Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 2)

My last post, Part 1 of The Best Things I Ate in 2020, began in a blissful time before a virus turned the world upside and vigorously shook it. Restaurant meals! Tasting menus! Travel! Things I always appreciated, but also kind of took for granted. Not any more. It's been a crazy, brutal year. In the restaurant world, there have been some unfortunate losses along the way, but I've actually been surprised and gratified by how many places have somehow been able to weather this long, extended storm. Part 2 of this list picks up in the early phases of the pandemic, when shutdown orders limited all restaurants to takeout and delivery only. 

pork chops and polenta
pork chops and polenta @ home

With restaurants basically shut down, we found ourselves doing a lot more cooking at home. We also found ourselves with the opportunity to work with much better product than we were accustomed to, despite the shutdown. Restaurants started selling staples and straight-from-the-farm produce, restaurant suppliers started selling direct to individual customers, shops like Proper Sausages starting offering delivery options. The end result? A home-cooked dinner that takes a village: porchetta-spiced Proper pork chops rubbed with fennel, rosemary, garlic and lemon and dusted with fennel pollen, Moretti polenta from the Boia De larder cooked in mushroom broth, locally grown Paradise Farms oyster mushrooms via the All Day grocery, brined local tomatoes from Chef Jeremiah. I don't know that my cooking skills got any better, but the materials I could work with sure did.

Midday Snack - El Bagel
Midday Snack - El Bagel (Upper Eastside)

After a very successful run of selling their excellent, chewy, crusty bagels at pop-ups and from a food truck for years, El Bagel took the big step of graduating to a brick and mortar location in the MiMo District – opening in early March, just in time for the shutdown. Rotten luck, but they executed their pivot quickly and effectively. They're now open Thursday through Monday from 8am to noon for takeout only, with all ordering done online and pickup times given via text notice. Between the easy ordering and geographical proximity, this has worked out incredibly conveniently for me: over the past nine months, my receipts indicate that Family Frod has consumed nearly twenty dozen El Bagel bagels.[1] I usually just get a dozen plus some cream cheeses and lox, but occasionally I'll get one of their prepared sandwiches. My current favorite is this "Midday Snack," with lox cream cheese, thinly sliced ringlets of red onion, and chives, served open-faced as God intended, and best with an addition of smoked trout roe when available. (All my pictures from El Bagel).

pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue
pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue (Allapattah)

I didn't need a pandemic to remind me how much I love sandwiches – I actually wrote on the subject late last year for Edible South Florida – but 2020 did turn out to be pretty sandwich-intensive. One of my favorites was this simple, perfect pastrami sandwich from Hometown Barbecue, which opened in Allapattah last fall. Don't try to trace the spiral path of a pastrami sandwich served at a Texas-style BBQ spot opened in a wholesale produce distribution center in Miami by a Brooklyn restaurateur. Just enjoy. (All my pictures from Hometown Barbecue).


Magical Mushroom Pizza - Square Pie City
Magical Mushroom Pizza - Square Pie City

2020 also turned out to be the year of the pizza pop-up, with squared-off Detroit-style or Grandma-style pies in particular having their moment. We got several from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's Square Pie City  – none better than this "Magical Mushroom" pizza with an assortment of plump, meaty 'shrooms, oozy, melty cheese, and delightfully crisp, burnished edges. Square Pie City had been popping at Babe Froman's down south and Boxelder in Wynwood on weekends; follow the 'gram to see where they might be next.  (All my pictures from Square Pie City).

Jerk Chicken - Balloo
Jerk Chicken - Balloo (Downtown Miami)

One of my favorite openings of late 2019 turned out to be one of the biggest losses of 2020: Timon Balloo's wonderful, autobiographical Balloo restaurant in the Ingraham Building in downtown Miami. In just the few months it was open we had so many wonderful things there – the curried calabaza with labneh and black lime, the burnt cabbage with nam prik and crispy pork, the Trini style oxtails, the fantastic curry goat. The very last restaurant meal I had in 2020 was a March 11 visit, which turned out to be the last day the restaurant was open.[2] They switched to takeout and delivery and then to family meal packages for home delivery, all of which were still great – especially this delicious jerk chicken we had in late May – but the restaurant is no more.[3] I'm expecting great things from Timon in 2021. (All my pictures from Balloo).

Crawfish Boil - Phuc Yea
Crawfish Boil - Phuc Yea (MiMo District)

Aniece Meinhold and Cesar Zapata of Phuc Yea know how to adapt. They first opened Phuc Yea as the original Miami "pop-up" back in 2011.[4] Its playful, anarchic take on Vietnamese food was a hit, but when they went the brick-and-mortar route, they opted to open The Federal, a Southern themed spot, instead. Five years later, they came back around to where they'd started, and opened Phuc Yea in a multi-story spot in the MiMo District which used to be the Art Deco era Sir William Hotel. It's morphed into a "Viet-Cajun"[5] thing, while some remnants of the Federal still linger here and there too. The end result is that when they're in season, you can get a delicious crawfish boil with some spicy papaya salad alongside, plus some fluffy buttermilk biscuits too. Eating at home every night can become a drag; an "event" meal like this made it a treat.

Awash Sampler - Awash Ethiopian Restaurant
Taste of Awash - Awash Ethiopian Restaurant (Miami Gardens)

Not being able to go out to restaurants made us broaden our horizons in the search for takeout variety. One of my favorite discoveries of the past year was finding great Ethiopian food here in Miami. We were big fans of Sheba in the Design District, but I'm pretty sure it's been more than a decade since it closed. I'm now a big fan of Awash in Miami Gardens. It might be a bit of a mess to look at, particularly after traveling in a takeout container, but this "Taste of Awash" sampler of their "greatest hits" (doro wat, tibs, gomen kitfo, kik alicha and more) offered all those deep, complex, fragrant, magically spiced flavors I love, with lots of spongy rolled injera for scooping.

Chicky Sandwich - Rosie's (Overtown)
Chicky Sandwich - Rosie's (Overtown)

It was challenge enough for Jamila Ross and Akino West to open the Copper Door B&B in Overtown, the neighborhood north of downtown Miami that began as a Jim Crow era "Black only" district, and became a hub of Miami's Black community and culture before being fragmented by highway construction and decades of chronic neglect. Then came COVID. Undaunted, they opened Rosie's, a breakfast and lunch pop-up that serves a short but sweet selection of delightful things: fluffy buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken and waffles, fish and grits, chocolate and guava croissants, and very possibly the best crispy chicken sandwich I've had in Miami.[6] The Chicky Sandwich features a fantastically bubbly, crispy slab of chicken doused in hot sauce, with bread and butter pickles, a lemon aioli, and a drizzle of Buffalo sauce. It's perfect. (All my pictures from Rosie's).

Wabi Sabi Omakase Platter - Wabi Sabi (Upper Eastside)
Omakase Platter - Wabi Sabi (Upper Eastside)

One of our staples over the past several months has been takeout from Wabi Sabi by Shuji, Shuji Hiyakawa's spot on 79th Street just west of the Causeway. Sometimes we keep it simple and get the chirashi bowls; other times we splurge on one of these baller omakase sushi platters. Yes, it helps that it's right on the path of my commute and only a few minutes from home. But it also helps that this is about as "special-event" as a takeout meal can feel. Is it the same as the intimate joy of an itamae preparing and handing you each piece of sushi, one by one? Of course not. But it's a joy nonetheless. Wabi Sabi is now open for dining in, as well as takeout, and Shuji has also now opened Hiyakawa, which looks like an absolute knockout, in Wynwood. (All my pictures from Wabi Sabi by Shuji).

Chips & Chicks - Red Rooster
Chips & Chicks - Red Rooster (Overtown)

One of the most anticipated Miami openings of the past year (or more) has been Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster, a project that was first announced roughly five years ago. They were nearly ready when COVID came along; instead of opening the restaurant, they shifted gears and worked with World Central Kitchen to provide thousands of meals to those in need. Finally in June they took a step toward opening with "The Creamery," serving ice creams along with a short list of cooked dishes for take-out. We celebrated the Fourth of July with a take-out feast, the highlight of which was this "Chips & Chicks," an improbable but delicious mashup of nachos with Ethiopian flavors: doro wat "chili," creamy cheddar cheese sauce and fresh ringlets of fresno chiles, served over crispy plantain chips. After re-closing when COVID numbers started to escalate, Red Rooster has now reopened for real as of the beginning of this month, with Chef Tristan Epps at the helm and dinner service seven nights a week. (All my pictures from Red Rooster).

Crispy Chicken Banh Mi - Benh Mi's
Crispy Chicken Banh Mi - Benh Mi

2020 was the Year of the Sandwich for me. For many, it was also the Year of the Side Gig (and sometimes, that "side gig" became the "only gig," at least for a while). In some instances, these two overlapped. Chef Ben Murray had some time on his hands when Pao at the Faena temporarily shuttered. Fortunately for all of us, he used that time to start Benh Mi, selling banh mi sandwich kits via Instagram. And they're the best banh mi I've had in South Florida: crisp, airy baguettes (made for him by Bettant Bakery in South Beach); delicious fillings, especially these shatteringly crisp chicken nuggets; fresh crunchy pickled and fresh vegetation; plus "umami mayo" and "funky sauce" to round everything out. And now in a win-win situation: Pao has reopened, and Ben is working on opening a brick-and-mortar "Benh Mi" in South Beach. I'm looking forward to that. (All my pictures from Benh Mi).

Muffuletta - Boia De (Buena Vista)
Muffuletta - Boia De (Buena Vista)

Are you starting to see a theme here yet? Sandwiches. The theme is sandwiches.  (All my pictures from Boia De). And this is a great one: the muffuletta from Boia De, with all the finest meats and cheeses of the land and some tangy giardiniera squeezed into some crusty Sullivan Street Bakery bread. Boia De's reopened for dinner with outdoor seating, plus on Sundays you can usually choose from among some combination of the muffuletta, the Pollita, or the Godmother sandwiches for takeout or delivery. Because sandwiches.

We're not quite done with 2020 yet! Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon.

[1] For several months, I had some help from Little Miss F; but since the fall, this has been mostly my handiwork.

[2] Timon may also be the last person I hugged who wasn't an immediate family member.

[3] The Bar Lab team recently opened Taqueria Hoja in its place, which also marks the return of Alex Chang (last at Vagabond) to Miami.

[4] Curiously enough, in the same space where Balloo opened and which is now Taqueria Hoja.

[5] A culinary portmanteau that's been happening organically in Louisiana over the past several years as the cuisines of the Cajuns and Vietnamese immigrants meet.

[6] The Pollita from Boia De, which appears later in this list, will put up a good counter-argument.

No comments:

Post a Comment