"They Just Didn't Sell:" Richard Hales' Struggle to Keep Blackbrick an Authentic Chinese Eatery

There's little doubt Miami's dining ecosystem has expanded and improved by light years in only a decade or two. Chef-driven concepts and smartly sourced ingredients aren't as pervasive as many would like, but they're here and thriving.

However, gastropubs continue reproducing like rabbits. Miami diners still annoyingly cling to lowest-common-denominator dishes -- salt, fat, and starch bombs -- that people ogle and share on social media.

See also: Blackbrick Named One of Bon Appetit's Top 50 New Restaurants

These dining tendencies and preferences have reared their ugly head at Blackbrick, Richard Hales' spin on authentic modern Chinese that this week was named one of Bon Appétit's 50 best new restaurants.

Despite the recognition, Hales, since opening his latest midtown spot in late 2013, has been faced with a classic restaurateur's challenge: serve what you want or what the people want.

Prior to opening Blackbrick, Hales promised a nose-to-tail concept. In its early days, there were meaty, gelatinous chilled chicken thighs, jellyfish salad, wok-fried tripe, and a variety of other odds and ends.

"All of those things are off the menu because they just didn't sell," he says.

See also: Blackbrick in Midtown Serves the Chinese Food You've Been Waiting For

Even the lamb's tongue laobing -- a relatively innocuous hot pocket of deliciously gamey ground lamb tongue wrapped in a slightly salty, buttery crust -- is gone.

"I put rock shrimp fried rice on the menu; I can't keep it in stock. It's like it's 1985," Hales says.

Sometimes on Blackbrick's menu or its social media accounts, you'll see three letters next to a dish: "MYW" ("Miami, you win"). Hales will sell you your honey chicken or whatever dumbed-down, Americanized, brown-sauce-slathered chicken trimming you grew up eating and still long for. But Miami's diners ought to be reaching out further, especially if you're making the effort to go to Blackbrick as opposed to your neighborhood takeout spot.

"There's a real issue with what people think is authentic and traditional and what they really want," Hales says. "Those are two different things, because authentic is opening up a whole spectrum of different flavors and tastes."

Clearly, Miami's diners are as critical to the development of the city's dining environment as the chefs themselves. If you don't know where to begin, try veal sweetbreads and crispy pig ears. Think of them as croquetas and French fries.

A handful of Hales' experimental dishes have proved successful. The gong bao rabbit has done well, he says, along with General Tso's alligator and duck necks with a five-spice blend and house-made MSG.

Still, Hales is in a quick pickle, and it's clear that staying in business isn't the only thing he set out to do.

"I don't want the place to turn into every other Chinese restaurant," he says. "I'd rather get rid of it than change it."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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