Friday, February 1, 2013

Joe's Stone Crab: Miami Beach

For our visit to Florida we consulted 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz to get an idea of places we ought to see while there. Eleven out of the 1,000 places are in Florida and include such well known destinations as the Kennedy Space Center, Everglades National Park, Daytona Speedway, Walt Disney World, the Florida Keys, South Beach and, say what? - Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach? Are you kidding me? What is a restaurant doing on this list? Schultz calls Joe's a "South Beach Institution" and "possibly the nation's number one crab institution."  She says that the stone crab is found only in southwestern Florida, the Keys and along the Gulf of Mexico. She notes that the claws are served in four sizes, are served with "mustard sauce or melted butter, hash browns or cottage-fried sweet potatoes, coleslaw and creamed spinach." Oh, and, "Save room for dessert: Joe's Key lime pie is the real thing." I didn't put Joe's on my list of things to do, but as Judy and I were driving from Orlando to the Everglades, and noting the Miami skyline in the distance, Judy went to Trip Advisor to look for something to do in Miami. The number one activity, according to Trip Advisor, is Vizcaya Museum & Gardens. We went there and afterwards decided we wanted to find a place to eat. I recalled reading about the restaurant and asked a clerk in the gift shop about a famous place in Miami that sells stone crabs. She said, "Oh yes, Joe's, Stone Crab. Let me get the address for you." After providing the address and calling to find out when it opened, she said we should try their creamed spinach, coleslaw, hash browns and Key lime pie. So, off we went, driving the freeway past some of the skyscrapers that make up part of Miami's iconic skyline, across a large bridge to a big island on which sits Miami Beach and many, many cruise ships. 

Sitting down to write this post, it dawned on me to check 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die, by Frances Case. Under "Stone Crab" it says, "These flat-bodied, oval-shaped crabs with extremely hard claws prized for their meat began their rise to culinary fame in 1921 when Joe Weiss, who owned a small fish shack on Miami Beach, was asked to cook a bag filled with them by a marine researcher. Weiss tossed them in a pot of boiling water, then served them chilled with mustard sauce, coleslaw, and hash brown potatoes. And so a Florida tradition was born." A 1,000 list book for places and a 1,001 list book for foods both name the same restaurant. Impressive. So what was our experience at Joe's like? 
Joe's with the Miami Beach skyscrapers behind it.

Joe's opened for lunch at 11:30 and we got there about 11:15. We joined a group of about 20 people in the bar who were also there early. 
We had a chance to look at the menu. 
This place is not cheap. It became clear that we needed to order the Lunch Classic. 

It included all the things rattled off by the clerk at Vizcaya and, as I look back, most of the things mentioned in 1,000 Places. It was cheaper to order them grouped like that than on their own.  At 11:30 we were led back into a cavernous room full of tables covered with white linen tablecloths and waiters, standing erect, all dressed in tuxedos. 
There must have been at least 30 waiters. I've never seen anything like it. I had to remind myself several times that we were near the beach and should be okay in our casual attire. Judy and I both ordered the Lunch Classic and I couldn't resist ordering an appetizer called "Stuffy's Rhode Island style, Quahog clams with drawn butter." Judy looked up quahog on her smart phone and found that it is also known as a "hard clam" and found along the east coast of the U.S. The smallest hard clams are known as countnecks, the next size up are littlenecks, then topnecks, then cherrystones, then quahogs, the largest of the hard clams. 

Our waiter brought us the most impressive bread tray I've ever seen in a restaurant.
We sampled a little of each piece of bread and I ate more than my share of the onion bread and wished for more. It was all very fresh and good. Finally, our waiter arrived with the food. 
The crab claws, spinach and hashbrowns, each in a separate bowl or plate, were all on one platter, and the coleslaw was on a separate plate off the platter. 

I liked the hash browns a lot. They came looking like they'd been formed in a container and browned crispy on top. It was a very generous portion. Judy thought they were just okay. They tasted like regular hash browns, but with the way they were shaped and cooked, you got a nice mixture of the crispy brown outside and moist inside.  
I was quite excited to try the creamed spinach and it was my biggest disappointment. It had nice texture, but just lacked much taste. 
If I'm going to have something good for me (spinach) turned into something bad for me (butter and cream), I at least want it to have some extra nice flavor. I would not order the spinach again. 

The coleslaw was distinctive and weird. 
I know people who refuse to combine food on their plate. The thought of having food on their plate mix together is abhorrent to them. I think this dish was invented by one of those people. The base of the coleslaw was vinegrated cabbage (I find a recipe that says they use cider vinegar). That, by itself was fine, and not so distinctive, although it was very fresh. But then, on top, was a dollop of mayonnaise (Hellman's), then a dollop of sweet pickle relish and two bookend slices of tomato. Each ingredient, by itself, particularly the relish and mayonnaise, was a little much. And the way it is presented does not particularly lend itself to being mixed together like a typical coleslaw. I think I might have liked it more had it been pre-mixed, but as it was, I felt like I was mostly getting overwhelming bits of one ingredient or another with each bite. I would not order the coleslaw again either. 

The stone crab claws were not what I was expecting. 
I thought that they would be served warm, that we would need to crack them open ourselves, and that they would come with drawn butter. No on all counts. They were "stone-cold," pre-cracked (which was nice) and served with what must be a mustard sauce, although I did not peg it as that at the time (I am finding a recipe that includes dry mustard, mayonnaise, Worcestershire and cream). Even though pre-cracked, some of the meat was still difficult  to dislodge from the inner cartilage of the claw. I can see why larger claws, with more meat per claw, would be desirable (ours were the second of four tiers in size). I love cold Alaskan king crab legs, in fact, I prefer them that way. But these crab claws are not anywhere near that flavorful. So I ended up dipping most of my crab in the mustard sauce, which was quite flavorful and good. 
However, if I were to try them again, I would get bigger claws and eat them with drawn butter.  

My favorite part of the meal was the quahogs. 
The clams were large and meaty, they had nice flavor, perhaps a little bacon in them, were given added substance by the stuffing, and the drawn butter gave added flavor and moistness. 
I would order them again in a heartbeat. 

It dawned on me as I saw Key lime pie listed everywhere that the "Key" in "Key lime" must relate to the Florida Keys. In fact, Key lime pie originated in Key West, Florida, although Key limes originated in Malaysia. The Key lime pie at Joe's was different than any I've had before. It was heavier and thicker.
I think it was Judy's favorite dish at the restaurant and perhaps on our trip. 
The filling is made with egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and Key lime juice and they freeze it for 15 to 20 minutes before serving it, so it is quite cold in the center, almost chewy. I'm sure that aspect of it would make it wonderful when it is extremely warm and humid outside, but I would have preferred it more at room temperature.

Overall, Judy and I both felt that the meal was okay, but not fantastic. However, I felt like it was an event, like going to a concert or to a football game. Taking into account the atmosphere, the cultural experience, the reputation, the location, as well as the food, into consideration, I felt like it was worth the splurge and enjoyed it immensely. 

Later in our trip, as we were driving through the Keys on our way back to Miami from Key West, we passed a truck on the road full of crabs headed for Joe's. 
Joe's is a place that anyone who loves to eat should try. 

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