Rebel House in Boca Raton: Join the Insurgency and Its Pork-Belly Tater Tots
The dwellers of Boca Raton might occasionally wear white after Labor Day or buy an Audi instead of a Mercedes, but Boca is probably not the first place you think of when you think rebellion.
Imagine Boca's contribution to the great rebellious moments in American history.
"Give me liberty or give me an early-bird special!"
"I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country club."
"Don't tread on my lawn!"
"I have not yet begun to complain."
Despite its reputation for blandness, conformity, and pink houses, a bit of rebellion is working its way into staid, smug, entitled Boca. Fittingly, it comes from beyond the city's gilt-edged borders — straight outta Deerfield Beach, which for right-thinking Bocans might as well be Compton — courtesy of Michael Saperstein and Evan David, the chef and GM duo behind the highly regarded (and justly so) Charm City Burgers and El Jefe Luchador.
They call their rebellion, also fittingly enough, Rebel House. And in appearance, it certainly is. Instead of a sedate burial grounds for Boca's pastels-and-dry-martini set, this restaurant looks like a funky, eclectic haven for aspiring urban hipsters. The surprisingly small dining room is a study in bold, artsy, neo-industrial/flea market chic, jammed like a mosh pit with mismatched tables and antique-y chairs. An opened-up ceiling reveals a crosshatch of skinny wooden beams and gleaming silver ductwork. A row of red leather banquettes runs along one wall; another is lined with big, comfy booths and splashed with a graffitiesque mural of a skanky-looking Madame Justice calling all rebels to the barricades. An aged piano and begartered mannequin live there too. A beaten-up wooden hand truck does duty as a coffee table. In back, a U-shaped bar dispenses craft beers and creative cocktails, like the cool, refreshing Cucumber Persuasion (a blend of Death's Door gin, ginger, mint, and bubbly, with a crunchy cuke spear).
All this carefully calibrated hipsterism could turn a rebellious little house into a snotty Café Too Cool for You, but the staff — some of the nicest rebels this side of the Mason-Dixon Line — keeps the 'tude under control and keeps its own cool even when struggling to get food out of the kitchen in time to placate the ravenous hordes.
About the food...
Well, in New York or Chicago or San Francisco, Rebel House's whimsical, inventive, tapas-style menu of American comfort food on Mars may not seem rebellious at all, but in Boca, it's like Mitt Romney flashing gang signs and firing up a giant spliff on national TV. Execution isn't always what it could be — small missteps sometimes spell the difference between not bad and damned good. But Saperstein, David, and company don't back down from their self-imposed charge of rebelling against the boring and ordinary.
Take, for example, pork-belly "tater tots," irrefutable proof that the best way to improve anything deep-fried is to partner it with bits of fatty pig. In this case, it's little barrels of egg- and flour-bound dehydrated potatoes and onion encasing slivers of sous-vide-cooked pork belly that are then breaded, fried, and lined up on a plate with rivers of piquillo pepper ketchup, chili aioli, and basil oil.
If the tater tots imply that yesterday's frozen kiddie snack is today's porcine adult tapa, then foie gras French toast means "engorged duck liver — it's not just for breakfast anymore." In lesser hands, this pairing of vanilla-spiked brioche toast points with thin slabs of precisely seared foie, port- and strawberry-infused demiglace would be an insult to France, liver, breakfast, and your taste buds. Instead, it's unconscionably, decadently luscious, the vanilla and berries but a whisper, their sweetness and a hint of acidity playing against the aching richness and plush texture of the foie.
Completing this trifecta of cholesterol is a dish that could send your average nipped, tucked, lipo'd and Botoxed Boca-bot running from the dining room with her Frederic Fekkai-coifed hair in flames. It's a Wagyu marrow bone — a huge, prehistoric-looking thing seemingly taken from a mastodon's thigh and buzzed in half lengthwise, revealing melt-in-your-mouth marrow crowned by an equally luxurious short-rib-caramelized onion marmalade and leaves of fried parsley, all of which are meant to be dug out and slathered on fist-sized challah toasts. It may not be for everyone, but it is supremely delicious.
One of the other pleasures of Rebel House's menu is that many items are available by the piece or in half-portion. At four bucks a pop, a tiny Reuben sandwich made with house-"corned" duck is a modestly intriguing take on a deli classic. Also at $4 apiece are rock shrimp tacos, an immigrant from El Jefe Luchador marred by less-than-fresh-tasting crustaceans. "Rebel fried rice" should be renamed "Hangover fried rice," as it's exquisitely well-suited to mellowing the effects of a night of alcoholic excess. Mine, however, was as greasy as cheap Chinese takeout and topped with a fried egg gone all brown and leathery on the bottom.
There's nothing really "OG" about the "OG Recipe Fried Chicken," except perhaps that any original gangbanger who ate this every day would be hangin' wit his homies in the cardiac-care unit of the local hospital. But you have to order it anyway, because only an original killjoy wouldn't drool all over himself at the sight of three pieces of crunchy/juicy/greaseless fried chicken sandwiched between cornmeal/cheddar waffles and drizzled with sweet/porky candied-bacon maple syrup. It comes with a lovely watermelon-pear tomato salad as a nod to dietary conscience.
One of the most popular dishes, I'm told, is the braised brisket meat loaf, a compact brick of tender shredded beef, crisped up on the stove and topped with sautéed garlic and garlic chives. A silken, sugary sweet potato purée that could have been served for dessert arrives alongside, though I would have preferred a dollop of that tangy piquillo ketchup.
Speaking of dessert...
On second thought, let's not. Oh, but we must. So here goes. Desserts consist of sundaes and minipies. The former includes something called "The Binge." It sounds tantalizing: a mélange of pecan-praline and cinnamon ice creams, salted caramel, white-chocolate-chip cookie dough, chocolate-covered pretzels, and unpitted(!) cherries. In real life, though, it's just a bowl of cold, melty white stuff with no single discernible flavor.
There was lots of gooey but more phooey than ooey in the Chocolate Ooey Gooey pie, a sea of undistinguished molten chocolate inside a burnt Oreo cookie crust that had to be pried out of its tinfoil container with a crowbar. Even slices of caramelized banana and a squirt of peanut butter mousse couldn't keep it from becoming impossibly cloying after only a few bites.
So the rebels have yet to achieve total victory. But while staid, smug, entitled Bocans may turn up their noses and sniff "Let them eat cake," the happy subversives at Rebel House get out the spray paint and bullhorn and shout, "Let them eat pork-belly tater tots and foie gras French toast, Wagyu bone marrow, and fried chicken with candied-bacon syrup!"
This is one rebellion you will want to join.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.