Cleaning up from that Florida trip last month…
One of my favorite restaurant types is the barbecue shack. Not the barbecue restaurant, mind you – those are fine as long as they’re not chains – but the actual shack, something I’ve only encountered in Florida to date. The usual model is two small buildings by the side of the road, a small smokehouse where the actual Q happens and a shack nearby where orders are taken and food is served. There is never indoor seating, and the menu is extremely limited, as it should be. My all-time favorite barbecue shack is Big Ed’s in Dunedin, right near the Blue Jays’ spring training ballpark; the late Bobby Mattick tried it once and raved about it, so I tried it and was hooked. Big Ed’s still serves the best pulled pork I’ve ever had, anywhere.
Less than a mile from our hotel on this trip stood another barbecue shack, this one called McCray’s II. I went with my usual meal, a pulled pork sandwich and a side of barbecue beans. The pork was good, with a light smoke flavor and plenty of moisture left in it, so that the sauce was just for added flavor rather than to cover up the fact that the meat is dry. The beans were a disappointment – one trend I noticed in Florida was the tendency to cook many foods to within an inch of their lives so that their texture blows by al dente and ends up mush. Perhaps it’s a nod to Florida’s older population. Perhaps people down there just overcook everything by habit. Either way, it’s not good eats. But the pork was worth the trip.
Found a surprisingly good New York-style pizzeria in Palm Beach Gardens, called Giovanni’s, just off I-95. I’m a big fan of pizza in general – anything except Chicago/deep-dish, which is just a typical (dare I say it) American more-is-more approach to pizza – but having grown up in New York, I have a particular fondness for that style of thin-but-not-too-thin crust. Giovanni’s was solid, good crust with a crisp bottom below a soft dough that still had some softness to it; a sauce that didn’t taste like sugar; and the right amount of cheese. They also do a very nice garden salad, with artichokes, roasted red peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes on top of field greens. A medium cheese pizza and the salad (which serves two to three) came to about $17.
While down in Miami Springs to see a high school player I stumbled on a Thai place that was actually about to close for the afternoon, but turned out to be a gem. Rama Thai and Sushi appears to be mostly Thai, with a tiny sushi bar with only 3-4 stools, so Thai was what I went for. I had a lunch special, which was a huge bargain: $7 got me a miso soup, one fried spring roll (vegetarian, I think), and a just-right serving of pad thai. The pad thai was different, less sweet than I’m used to (that’s fine) with an earthy undertone, which I think came from cumin. I wanted to be polite and let them close up for the afternoon, but I have to mention that the cop sitting at the next table went for a very intriguing dessert of fried dumplings. He knocked off two plates, amazing since he looked like he weighed about 120 pounds.
Couple of not-so-great places to report on: Greek Taverna in Vero Beach looked promising, but the food was lousy. I went with a chicken kabob – I know, the gyro might have been a better choice – and the chicken had a bizarre texture, as if it wasn’t fully thawed when it was placed on the grill. Back in West Palm Beach, Jasmine Thai over on Haverhill Road promises “authentic Thai cuisine,” but while the tom yum goong was outstanding, the sauce on the pad thai clearly had peanut butter in it, making it sticky and way too sweet. The best part of that restaurant was the clientele, which that day included a man from southern China who was haranguing the waiter with descriptions of China and monologues on why people in Fujian never get sick (part of it is that they eat soup twice a day, or so he said), and an apparent heroin addict who had a loud conversation on his cell phone about some TV station that wanted to interview him that night. Good stuff.