By Victoria Pesce Elliott
Howie Kleinberg may not be your typical barbecue chef, but then again, North Miami is not your average barbecue town. The shiny headed Aventura boy is best known from his stint on season three of the obsessively popular Bravo series Top Chef, where he earned the nickname Bulldog for his habit of attacking teammates and sweating into his saucepans.
The Bulldog seems to be onto something with his big-portioned, moderately priced, sweet, nothing-too-extreme, fancy, fast food 'cue. I'd dub it BBQ Lite.
The vibe: Once we got in we found the clean, sleek 50-seat joint hopping with lots of regulars enjoying the friendly service and Top 40 tunes from the '80s.
What worked: We all enjoyed a small platter of chicken wings, five tawny triangles of meat jonesing off the bone and served with a thick buttermilk-blue cheese dip and strips of crispy celery. Also good is a bowl of white chili loaded with white beans, ground turkey and a sour cream spiked with scallions in a hearty scramble of flavors. Burnt end beans is a hunky, tasty sample of brown sugared baked beans loaded with crispy brisket butts. And we all loved the sweet made-on-the-spot lemonade.
What didn’t work: We tried a chicken and baby back rib combo and found the wet, pre-sauced meats nearly interchangeable, tender with not a scrap of gristle or fat but a blah flavor. We tried to sauce 'em up but found the options - a watery mustard-based version and a ketchupy red one - too sweet and runny.
The soft, wet and hugely portioned beef brisket seems to be channeling a Jewish mother's comfort food rather than anything in the BBQ belt from Memphis to Austin.
A mighty bowlful of shrimp and grits is a soupy version of classic New Orleans fare that doesn't live up to its roots. Four meaty crustaceans are slightly overcooked and served on top of an overly wet but strangely chunky bowl of bland corn meal mush.
BBQ lettuce wraps and BBQ chicken flatbread both are oddly sweet and made with cold shredded chicken that could really use a kick. Skippable sliders utilize the same stringy chicken meant to be tucked into a puffy potato roll.
Dessert: The seasonal cobbler with its rugged buttery lattice top is one finale that I wouldn't boot off the show - even if the filling is more like strawberry jam than fresh cooked berries. Hot chocolate puddn' cake - despite the attempt at down-home spelling - showed up looking and tasting more like that ubiquitous restaurant molten chocolate cake.
Bulldog Barbecue, 15400 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami; 305-940-9655; bulldog-bbq.com; Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Prices: Snacks and salads $6-$13, meat and mains $14-$22, sides $2-$4, desserts $4-$7.
FYI: Beer and wine only; free self-parking lot; Local delivery available at lunch. Reservations accepted for groups; kids menu. AX, MC, VS.