When Buffalo Bills wide receiver and budding barbecue mogul Isaiah McKenzie was a kid growing up in Miami, barbecue meant nothing more than a catchy jingle for a restaurant chain.
“What we had for the BBQ was like Chili’s Baby Back Ribs,” he says, gazing proudly at a plate of breast and smoked turkey at his La Traila BBQ in Miami Lakes. “I didn’t know anything about brisket or pork. Maybe you had burgers or hot dogs at a BBQ or something, but what if you were going to BBQ? You were going to Chili’s.
His business partner and pitmaster Mel Rodriguez found a similar dearth of options when he arrived from Austin. “When I got here, I went to this place that had about 4.8 stars on Yelp, and it was the worst BBQ I’ve ever had,” he says. “So I’ve been to other places that had been there for years, and it’s the same thing. I started asking managers what was up with it, and they were all like, ‘That’s our style.’
The thing is, despite what Rodriguez was told, Miami never really developed a “style” of barbecue and that may be part of the reason we’ve been sorely lacking in quality options. for so long. The best in town was mostly limited to the grills outside strip clubs and gas stations. For years, barbecue here in South Florida has struggled to carve out a true identity.
“The Palace in South Florida was like Alabama style, where you had a 55-gallon drum on the side of the road, serving ribs and chicken slathered in barbecue sauce,” says Richard Hales, owner and pit manager at Company BBQ in Midtown. “Introducing people to smoked meats was a challenge.”
But that’s started to change, and Miami barbecue has evolved into a nice mix of American standards with a distinct Caribbean influence. Places like Society and La Traila have taken the minimalist, smoky style of Texas and turned it into two of the best new barbecue restaurants in America. Meanwhile, other pitmasters found inspiration from local sources, channeling it to create a barbecue that was totally unique to that time and place.
In West Palm Beach, Tropical Smokehouse has made waves by launching island flavors and seafood on a barbecue menu. Offerings range from smoked mahi and jerk turkey fish dips, creations you’re unlikely to find in any classic tobacco shack in the United States.
“We wanted to rock the Caribbean flavors, but being part of Florida, we also have those Deep South traditions,” says Rick Mace, chef and pitmaster at The Tropical. “Ribs are what we become known for. But the seafood is very reminiscent of the coastal Barbacoa seen by Europeans who first arrived here.
So what does the barbecue scene look like in South Florida in 2022? Like the region itself, it’s a literal melting pot, a mix of what was here before and what generations of newcomers have brought from the rest of the world. And while it will still take us a while to form a solid regional barbecue identity, there are plenty of outstanding joints, old and new, that really give old Chili a hard time. Here’s the best of the best, according to our list of local experts.