Miami resident Michal Amedia grew up eating bologna sandwiches.
Not the bologna you're familiar with, however — you know, the kind you find in round plastic packages or sliced at your local grocery store deli case. In the Midwest, where Amedia hails from, true bologna is something of a regional staple.
In the heartland, bologna isn't just another lunchmeat but a source of regional pride, says Amedia, with many different types made by family-run smokehouses and meat markets, where it's served a myriad of ways. Appetizer-style, it arrives on platters, ring-shaped slices paired with mustard, crackers, and horseradish, best for tailgating and potlucks, a sort of Americanized, Yankee version of a charcuterie plate. Still more makes its way into soups and stews.
But it's best-known as a fried bologna sandwich, a quintessential Midwestern bar-food staple. And the one place to find it here in South Florida is Amedia's family-run establishment, Knucklehead Burgers in Davie.
Those not from the Midwest might have grown big and strong on PB&J's or ham and cheese, but kids who grew up without seeing the ocean know fried bologna is the way to go. Floppy pink discs of meat fried in a pan with butter until the edges curl and blister, Michal's dad's specialty is known in her home state of Ohio as a red eye, served on thick-cut bread and topped with a fried egg.
In 2000, Michal and her family — father Frank, mother Lorilee, and younger sister Keshet — moved from Niles, Ohio, to Miami. At the time, her father was hoping to expand his door and window business.
Fast-forward to 2013, when the Amedias, along with Keshet's husband, Adam Lemberg, opened a different sort of family business. They named it Knucklehead Burgers (an ode to Frank's love of the Three Stooges), a fast-casual restaurant located off University Drive.
It's a true family-style operation: Frank stands as the establishment's concept creator, Michal the marketing and design guru, Keshet a menu collaborator, and Adam the chef. The result is a colorful, comfortable, and kid-friendly establishment.
Make no mistake: Knucklehead is a burger joint first and foremost. But the menu — a mix of the family's combined Jewish, Italian, and Midwestern roots — provides for a variety of kosher- and South Florida-friendly eats as well, including a few fish sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, chicken wings, milkshakes, and floats.
The burgers are the most brag-worthy of the offerings. The family spent months grilling dozens of them before opening in 2013, searching for the perfect mixture of beef. Today, it's a specialty blend purchased from a Texas supplier, a custom-calibrated ratio of filet mignon, chuck, and brisket.
"We basically overdosed on beef for an entire summer, looking for that perfect mix, and eventually — after a few gained pounds — we reached the special blend," says Michal. "It isn't available anywhere else in South Florida. The filet may put our price point a little higher, but you can certainly taste the difference."
El Loko Kaliente is Michal's creation, grilled jalapeños and melty pepper jack cheese over an inch-thick burger patty fitted between a chipotle-mayo-slathered challah bread bun. It's a messy affair, juices not soaked by the bottom bun dripping down your hands into a greasy puddle on the paper-lined basket below.
Whether you choose the Bragadocius burger — so named for its 12 ounces of meaty glory topped with pecan-smoked bacon and cheddar cheese — or a do-it-yourself creation, the burgers pair best with a basket of black and bleu hot chips (the heartland term for potato chips). Discs of fresh-fried potatoes are drizzled with a funky dressing-based sauce, and buried beneath are large clumps of soft, veiny bleu cheese and chopped bacon.
The half-pound hot dogs — here kindly referred to as woofers — are equally intense. Go for the footlong one and you'll get a hefty Hebrew National dog served on a fresh-baked New England-style bun. There's the signature Knuckle Dog, which comes as a blank slate, or you can go New York (mustard, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions), California (avocado, onion, and diced tomato), or chili cheese (homemade chili with melted cheddar).
And then, of course, there's the Cuban sandwich of the Midwest: the fried bologna sandwich. Most Ohio versions start with a single, puck-sized cut of bologna that's griddled until crispy around the edges and layered with cheese, raw onion, and sweet pickle chips.
At Knucklehead, the Mahoney's Baloney sandwich is less glorious — more like the type of bologna sandwiches Michal's father would slap together at home for his two growing girls. The restaurant serves only premium Boar's Head bologna, thick-cut slices cooked on a flattop, the salty-sweet sausage's fine-textured grain searing until it's red and splotchy. Locally baked Texas Toast is buttered and girdled before adding the finishing touch: a perfectly fried egg.
"It's the type of food we missed eating at home," says Michal. "It's our family's version of nostalgic, comfort food at its best."