Howie Kleinberg is probably known to most people for his appearance on Top Chef Season 3, shot in Miami, where he was one of three local products. While Howie may be remembered best by Top Chef viewers for his abrasive manner and propensity for perspiration (given that among my talents are sweating and growing hair in inappropriate places, I can sympathize), he also seemed to cook his best when working with pork. The bulldog personality makes its appearance in the name of his new restaurant, and the affinity for pork also shows up in many items on the menu at the recently opened Bulldog BBQ.
Though the space is in an undistinguished strip mall along Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach, it's actually reasonably pleasant once you step inside. It's clean and modern looking, with some red walls, simple furniture, an open kitchen with about 8 bar seats around a portion of it, and a soundtrack of guitar rock of the late '70s and early '80s that made me feel like I was back in high school. It looks like most of the 'cue items are done in a couple cabinet smokers, with ribs and chicken heated up on a grill for service and small amounts of other meats pulled throughout the night and kept warm in a steam table setup. It's not likely to please a bbq purist, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not good eats.
On our first visit, we started with "BBQ Lettuce Wraps," which brought a pile of pulled chicken (or pork if you so choose), a pile of shredded cheese, a ramekin of scallion studded sour cream, and a few big crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce for some DIY lettuce wraps. Not the most elegant presentation, but tasty, in a slightly white-trash-y, Bennigan's kind of way. I'm not knocking it, it tasted good; Little Miss F loved it. On a return visit, I tried the cornbread-crusted oyster starter which brought three wee fried oysters, each over a little bed of diced avocado, tomato and onion, and dotted with a garlicky green aioli. The oysters were nicely crisp on the outside without being completely obliterated, and the flavors were on target, but this was an awfully dainty portion (particularly compared to some of the mammoth servings of other items). The turkey chili on the other hand was a hefty and hearty portion, with ground turkey, white beans, a layer of toasty cheddar cheese, sour cream, and crispy bits of cornbread on top (these in particular were a nice touch). Really almost a meal unto itself, I can't imagine eating a bowl of this and then moving on to a full plate of 'cue.
As for that 'cue ... a pulled pork main was decent, not stellar, very tender but a bit bland - though it perked up quite a bit when doused with some of the neon yellow mustard-y bbq sauce provided (a milder red bbq sauce is also available but this was just sweet and insipid). A hot smoked salmon was also good, distinctly but not overly smoky, and cooked nicely to a medium so that it stayed moist and tender throughout. The next time around I ordered the beef brisket, which was an outrageously humongous portion - there may have been an entire side of beef on my plate. This was not bbq brisket like I've ever had it before. Served up very wet, some of the slices had some nice deep char on the edges, but certainly no discernable smoke ring. In an interview, Howie's made clear that he's not trying to do super-traditional 'cue, and describes his brisket as "a cross between Jewish brisket and Texas brisket." An unusual goal, but I actually think he's accomplished what he set out to do. Me, I'd still probably prefer one or the other, but this still ain't all bad. Generally, though, all of the meats were somewhat bland, and it seems that if Bulldog isn't going to go hard-core on the barbecue technique, they should be working on something else to elevate the flavors some.
Mains come with coleslaw (good but unremarkable), cornbread (ditto, though the kids loved it) and a choice of one side. First time around, we went with cheddar grits and mac & cheese, and added on an order of the sweet fries. The cheddar grits were interesting, surprisingly using what I believe was whole hominy rather than ground grits, held together with a nicely gooey white cheddar. Not at all what I was expecting but I liked it quite a bit. The mac & chee was of the neon orange variety (but not out of the blue box), and used a distinctly smoky cheese which I found overpowering and somewhat redundant, what with the smoked meats and all. The sweet potato fries were OK, a bit limp (tough to avoid with sweets) but tasted fresh and well-salted.
On our second visit, we tried the "burnt end beans," which might be the most substantial side dish I've ever encountered. Containing far more than just some burnt ends (the crispy bits of brisket trimmings that don't make for great presentation but offer great flavor and texture), these beans were loaded with almost as much brisket as my plate - along with a topping of crispy fried sweet onions. It was so loaded with brisket it took me a few minutes just to find any beans, enough to possibly reach the point of overkill (somewhat ironic because I'm pretty sure I saw Howie prepping these, while I also later witnessed him riding one of the other kitchen staff for sending out over-large portions of the desserts). I brought home most of the beans and thoroughly enjoyed them reheated with a fried egg on top for breakfast.
For dessert the kids went with s'more pie and milk & cookies. The s'more pie was a dense slab of chcoolate with a graham crust, topped with a generous shmear of gooey marshmallow which gets toasted with a blowtorch. A sweet, sticky guilty pleasure, though what I believe was some shredded coconut in the pie filling was an unexpected and unnecessary addition, which also contributed a disconcerting grainy texture. Milk and cookies was just that, about a half dozen home-made cookies (chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, and butterscotch chip), which hit the spot for Little Miss F.
Beer selection was pedestrian, seems like a place that could really use even just a few carefully chosen microbrews to go with the 'cue. There are about a dozen wines, all nicely priced at under $25 / bottle.
Service was completely warm and friendly and food got out to the tables reasonably quickly on both our visits; it looked like they were doing a good job of turning the tables throughout the restaurant, impressively so for a packed house and a soft opening.
So is Bulldog BBQ going to be a barbecue mecca for the true believers of the low and slow arts? I doubt it. But while a number of the items could stand to be refined, I've still enjoyed a couple good meals there.
15400 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami, FL 33160
11am - 11pm daily