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Perhaps that's why I like Johnny Vinczencz so much. Johnny V, the executive chef at Astor Place, a top eatery in Miami Beach, is a world-weary kind of guy who's savvy enough to realize that smoked-tomato soup with miniature grilled-Brie sandwiches isn't on the order of, say, the Mona Lisa. He'd be the first to tell you so. He might even throw in a descriptive word or two when he does, something like, "Smoked-tomato soup isn't the fucking Mona Lisa." But Vinczencz is also creative enough to come up with that luxurious take on a soup-and-a-sandwich commercial and talented enough to elevate it to Warhol -- if not da Vinci -- status.
So yeah, I enjoy Johnny V, and I'll occasionally have a beer with him or call him to flesh out an article that has way too many food snobs quoted in it. Even so, I was extremely skeptical when Vinczencz recommended Gotrocks Bar & Grill. It's a sports bar, but it's not a sports bar, he told me. Apparently the owner, Paul Dias, a long-time friend of Vinczencz, had taken the chef's advice a few years ago when he redid the menu. I'd be surprised in a good way, Johnny V insisted. Fine, I said. Send me the menu and I'll take a look.
Well, Vinczencz sent me the menu via e-mail, but the files came through encoded. And as much as I like a good beer, I didn't much relish hanging out in the smoky, neon signfilled pool hall that is the Gotrocks Bar & Grill in Margate. So I never went. But when I heard that Dias had opened a second Gotrocks in Coconut Creek and that Vinczencz had consulted to a greater degree on the menu at this shopping-plaza location, I put aside misgivings and went.
I'm glad I did. Where Gotrocks Numero Uno really is a sports bar, according to manager Sean Nathan, Gotrocks Dos is a 200-seat, reasonably priced dining destination. The place was formerly a diner (and about a half-dozen failed eateries before that), but the Gotrocks gang renovated the interior. Now everything is glossy wood, mellow lighting, and open spaces, with only a few strategically placed big-screen TV's with the volume turned down. There's even a nonsmoking section -- a separate dining room, really -- further distinguishing this two-month-old space from its ten-year-old counterpart.
But other than design and some menu additions, not much separates the two Gotrocks, which is a good thing. The staff is dedicated; our server said she'd been working for the proprietor for a decade at the other location. And from the helpful, knowledgeable attitude exhibited by everybody from host to bartender, you could tell she wasn't alone in assisting Dias in making the transition from dive bar owner to dinner purveyor.
Smoke-free air and loyal labor force aside, the real reason to frequent Gotrocks is the menu, which has Johnny Vinczencz's signature all over it. Consider items like the "big ol' stupid open-faced turkey" sandwich with "Granny's giblet gravy." That's Vinczencz, who used to own a place called Johnny V's Kitchen that served precisely this kind of stuff to a T (or more precisely, to a V). Or the "Midwest white boy barbecue meat loaf," an entrée we ordered because we couldn't resist the name. Unfortunately this dish turned out to be the only one we didn't really care for, owing to some strange cooking process that had rendered the middle of the meat loaf raw and the outside rubbery and slick. This was sad, because the presentation was delectable: several slabs of loaf, drizzled with peppery barbecue sauce, arranged over a cloud of buttery mashed potatoes that was itself encircled by creamed corn. But here's where the long-time staff came in handy. When the server discovered the meat loaf was "off," she removed it from the check as well as the dinner table. "I don't know what happened," she said. "Usually it's really good." She also told the cooks, who agreed to ditch that batch.
When it comes right down to it, though, there's skill aplenty in the Gotrocks kitchen. And there are also hot peppers aplenty. Combine the two, and you get appetizers like the "bohemian crab griddle cakes," two pan-fried disks of shredded blue crab and minced peppers and onions. The crabcakes were accompanied by a zippy tartar sauce that had a lingering burn, not unlike the honey-jalapeño "dippin' sauce" that partnered the "extra crispy red chili chicken fingers." The half-dozen chicken tenders were exceptional: pure white-meat chicken, juicy inside a casing of golden brown crumb batter. Another similar sauce showed up on the "fish soft taco," which wasn't really a taco but a wrap (the distinction lying in the wrap's trendy lime-green spinach tortilla). In this case, though, choice bits of vine-ripe tomato counteracted the slow heat, and the corn-crusted mahi-mahi, baby greens, and shredded cheese inside the wrap held up nicely against the moister ingredients.