Kevin Kehoe and Hans Seitz are both from the New York area and nicknamed "Sparky." After independently toying with the idea of a barbecue food truck, each came to the realization that a restaurant in a sunny place would be more practical.
Which brings us to Sparky's Roadside Barbecue in downtown Miami. Kevin and Hans opened the 48-seater a year ago.
"Slow down, take your time. You're probably only going back to work," goes one of the ever-changing mottoes scrawled on a pair of blackboards that bookend the room. In fact, the place is packed with workers during lunch; rarely will you see so many people in suits and ties chow down on smoked ribs.
The storefront restaurant boasts a clean, down-home, roadside coffeehouse ambiance, with wooden tables painted in pastel green and holding a roll of paper towels. (There is no air-conditioning yet, but plenty of whirling fans.) An L-shaped counter constructed by Hans takes up much of the left side and back area of the space. Red wainscoting runs along the rest of the walls, which are posted with beer signage, blackboards, and a collection of distinctively painted birdhouses showcasing characters such as the grim reaper, the Mario Brothers, and the Three Little Pigs.
"Part of my back yard was decorated with them, so I'm bringing a bit of my home here," says Hans, who took a sabbatical from cooking years ago and served as exhibition designer of the Miami Art Museum. "My wife Mimi, the kids, and our friends all chipped in and painted them."
"The one made to look like an outhouse is mine," Kevin boasts.
The two barbecue mavens met in the '80s while working in the kitchen at Who's in the Grove, which was owned by Stewart Copeland of the Police, Herbie Hancock, and Maria Conchita Alonso. Michael Moran, now culinary coordinator for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, was the executive chef. This is when they began calling each other Sparky.
"We were all Sparky there," he continues.
Then Kevin was invited to help at barbecue cookbook author Steven Raichlen's birthday party. "He had like ten smokers in his back yard; he was basically cooking everything for his current book at that time." Afterward, he described the experience to Hans, who soon tricked up his own smoker, with aluminum foil as the lid, and the experimenting began.
They messed with rubs, woods, and different temperatures and then obtained a Friedrich convection smoker — "a machine the size of a Hummer in the middle of [their] kitchen."
Their experimentation paid off. Already legendary among Sparky's regulars, the brisket sandwich here is a freshly grilled bun piled with juicy slices of prime beef imbued with full, smoky goodness and spice-rubbed flavor. They use a blend of some two dozen seasonings for the rub, and a mixture of young hickory and apple woods shipped from Maine. "The hickory gives it a dense smokiness, and the apple wood kind of throws a little sweetness in there," Kevin explains.
The pulled pork sandwich is equally fetching, featuring the same potent smoke and juice as the brisket. Can't decide? "Tyler's pressed sandwich" delivers griddled Texas toast packed with brisket, pork, sautéed onions, melted American cheese, and barbecue sauce. It tastes as good as it sounds.
Fried catfish, grilled fish of the day, and smoked chicken thighs are among the other half-dozen sandwich fillers (as well as a half-pound Angus burger and a vegetarian burger). Try the thighs, boneless and bursting with more luscious smoke-and-rub flavor.
Sandwiches get plated with homemade coleslaw and waffle fries. The former was freshly made and deliciously creamy on some visits, a little less so on others. Timing, as they say, is everything.
"We smoke our own bacon for the beans and make our own salt pork for the collard greens too," Hans informs. They are both excellent side dishes to sample. The beans boast a bacon/brown sugar/cumin flavor that elevates it above other renditions. The collards are satisfying too, if less distinctive.
Diners select two sides when ordering a platter entrée. The pork ribs were thick, meaty, and, like the other foods, cooked "low and slow" until tender. None of the items really requires barbecue sauce, yet it would be a shame not to try at least a couple of the five or so daily homemade varieties.
"We started with the traditional Sparky's sauce; the apple-cider sauce, kind of like a Carolina sauce with vinegar and mustard; and the Hoisin barbecue sauce, with lemongrass and ginger," Hans explains. "Somebody came in and said, 'What about sweet and spicy?'"
That led to the guava-habanero barbecue sauce, which does those ribs proud. For a more dangerous bite (beware!), try the lava barbecue, a seriously fiery sauce culled from roasted poblano peppers, jalapeño, habanero, "and a bunch of other stuff" Hans grew in his home garden.
"You gotta be out of the house when he makes it," Kevin interjects, "or you'll start crying and all."
Prices? Sandwiches are $6.95 to $8.95, and entrées range from $9.95 to $12.95 (except a full rack of ribs for $21.99). Starters go for $3.95 to $5.50 and include hush puppies, fried catfish fingers, smoked chicken wings, wedge salad, and fried sour dill pickle slices crisply crusted in cornmeal and served with ranch dressing dip. But forget the dip — the pickles are delectable without it.
There are about two dozen domestic microbrews ($3.50 to $6.50, except for 22-ounce bottles). Monday-through-Friday happy hour features specials such as pints of Narragansett lager for $2.
Desserts such as brownies, pecan pie, apple-blueberry pie, and an impeccably creamy banana pudding are prepared in Sparky's kitchen. There's also a perfect coconut cream cake made by a neighbor.