It's 5 a.m. and Jean Lucel is already smoking. As Little Haiti begins coming to life in the wee hours, the 37-year-old Lucel, who is soft-spoken and sports a voluminous black beard, will spend the next eight or so hours monitoring piles of brisket, ribs, and chicken while refreshing the tinderbox with oak and keeping tabs on his nearby tattoo shop.
Seems crazy? Not really. That's just Miami hustle and another day in the life at Bon Gout BBQ (99 NW 54th St., Miami; 305-381-5464; bongoutbbq.com), which opened about four months ago and quickly became a morning favorite for beat cops, wayward hipsters from the Design District and Wynwood, locals in the surrounding neighborhood, and the after-school crowd.
They're all here for the Haitian barbecue that combines the low and slow technique of American cookery with Haitian preparations and the flavor of epis. Epis is to the people of Haiti what sofrito is to the Spanish-speaking world. Onions, scallions, bell peppers, garlic, and parsley are pulverized into a coarse paste that's applied liberally to almost everything. Like so many iconic dishes and base ingredients, recipes vary. Some add basil, while others prefer Scotch bonnet peppers and celery. No one from Bon Gout will, as expected, reveal their recipe, yet after several hours in the smoker, the epis dehydrates, forming a smoky, punchy crust with a sharpness that slyly balances out the meat's fat. The brisket ($15 for a dinner with two sides and $12 for a sandwich on sweet Cuban bread) is one of the best versions of this fickle cut of meat and a rare find in Miami with a smoky flavor that penetrates deep into the fatty interior. There are also ribs in a similar format ($14 for a meal with two sides, $10 for a sandwich, $36 full rack, $20 half rack) as well as chicken ($12 dinner, $10 sandwich) with burnished, crisp skin and wiltingly tender meat.
Could this have happened anywhere other than Miami? Probably not. Bon Gout is part neighborhood meeting spot, part social activism hub, and, above all, a place to find food unlike anything else.
Its three owners — Wesley Bissaint, Edward Rawson, and Jean Lucel — all had disparate jobs but a shared passion for eating and for Haiti. In 2016, Bissaint, who is 39 and the cook of the group, persuaded Lucel and Rawson to help him start a weekend barbecue operation on the corner of NE Second Avenue and NE 58th Street that quickly become a neighborhood staple and one of the most sought-after vendors for festivals and special events. Soon customers who caught them out on the street during the weekdays would complain about having to wait until the weekend for rib sandwiches with smoke that penetrates all the way to the bone.
"The best thing we've had is the support of the community," says Rawson, whose grandparents immigrated to Haiti in the early part of the 20th Century. Today he runs a nonprofit on the island focused on reforesting it. "They're the ones that made this dream possible."
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Yet the connection goes even deeper. Jean Lucel, who owns the tattoo shop, also runs an ad hoc food pantry through his LMJ Foundation in partnership with Farm Share and gives away hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of food to the community each week. The three are already in the midst of gathering funds to support a turkey giveaway this Thanksgiving and hope to dish out more than a thousand birds. Earlier this month, the Miami Police Department honored Lucel for all the work he's done in the community over the years. "Damn, that food is good," one officer said in a video of Lucel receiving an award that he posted on Instagram.
Among the biggest sellers is Bon Gout's griot ($10), which is served with ripping-hot, piquant pikliz. In addition to offering the traditional hunks of pork shoulder that are boiled with epis, cooled, and then fried, Bon Gout breaks it down further and packs it into three corn tortillas ($8) with queso fresco, cilantro, and, of course, that pikliz.
It's a nod to the five years Rawson spent in Los Angeles. In fact, all of Bon Gout's meats, from the brisket ($9) to the chicken ($7), as well as fried snapper ($10), can be incorporated into these "zakos" — a portmanteau of "tacos" and "zoe," slang for the members of the Miami-based Haitian gang Zoe Pound and a slang name some Haitians call one another depending upon the company.
So, sure, maybe you can find a mashup of barbecue and tacos in other parts of the country. Austin is the first that comes to mind. But you can bet few places in Texas spice the meat like Haitians and turn around some of the proceeds to invest in the community. That's something Miami has locked down.