Churches, Trucks, and Roadside Stands Offer Miami's Best Barbecue

It's Friday around 9 p.m. on a dim street in Perrine, and the only thing cutting through the blackness is the sweet scent of barbecue. Intermittent shrieks from a gaggle of young girls playing tag break the silence but offer no hint of the aroma's source. Then a yellow beam of light illuminates a pair of steel barrels billowing smoke from under a white tent on SW 105th Avenue. Creep closer, and the smell of ribs and corn grows strong. Soon, more than a dozen people come into focus. They're standing on the sidewalk tapping their feet, chattering, and scrolling through their phones as they wait for one of Miami's best-kept secrets: Tyrone Johnson's barbecue.

For nearly a decade, Johnson's ribs have been a weekend staple in this neighborhood where steel and concrete walls wrap around low-slung houses. The operation is a family affair. Johnson, who sports a thick, tight crop of jet-black hair and narrow eyes, runs the show. An older cousin with a scraggly ashen beard and the nickname Pop mans the grill. Another cousin, Beatrice, handles the orders, occasionally hollering to a relative's nearby house for a cup of rice and peas or the piquant Caribbean pig offal stew called souse.

Rena Ali, a curvy 29-year-old with braids hanging down her back, stands on the sidewalk waiting for her order: a half-slab with rice and pigeon peas. She has missed only one or two weekends here since she moved last year from Atlanta. "At the end of the week, I need some Southern barbecue, something with some soul in it," she says. "Here, the flavor, the sauce — they're perfect."

But what is perfect barbecue in Miami? Texas has slow-smoked brisket. South Carolina boasts whole hogs doused in a vinegary sauce. Here, things are less clear.

Like so many other facets of the city's gastronomy, Miami's barbecue is defined by the influences that have flooded the region over the years. Pork ribs are the main event, and they're prepared using a hybrid of grilling and smoking lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to four hours in a barrel grill filled with either charcoal or wood. Some say the sauce is key. It's most often a sweet, slightly spicy, tangy creation with a color palette spanning from rust to mustard yellow. The sides are classic Southern: collard greens braised with bacon or ham hocks, macaroni 'n' cheese, and glazed yams.

It's a style of barbecue similar to that of Georgia, which makes sense. Many of Miami's grillmasters either came from or can trace their roots back to the Peach State.

But the city's barbecue influences also flowed in from Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Hispaniola. This is evident in the Jamaican jerk chicken, pork, and fish that come out of places like King Jerk, a cherry-red truck that's run by Horatio Garrell and situated on the edge of Opa-locka. The process now known as jerk, in which meat is rubbed with an intensely fragrant, lip-searing amalgam of peppers and spices, came to the islands via West Africa. There, Akan people would traditionally roast heavily seasoned meat suspended on a crosshatched wooden frame over hot coals, according to the National Library of Jamaica.

Even the word "barbecue" has a more complex history than many know. It is likely an adaptation of a similar word used by indigenous tribes from which the Spanish made "barbacoa," and that both they and the Haitians used to describe a framework of sticks set upon posts. Caribbean explorers, from Columbus on, were constantly confronted by this method that indigenous tribes used to cook and preserve mostly fish and wild birds. English explorer William Dampier's 1697 tome, A New Voyage Around the World, describes how indigenous homes abutted a "barbecue of sticks lying along about two foot distant from the ground."

Miami's Kris Wessel, the celebrated chef behind the once-beloved, now-shuttered Oolite and Red Light Little River, will soon offer his take on the barbecue of the Caribbean's native tribes when he opens Tropical Barbecue in Little Haiti sometime later this year. The tall, slender Florida native with a tuft of auburn hair and an obsession with Old Florida cooking is developing a menu based on the techniques used by Taíno and Timucua tribes that were spread across Florida and the Caribbean at the time of Columbus' arrival.

"My contention is that barbecue is grilling and smoking, not one or the other," Wessel says. He plans to fuel his fires with pimento, orange, and grapefruit wood. They're the same staves the indigenous peoples would have set alight centuries ago.

Bernard Allen is the owner of Brownsville Grills, a grill maker situated in a white warehouse on NW 154th Street in Miami Gardens. The gregarious 48-year-old has built rigs for restaurants ranging from Prime One Twelve in South Beach to Mr. Boneless in Liberty City. Allen says grilling ribs over controlled heat, and not smoke alone, defines Miami barbecue.

His father started the family business in a Brownsville home more than three decades ago. A welder and metalworker who refurbished parts for airlines, Robert Allen would spend weekends grilling and building grills for friends. At the age of 9, Robert conscripted Bernard to help clean the garage. It wasn't long before the boy was cutting sheet metal.

"I remember standing on SW Eighth Street selling grills when it was nothing but a swampland back in '82 or '83," Bernard recalls. The following year, his father moved the operation to a small warehouse in Hialeah, where it remained until 2001, when Bernard moved it to Miami Gardens. Today his shop turns out dozens of grills annually.

"These grills are smokers," Bernard Allen says. "That meat is going to come out of there tasting just like you cooked it for 12 hours."

New Times spent weeks scouring South Florida hoping to find the region's definitive style of barbecue. What follows are the stories of four cooks and how their grills' treasures have become some of the city's most beloved and sought-after.

King Jerk

Oratio Garrell always wanted to cook. So at the age of 11, he happily began working with his cousin, Ayende James, at a roadside jerk spot in Montego Bay's St. James neighborhood. "I loved to eat, and during the summers, there was nothing to do," says Garrell, now 31 years old. He's standing in the parking lot of a car repair shop on Opa-locka Boulevard near NW Seventh Avenue. Smoke billows out of his fire-engine-red King Jerk truck, and the six-foot-tall cook's crisp white T-shirt is a stark contrast to his baggy, well-worn chef's pants. "It was either get into trouble or find something productive to do," he says.

That first summer was a parade of chickens, says Garrell, who also goes by Jay. ("The neighborhood gave me that," he says, making a sly marijuana reference.) He was responsible for cleaning and cutting them all. But before his cousin Ayende would trust him with the family jerk recipe, Garrell had to prove himself with another Jamaican classic: brown stew chicken. The ubiquitous island dish features chicken parts seared and finished in a pungent brew of hot sauce, ketchup, and scallions seasoned with garlic and thyme.

"It took me a few weeks, but I nailed it," Garrell says.

Not long after that, he persuaded his cousin to fork over the secret jerk formula. Garrell then spent years perfecting it. He toyed with different ingredients and proportions while holding down odd jobs in Jamaica and then in Flushing, Queens, when he moved there at age 19. A brutal commute to a warehouse job and long hours proved to be good training. Because he had time to cook only on weekends, he had to learn how to quickly prepare hefty batches of jerk chicken. The four years he spent there gave him his best trick: marinating the birds in his family's jerk recipe for days at a time.

In 2008, he moved to Miami. The warmer weather is easier on the scar that zigzags across his skull. It's a souvenir from a New York mugging, he says. Three years later, he had saved the $1,700 needed to finance his truck and finally begin cooking again.

Garrell's jerk seasoning doesn't have any secret ingredients. The fiery paste is a blend of Scotch bonnet peppers, ginger, garlic, onion, thyme, vinegar, and dark brown sugar. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves give it a deep, balanced aroma. It's the ratios that make the difference; Garrell says he was taught that the best jerk needs to balance flavor with heat.

His chicken ($7 half, $11 whole) bears a striking similarity to that at some of the city's best barbecue joints. One key is how half-birds spend up to an hour slowly roasting over smoke-spitting oak charcoal. The trailer is outfitted with a pair of grills, one hotter than the other. Cooks spend hours moving birds from the cooler to hotter grill just before serving. The lengthy cook time helps the skin, thick with jerk seasoning, crisp up while the underlying meat, even the breast, retains all of its juiciness.

"This is barbecue at its best," Garrell says. "It's the same process [a lot of places use], just with a different flavor."

King Jerk: 13640 NW Seventh Ave., Miami; 305-300-9682. Monday through Thursday 12:30 to 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday 12:30 p.m. to midnight.

House of Prayer Restaurant

This is the house that barbecue built. And it's almost the only thing that has remained constant in the more than six decades the Watson family has presided over the House of Prayer church on NW 62nd Street in Liberty City. Today, regulars make their pilgrimage to the bright-blue-and-white building just west of Miami's notorious Pork 'n' Beans projects for meaty ribs paired with cornbread, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. Postal workers, hairdressers, and men sporting copper-hued fedoras and matching bronze-tinged outfits line up at the wrought-iron-barred window to get their fix.

Michael Jones, age 54, grew up a few streets away and recalls coming as a kid on weekends for a piece of sweet potato pie or red velvet cake. Now he makes the haul from North Miami Beach each week to load up his fridge with nearly $100 worth of food. "When I got older, I couldn't get enough of their ribs and spicy barbecue sauce," he says. "I still can't."

Today the church and restaurant are led by Bishop Albert Watson III, a towering 68-year-old with a thin white beard that tracks down from his sideburns, curls along his jaw, and continues up to a thin mustache. His father, Albert Jr., started the church in Overtown in 1953, preaching to a small congregation in a rented band hall. Those were the days when segregation was still the law of the land and the neighborhood had yet to be decimated by the highway that would be built in the mid-'60s.

For years, the entire Watson family spent weekends barbecuing and selling meals in hopes of raising enough money to buy the congregation a permanent home. At the time, rib sandwiches went for 50 cents, and running the operation was far more tedious than it is today.

Watson's grandfather, father, and friends would rise early and light a bonfire to ensure they'd have enough charcoal for the day. From morning to night, someone would have to run back and forth, refreshing with new coals the same oversize basin the family also used to wash clothes. Racks of pork ribs rubbed with a paste of garlic, onion, and vinegar were laid over a wire screen and closely watched. "They knew how to tend that fire and those ribs like magic," Watson says.

The ribs ($14) here are still rubbed with the same tangy blend before hitting the trio of coal-black grills that litter the church parking lot. It helps the meat form a crackly, slightly sweet crust that stands up perfectly to the sauce that Watson says is the essence of Miami barbecue.

"Every sauce has its own flavor, and in Miami, they're all designed to bring out the best of whatever they're being served with," he says.

The recipe came from an assistant pastor at his father's church he recalls only as "Uncle Preacher." It's a tomato-based sauce with a heavy helping of mustard, which gives it a deep orange-brown tone. The black-pepper-speckled concoction is also infused with vinegar, giving it a thinner consistency and a peppier flavor than many of Miami's thicker, sweeter sauces.

Those sauce-slathered ribs helped Albert Jr. come up with enough money to purchase that band hall on NW Fourth Court in 1960, finally giving the congregation a place to call home. When the City of Miami bought the church for $17,000 to make way for the highway, barbecue again became its salvation. Watson used the money to buy the tract the church sits on today, and built a tiny building to sell barbecue. It took eight years, but the stand eventually helped him cobble together $150,000 to build the church. And when they dedicated it in 1973, they served ribs at the reception.

House of Prayer Restaurant: 2445 NW 62nd St., Miami; 305-691-5577. Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The Mustard Seed

Tyrone Johnson's barbecue dreams were hatched in prison. Johnson, age 48, sports a tight, jet-black Afro and has eyes that long ago earned him the nickname "Jap." He was born and raised in Perrine, the hardscrabble South Dade neighborhood that was the backdrop for the street-brawling documentary Dawg Fight. After graduating from Miami Palmetto Senior High in 1986, he worked a few odds jobs and even ran his own lawn-care business. Then, at age 25, while visiting South Carolina, he was charged with selling cocaine.

"When the arrest came down, I happened to be in town, and they scooped up everybody," he says.

But a jury didn't buy that claim and in February 1994 handed down a conviction that led to an 11-year sentence in federal prison.

That first year, his cousin Bert McCray visited him in prison in Jesup, Georgia. "That's when the plan for the barbecue formed," Johnson says.

When he was released in early 2005, Johnson returned to Florida, where he held a job driving trucks across the state while he and McCray sold barbecue to neighborhood card games and on street corners. The setup worked for a few years. Then the economy began sagging, and there were fewer and fewer routes.

All the while, Johnson and McCray had been slowly gathering the pieces they needed to set up a more permanent roadside barbecue stand. Finally, in 2008, the pair decided to get serious. Over the years, they had gathered the elements: a white pop-up tent here, a few knives there. They spent the days before that first big push canvassing the neighborhood.

"We both quit our jobs, spent our last $250 on a case of ribs, and that first weekend, we sold out," Johnson says.

Today the crowds line up on a sidewalk near a white pop-up tent situated next to Johnson's mother's home. His four-man crew is always composed of family. "I got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, with bad company," Johnson says. "Now I only trust my family to have my best interests." At any time, more than a dozen people stand around for a taste of Johnson's ribs. Cars blasting Trick Daddy tracks clog the street and sidewalks of the surrounding blocks, all for barbecue that he and McCray developed by trial and error.

They ready each slab ($16 half, $23 whole) by first painting it end-to-end with a vinegary mustard. Then it's off for a brief marinade the two developed together (Johnson won't divulge its ingredients). "It's the same effect whether you do it for 15 minutes or a whole day," Johnson argues.

The meat is cooked over low, direct heat for anywhere from two to four hours. "That's Miami-style barbecue, and in my opinion that's real barbecue," Johnson says. "If you don't have heat directly on the meat, you're smoking."

Yet the secret is also in how the meat is tended as it cooks. Raw slabs are first stacked six high in a cool corner of the grill. About an hour later, the stacks are disassembled and individually moved to hotter parts of the grill, where they develop an aggressive char.

The best racks, Johnson says, are those that go for three to four hours. "You're getting that slow heat, and with the smoke, it's going to turn dark," he says. "The darker it gets, the more tender it is."

Lately, the number of slabs they sell has surpassed 300 per week. The business has grown so successful that Johnson has a cousin come by the stand every so often to pick up the wads of cash they collect. It's clear they're ready for a permanent location, and Johnson says he can't consider anyplace other than Perrine.

"My neighborhood has always been good to me and given me nothing but support," he says. "I want to stay there so I can hopefully give something back."

The Mustard Seed: 17480 SW 105th Ave., Miami; 305-282-5648; Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight

Mama Lucy's All Pro Ribs

"People love a good barbecue sauce," Mama Lucy's owner, Jack Homes, says as he cleaves through a sizzling rack of ribs. The crusty, smoke-charred meat is painted with a rust-colored brew from a foil-covered pan. He slaps two slices of Champion white bread atop the ribs; then it's on to the next order.

The stocky, sharp-tongued 40-year-old admits after some badgering that it's a tomato-based creation sweetened with molasses. But the sugar quickly gives way to some punchy heat courtesy of black pepper and cayenne. "My mother came up with the sauce, and it took her about a month to find the perfect recipe," Homes says.

Women have played a strong role in his life. He named the place for his grandmother Lucy Palmer, who passed away in 1995. Five years later, he opened this grab spot on NW 119th Street down the road from Miami Dade College's North Campus. "She taught me discipline," he says. "She used to whoop my ass." The initial plan was to open a sit-down place, but after trouble bringing the building up to code, he began selling barbecue in the parking lot alongside his cousin Brian Smith.

Until then, Homes, who moved to Liberty City from Homerville, Georgia, at the age of 5, had never barbecued. When they opened, he would shadow Smith, learning what he could while offering free samples to passing traffic in hopes of luring a buyer or two.

After Smith peeled off two years later to deal with a divorce, Homes began to develop his own style. Like owners of other Miami barbecue spots, he starts off stacking the whole slabs ($26.50) in a cooler part of the grill for an hour or so of light heat and smoke. Then he slowly separates the stacks and moves them to the heat. On big weekends like Memorial Day, as many as four grills bellow smoke in the parking lot.

"Knowing when they need to move is something you can't teach — you just have to know," he says. "A rack could spend about three hours in there."

Homes had no formal training before taking over, yet Mama Lucy's is among the city's favorite barbecue joints. He counts rapper, free-speech advocate, and New Times columnist Luther Campbell among his loyal clientele (Homes and Campbell also play golf together most Tuesdays, he says). Others make the pilgrimage each week to wolf down a half-rack ($17) in the cramped dining room festooned with pictures of Miami sports heroes.

On a recent weeknight, it was the first stop for 71-year-old Dorothy Garrett after she was released from Jackson Memorial Hospital. "I'm diabetic — can I get a little something for my blood sugar?" she asks Homes before turning to a reporter. "I have hypertension, but I can't stay away from his barbecue."

Mama Lucy's All Pro Ribs: 2201 NW 119th St., Miami; 305-685-8782. Wednesday 1 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday noon to 10:30 p.m., Friday noon to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 1 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 7 p.m.