Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Place Called Swine

If a restaurant has the name of Swine, would you visit? Imagine standing at the entrance of an upscale eatery and seeing firewood ready for a smoker stacked against the front window. 

Stacks of firewood greet customers at the entrance.

That’s the scene on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that bisects the fashionable business district of Coral Gables, Florida, where Swine entices crowds daily for food and drink. Although the restaurant is decorated creatively with photos and other art (as well as stacks of firewood) and softly lit with amber lighting, the huge lightbulb sign “Run Pig Run” is what captures the attention of new patrons. (Appropriately the website address for Swine is

Run Pig Run says it all for Swine.

The place called Swine has the feel that it was just moved from a farm. Its exposed brick walls and wood structures deconstructed from barns create a comfortable feel that fits well with its comfortable food. The vintage-style bulbs with exposed filaments add to the restaurant’s relaxing atmosphere.

Customers enjoy Swine's relaxing atmosphere.

Officially known as Swine Southern Table & Bar, the restaurant has risen fast to the top of places to dine in South Florida. The Swine burger tops the list of best burgers in Miami by Miami New Times (which has also anointed Swine as the best restaurant in stylish Coral Gables), perhaps because it includes short rib, brisket and smoked pork with double hamburger patties.

The pork shoulder is ready for serving after twelve hours in the smoker.

However, the twelve-hour slow-smoked pork shoulder on the menu under the category “From the Smoker” is the entrĂ©e that caught my attention. Adorned with tomato-peanut relish and spiced honey glaze, the pork had been prepared superbly by Chef Cristian Cuevas, whom I sought out in the kitchen so that I could see Swine’s smoker. The smoker is impressive with layers of shelves for smoking beef brisket, pork ribs, and chicken, the other smoked entrees with pork shoulder: All four categories of an event sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society are on the menu.

Every chef, like Chef Cristian at Swine, needs a good smoker.

The sides -- or fixins as Swine describes them -- can delight any follower of Southern food. The roasted chilled beets that I ordered came with pickled red onion, cumin seed olive oil, and blue cheese; thy were a creative complement for the pork shoulder. Because I hadn’t ordered charred okra at Yardbird (a sister restaurant in Miami Beach that I had visited earlier in the week), I had to try the skillet charred okra. Coated in anchovy bread crumbs and charred with brown butter and lemon, the okra was another tasty dish. Because I saw it on several nearby tables, it must be more than an initial fascination but a delight enjoyed by customers more familiar with the menu.

Charred orka may be the most popular fixin at Swine.

Because I had visited Sunburst Trout Farm in North Carolina last year, I appreciated seeing it listed on the menu as the source of mountain trout for Swine, which also serves Florida shrimp, Atlantic swordfish, and Atlantic salmon as fish plates. The sides that accompany these plates (which I’ll have to try on my next visit) are also intriguing. Creamy Carolina gold rice is served with the mountain trout. Sea Island red peas come with the swordfish. Zucchini and red bell pepper succotash complement the salmon plate.

Florida berry cobbler ended my visit to Swine and was as noteworthy as the smoked pork.

Would a name other than Swine fit this restaurant? Because it is distinctly Southern, Swine is definitely the place to enjoy smoked pork and ribs. The customers come initially to taste something from the smoker and keep returning to enjoy the creative fixins -- if only every Southern restaurant that serves pork and ribs could be as imaginative and innovative.

No name other than Swine would be appropriate for this restaurant.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Heading to Florida for Barbecue

Trophies await the successful cooking teams.

Where in a new year should the first barbecue contest be? Why not Florida? When I was considering the early contests of the year, the idea of being in Florida seemed like a winner. Regardless of the temperatures elsewhere, the climate in January in Florida usually is better. Although great-tasting barbecue is the best reason to be a judge in a contest, I confess that temperatures in January are a major consideration.

The best vehicle belongs to Swinos Competition BBQ Team, which also shows off its trophies.

For Christmas, I wrapped my wife a map of Florida. “What does this mean?” she asked as she opened it. “Barbecue, of course,” was my answer. The location was Lakeland, home of a barbecue competition since 1997. The Lakeland Pigfest is unusual in many respects – long-standing tradition of the event, the high number of cooking teams that compete (which also requires a lot of judges), and the organizers’ ability to raise money for charity.

Tigertown in Lakeland is the home of the Pigfest.

What began as a small festival has grown into a major regional event attended by more than 30,000. The crowd keeps growing each year in part because the pigfest has no admission charge (only a parking fee) and cooking teams are encouraged to sell their barbecue at the event. However, cash sales are not permitted. Instead Pig Bucks are the tender for the day. When the festival ends, the organizers keep 20 percent for charities and return the other 80 percent to the cooking teams.

Pig Bucks are the currency to buy anything at the festival,

So many cooking teams apply, the festival now has two divisions: “pro” for very competitive teams and early registrants, and “backyard” for all others. Because the number of teams in the pro division is limited, the backyard contest includes many excellent teams as well as local teams who are improving their competitive skills. Because both divisions follow the rules of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, each one is a sanctioned event.

More than 30,000 attend the Lakeland Pigfest.

At the 19th annual pigfest that I attended, more than 170 cooking teams turned in their best barbecue in the four KCBS-sanctioned categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork, and beef brisket. I was one of the judges for the backyard contest. At the table where I was assigned, other judges have been organizers of events in other states, long-term master judges who have been at more than 100 events, and novices who were judging for the first time.

Judges relax in Hanger #2 of Tigertown before cooking teams turn in their first entries.

Being at the Lakeland Pigfest showed me how a community can successfully use a barbecue contest to benefit its area. The festival has given more than $1 million to local charities, and its “pro” winner is the Florida state champion. In addition to the contests for adult cooking teams, a special competition for only children has been held since 2004 to nurture their interests in preparing barbecue.

The kids competition, a popular part of the Pigfest, guarantees young winners.

Being in Lakeland was a great way to enjoy barbecue festivities, participate as a judge, and appreciate the warm temperatures of Florida in January. It’s a plan that needs to be repeated.

The Swine Dynasty cooking team displays trophies won at past events.