All the Bobos Love Hobo's

Joe Rocco

In case you've missed the saga of Lauderdale Chef Steven LaBiner's odyssey from riches to rags to riches in the past couple of years (feel free to catch the heart-wrenching audio slide show on the Sun Sentinel's website), I'll summarize. Hobo's Fish Joint, Coral Springs. Nice gig, open ten years. Serves fresh fish in semi-luxe surroundings to locals who dote on the place. New Times awards it a Best Seafood Restaurant in Broward designation in 2004. It looks like all is smooth sailing for the good Chef LaBiner...

And then, the unthinkable happens. Hobo's suddenly folds up shop. Last night of business, stunned regulars are standing in line for a final bite of Hobo's Big Time crab cakes, the blackened salmon with Caribbean macadamia crust. They're blinking back tears, shaking their heads in incomprehension. How could it happen? Turns out LaBiner owes a megabundle of money to some fishy loan-sharking operation, and Hobo's is bankrupt.

LaBiner takes a job at Michael Collins in Miami. It doesn't work out. He takes a job opening the glitzy new restaurant Fish, off the 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale, applying his successful formula. It doesn't work out. And all the while, he's nursing a dream: to reopen his beloved Hobo's.


Hobo's Fish Joint

246 S. Powerline Rd., Deerfield Beach

Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 till 10 p.m. Call 561-571-9700.

After months of setbacks and triumphs, mysterious kitchen fires, nefarious contractors, loyal waitresses who drive hours for the chance to work with the old crew again, LaBiner reopens Hobo's (this time in a remote building on Powerline Road in Deerfield). Within two months, he's turning 200 covers on weekend nights in a 60-seat restaurant. Cue: Rousing orchestral number. Applause. House lights up.

With all the Sturm und Drang, you'd think a restaurateur losing his shirt in South Florida was some kind of freak accident, as if some poor schlub with big dreams and maxed-out Visa cards weren't doing the exact same thing every day. But there's something about LaBiner. He looks and acts the part of a tragicomic hero, with that red hair and his famous temper and big Falstaffian gut. The guy is certainly a decent cook — he was trained at the Culinary Institute of America — and you can't argue with the quality of his fish.

As for LaBiner's dining concept, it's like one of these new audience-controlled reality shows in which you can make the characters do your bidding. Foodies, evidently, like to feel that in this small corner of the planet at least, they're in hypercontrol of their own destinies. At Hobo's, you pick your salmon or your halibut or your snapper. Then you get to have the chef grill or blacken it; sauté it or scampi-style it; do it à la française or à la japonaise. Picatta me. Marinara me. Give me your fra diavolo.

But don't settle back into your chair just yet. There are several dozen sauces, at varying prices, awaiting your powerful decision. By the time your entrée arrives, your brain has puzzled through enough new information — between the addition problems, the statistical probabilities, the culinary trick questions (does salmon go with peppercorn brandy cream sauce?) — to qualify you for Mensa.

Anyway, yours truly and other New Times luminaries learned recently that if we wanted to eat at the new Hobo's on a Saturday, we'd best do a line of NoDoz, because the only reservation available was for 9 p.m. So we sat at the full liquor bar a while, nursing our gimlets and soaking up important details. Like, the staff here is supercompetent and extra nice. At Hobo's, even strangers are treated with the utmost cordiality — service is swift and smart. The place is smallish but elegant-funky, with clouds painted on the ceiling and an open kitchen where we could study LaBiner not losing his temper as he turned out plate after plate of mahi mahi "oscar" or "jumpin. '" A flat-screen television over the bar scrolled through the night's specials, and the noise level was what happens when 60 people are all screaming at the top of their lungs between bites of shrimp Perlin and the pans in the kitchen are clattering and the phone is jangling and an endless stream of customers is barging through the doors.

No doubt, it was happening. Hobo's clientele is 54 percent under-40 hipster dressed snappily in expensive jeans and good jewelry and 37 percent gray-at-the-temple Bobos pulling up in their Infinity G35s. The other 9 percent are folks like us, propelled dazedly into this maelstrom by the publicity and word of mouth, nervously fingering the dimes in our pockets and wondering how the hell we're going to pay for dinner.

In its new incarnation, Hobo's is one of the priciest restaurants in Broward/Palm Beach. The average cost of an appetizer is $13. An entrée without special sauce is $29 or more. Desserts: $8. So your three-course meal without a single freaking frill — no five-dollar mustard glazes or $9 crab stuffing, no predinner martini or medium-priced bottle of pinot, no demitasse of espresso or tiny glass of port, is already setting you back fifty dollars. Tally up the extras and you're going to emerge from Hobo's feeling like you've just spent a long night at an Atlantic City blackjack table.  

It's unfortunate, then, that the prices define this experience. If your final bill were 20 or 25 percent cheaper, you'd probably fold up your napkin at the end of your meal feeling ever so fine. But at these rates, one's inclined to pick at nits. And there are, in fact, one or two to be picked.

Why, for example, is it my job to decide what sauce best pairs with what fish? All fillets are not created equal. Some are strongly flavored, some buttery, some dry, some oily, some ever-so-delicate, some robustly muscular, some dense as filet mignon. Presumably not all will taste equally good with balsamic, anchovies, peppercorns, béarnaise sauce, mango salsa, or Japanese crumbs. And there are dozens and dozens of potential variations. It's as if a sommelier advised me to pick any wine randomly from his book, because a burgundy, an Alsatian gerwürztraminer, or a Spanish mourvèdre will all taste OK with my Asian-spiced lamb chop. Whatever floats yer boat, man.

The tacked-on prices for sauces really irk me too. An extra $5 for a Livornese sauce, when the fish itself is already priced at $29 or $31? Five bucks for honey-mustard glaze, or the Hobo sauce of cherry tomatoes and basil, or "au poivre"? This is culinary robbery. Frankly, no sauce on Hobo's menu is either imaginative enough or distinctive enough or unexpected enough to remotely justify the extra dollars you're asked to spend on them.

Of course, most people love Hobo's and its mix-and-match game; I'm in a bitter, stingy minority. We certainly ate up all our food happily enough. We shared bada-bing sea scallops, a special appetizer ($18, whew!) in an amusing but rather cloying sauce of fresh ranier cherries — much too sweet, by my standards, although I'm happy to see they're using seasonal produce — and a delicious big serving of Asian-style fried oysters, plump and panko-coated, with sweet/sour mango chutney ($12.95). The oysters were a plate big enough to feed our table of four. Fresh green salads are included in the price of dinner. We liked the Roquefort dressing, but again, the balsamic was supersweet (no wonder our national diabetes rate is skyrocketing).

Entrées: A bathtub of bouillabaisse ($31) studded with clams, mussels, spiny lobster tail, scallops, mahi fillets, and medium shrimp in saffron-laced broth was lovely, perfectly cooked, although the broth itself didn't have great depth or complexity of flavor. It was studded with carrots and topped with a giant piece of garlic bread. Halibut fillet was pale and creamy under its festive costume of Hobo sauce ($31 plus $5) — pretty red and yellow cherry tomatoes, slivered garlic, fresh basil, and a "secret" ingredient, perhaps a wine or liquor, which wasn't aggressive enough to register a sense memory. Fillet of swordfish with Livornese sauce ($29 plus $5) was a piscatorial beauty in rich, salty tomato, olive, caper, and anchovy sauce. These were all excellent. We also had a competently grilled and tender filet mignon ($29.95) with unctuous mashed potatoes. All entrées save the bouillabaisse came with extra-thin, crunchy sautéed green beans, glistening in their coat of oil.

Our desserts were not worth bothering with (a common problem in local restaurants, I've noticed). Both key lime and mud pie ($8) were gloppy of texture and had that air of being long refrigerated and probably ordered in from elsewhere.

When it comes down to it, at Hobo's, you end up having too many choices and, simultaneously, not enough variety. It's like having gastronomic ADHD. The appetizers are so expensive that nobody but Daddy Warbucks could afford a three-course meal. Forget about planning a little bite of something pleasant and interesting before your big fat entrée — you can't afford it, and you could never eat half of these gargantuan portions. The Hobo's concept strikes me as quintessentially American — we have exponential choices, we have an unlimited, gluttonous supply, but are we really happy? Is our quality of life improved? There's something infantile about the whole effect, as if diners are not sophisticated enough either to plan three courses on their own or accept the intelligent directives of a chef with a unique sensibility, one who knows exactly what he's doing and who wants to wow us while doing it. I wish the talented and irascible LaBiner had the courage of his culinary convictions. He needs to focus, and thereby focus us.

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