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Good Sports

In an industry that takes itself far too seriously, I admire any form of irreverence when I find it. I appreciate dry humor or sarcasm. I can even go for a touch of cynicism.

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.

For some diners it could become difficult to choose what to eat, given that the descriptions can be either mouth-watering or confusing, depending upon your personal glossary of food terms. I'm thinking of dishes like the Florida smoked fish dip with vegetable sticks and "spiked-up crostini," or the crispy pesto calamari salad with romaine lettuce, fresh mozzarella, and grilled onions. Maybe simplest is best, such as house-smoked baby-back ribs, which needed only a gentle prodding to release the meat's grip on the bones. Mashed potatoes and an excellent coleslaw, comprising a couple of different varieties of mild cabbage, beefed up the ribs even more.

But if you're going to talk beef -- there's prime rib that is first slow-roasted and then grilled, and there's also a grilled T-bone on the menu -- then you can't get around the "inside-out" burger. Nor should you want to. This hamburger was stuffed with an assortment of cheeses, then sealed around the edges so that the cheeses ooze out only when you take a bite. The burger had been topped with fried onion strings and was served with a good amount of crisp, lightly seasoned French fries.

Be careful of employees' promises, though. The servers may tell you everything is made on the premises, but our waitress retracted her statement that the creamed corn was house-made when she saw how doubtful we looked. "Well, but they doctor it," she admitted. You may get the same line about desserts, and indeed they appeared to have come straight out of the oven. It became clear to us, however, that homemade didn't necessarily mean that the recipes were original or that the sweets didn't get help from a box. Individual New York­style cheesecakes were too dry and could have been found in any mediocre bakery on the East Coast. As for the slab of brownie: "Betty Crocker," one of my companions proclaimed. Her guess may not be accurate, but it was informed by the fact that the brownies needed to have been removed from the oven when they still looked a little raw, so they could set into a moist substance as they cooled rather than harden like a rock. A common error of a novice baker -- one who might use a packaged mix -- is baking brownies too long.

Goofs aside, the menu and the execution of many items at Gotrocks are splendid surprises -- especially considering the sports-bar origins of the place. Not to mention that main courses, with one or two exceptions, hover around the $10 mark; that eight types of draft beer are thirst-quenchingly cheap; and that kids are not just welcome but eat free on Wednesday nights. Johnny Vinczencz once invited me to Astor Place by saying, "And bring your daughter. I'd love to make her a grilled cheese, whatever she wants." Sorry, Johnny, but what I think she might want is that big ol' stupid open-faced turkey deal with Granny's gravy, a dish I can get for her only at Gotrocks.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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