Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Shorty's Bar-B-Q

I was in Miami on Friday for business and managed to swing lunch at the original location of Shorty's, one of Florida's classic barbecue joints. The place was founded in 1951 by E. L. "Shorty" Allen, a Georgia native who'd recently moved to South Florida. The original log-cabinesque building burned to the ground in 1972, but it was rebuilt and still serves the same menu of ribs, chicken, and pork. (Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me so no snaps, but see the Shorty's website for some good images of the places, including the original building going up in flames.)

You might not think South Florida would have much of a barbecue tradition (and certainly "Florida style" rarely appears the canon of barbecue variations). Not so. Barbecue stands started dotting the state's roadsides during the 1920s, targeted the surging numbers of middle- and lower-class car owners who began turning Florida into a major vacation destination. Barbecue was an ideal food for roadside stands. It did not require expensive equipment, just a pit dug in the ground and filled with glowing wood coals. Wrapped in brown paper or placed between slices of bread, barbecue was easy to serve and easy to take away.

In most parts of the country, roadside barbecue stands were seasonal operations, but in Florida the warm climate allowed for a year-round auto trade. Cecil Roberts, a British travel writer who toured the state in the 1930s, noted, “Everywhere one sees ‘Joe’s Barbecue’ or ‘Tom’s Barbecue’. It may be an elaborate pseudo-Spanish bar, with gay awnings and aluminum stools, a soda fountain, or a mere wooden shanty on the roadside.” Shorty's old-timey "barbecue ranch" theme fit perfectly into the kitchy roadside attractions, as you can see in this old postcard from the 1950s:

The 1972 fire seems to have corrected the worst of the garishness, for while there is still a bit of the old log cabin look about the place, it's more just classic BBQ joint decor. You sit at long communal picnic tables with rolls of paper towels for napkins and rolled-down brown paper bags to throw them in. And you'll need that bag, too. The waitresses are real friendly, the sweet tea comes with a wedge of lime instead of lemon (a nice Miami touch). The baby back rib lunch special comes with crinkle cut fries, a slice of garlic bread, and a great finely chopped mayo-based coleslaw. The ribs don't seem slow smoked--I would guess they are cooked quickly over fairly hot fire. Parboiled, maybe--there wasn't much color to the meat--but nevertheless a good grill burn flavor and a nice, sweet brown sauce to accompany them.

The menu is posted in big black letters on white signboards on the wall--a nice touch. From what I could tell waiting for a table, it looked like the kitchen itself is enclosed only by screens. This seems like it would be some sort of health code issue, but does that really matter? It was great to stop in and sample a little flavor of 1950s Florida.

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