Josh Marcus' heretically un-kosher Surfside deli has lampooned itself as a lot of things. It's been a pizzeria, a barbecue joint, and a blank slate for a handful of Miami's favorite chefs. Yet it seems no alter ego has garnered the success and attention Marcus hoped for until now.
A few months ago, a mysterious Instagram account called BarbacoaMia appeared offering invitations for what could only be described as Mexican barbecue. Turns out it was Marcus and sous-chef Pablo Orozco moonlighting as pit masters and social scientists hoping to figure out how to get a new concept rolling. It'll open to the public (no invitation necessary) tonight at 6:30 and each night through Friday. Marcus says the plan is to keep the three-day-a-week schedule as they get settled in.
Here's how it works: Show up at the restaurant (which he says many of the early guests had never heard of) and peruse a handwritten menu offering a litany of slow-smoked meats in half-pound and full portions.
One night, there was a heap of smoky charred octopus tentacles ($13) alongside spicy ribs ($14/$27) marinated in sour orange, habanero and guajillo peppers, apple juice, and garlic and then rubbed with pastrami spice. They're smoked for three hours, slow-roasted for another three, and then wrapped and roasted for two hours. The process yields a rib that jars the mouth with spice and fills the head with the perfume of coriander, juniper, and cumin. These aren't the kind of ribs you find at most places claiming to offer barbecue. There's no cloying sauce, and the meat doesn't slip from the bone at the slightest touch.
Whatever meat you choose, they all come accompanied with a pile of flour tortillas, cilantro, onion, limes, and pickled vegetables. It's all bundled up in butcher paper and handed over in a single package, in an homage to the West Texas meat markets that birthed American barbecue by smoking and selling cuts of meat. Here, it's a do-it-yourself extravaganza.
Fill your tortilla with octopus, shrimp, and Orozco's 37-ingredient mole salsa founded on peanuts and almonds. It takes three days to prepare. Or liberate the rib meat from the bones and pack it inside a tortilla with his chamoy. For this eye-popping condiment, Orozco brines apricots for nearly a week and blends them with chilies and a touch of vinegar.
The idea was born from Marcus' desperation for better barbecue and Orozco's love of Mexican food. "These two cuisines are very tied together historically, more so than people realize," Marcus says. In addition to the ribs and octopus, Barbacoa's offerings have included the cheap, hard-to-cook, yet supremely flavorful shoulder cut called beef clod ($12/$20) and pork ham ($11/$20).
If all of this sounds enticing, and it should, why all the secrecy? Marcus wanted to test whether simply serving food he believed in was enough to gain notoriety. "With my past experiences, it felt like a tree falling and no one could hear it."
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So he started the anonymous Instagram account, posted cryptic photos of meat and salsas being prepared, and invited his few early followers to dinner. When they left, he asked that they post photos of their food on Instagram and tag his account. "My first thought was that it's easier to sell a secret than good food," he says.
And in Miami, it probably is. People here clamor for even the shortest-lived pop-ups and can't wait to grab a table at the next hot place. "Knowing something about a place first, before anybody else, gives you the ability to say, 'I've been there before anybody else,'" says Danielle Kijanczuk, who drove from Pompano Beach to try Barbacoa one night.
Love or hate the hype machine, it's alive and well. At least in Barbacoa's case, it seems to buoy the kind of place Miami needs.