street. In fact, the only way you know this is the place is the fact that people are walking in and out of the unmarked spot. That, and Siri tells you the Drunken Dragon is located between Bank of America and Domino's.
Inside, it's a different story altogether. After taking your name (better make a reservation to snag a coveted barbecue table), pretty hostesses lead you to the bar, where you can sip a tiki libation while taking in the ambiance. Drunken Dragon partner Jarred Grant tells us it's a mix of local neighborhood English tavern and Japanese izakaya.
It's best described as a modern version of those classic tiki palaces of the 1950s and '60s complete with an A-framed roof, nautical rope accents, and chinoiserie wall decor. After pointing this out, Grant agrees the bar does have a "Polynesian look to it," adding that he and his partners didn't actually get renderings for the space. "They wanted to charge us $10,000, so we opted out. Luckily, it turned out well. It was taking a leap of faith and hoping for the best, and it did, because it turned out great."
Grant also said the lack of exterior signage was intentional. His partners -- Angel Febres and Conrad Gomez -- also own Foxhole, another successful Miami Beach spot without a lot of hoopla pointing to its existence. Grant explains he asked his partners what made the bar special, and they said people loved Foxhole's backalley entrance and red light. "I was surprised, but people like walking around with their phones and not finding it on the first try."
Grant added that Drunken Dragon also works because it's a neighborhood place. "In the past, nearly everything in South Beach has focused on tourist traffic. You can't do this with a tourist place because people will give up. But many of our customers live in the area.
"I lived in Los Angeles for a while, and one of the things I really enjoyed was that some of the best sushi places, including the original Katsuya, were in these little nondescript strip malls. When you're walking in, you have no idea what lies behind that door. Our customers walk into Drunken Dragon and they're blown away."
The food and drink, by the way, match the room in vibe and care. The menu, created by chef Xavier Torres, is a mashup of Asian-inspired dishes and Korean barbecue. Some lucky tables are equipped with barbecues, but even if yours is a standard table, you can still order items like chicken, short rib, and vegetables.
Before you choose your main course, however, opt for the twice-fried fried chicken ($14), a generous portion that's easily enough for two. Crisp on the outside, the meat is like butter on the inside.
Drunken Dragon's version of a lobster roll ($18) may be only a few bites, but it's a definitive take on a New England summer classic. And, like a Maine summer, it's gone before you know it.
Short-rib barbecue ($12) is a deal. Hunks of meat still on the bone pair well with an order of barbecued vegetables ($8).
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One sip of Drunken Dragon's Mai Tai ($14) brought visions of hula girls. A good tiki drink is sweet, spicy, and deceptively potent. Another cocktail, the Drunk and Stormy, is a play on the classic Bermuda drink. Instead of Gosling's rum, Sailor Jerry is used to "spice" up the ginger beer's bite ($14). The Broken Shaker's Gui Jaroschy will expand on the tiki drink theme, which is a good thing, indeed. Miami's climate calls for these tropical libations.
In all, Drunken Dragon is well worth forging Alton Road's construction. Just think of it as an adventure to a far-away dark den of exotic cocktails and savory meats grilled to order. And if that doesn't work, you can always valet your car ($15).