On the business of BBQ in Miami.
“Otis!” Jack Holmes says, taking a white paper ticket from a customer who’s pulled up to his grill. “Where you from, Otis? Your last name ain’t Redding, is it?”
“Only if the bank account comes with it,” Otis replies. He’s ordered ribs, long cut. “It’s just the older ones who think of Redding anymore.”
Holmes, the 55-year-old owner of Mama Lucy’s All Pro Ribs, apparently qualifies as an older one. He’s been grilling pork and chicken on this corner of unincorporated Miami, up towards the football stadium and the county line, for more than 20 years.
He flips open the hood of his grill, a propane tank retrofit stained beyond black by decades of pork-grease drippings. A cumulonimbus billows out, ghosting Otis, breaching the windows of a passing tow truck, causing a woman to wince as she waits for a red light to sell tube socks to idling drivers. The smoke reaches a Kwik Stop market across the street and a tire alignment place where a sign says they buy junk cars.
Holmes somehow spies a rack of ribs in the haze. He pulls the bones off the grill, quickly dissecting them with a cleaver, chop chop chop in clean, sharp strikes, all wrist. He whistles a few notes of a song about sitting on a dock, then places the ribs in a Styrofoam container, basting them one last time with a thick and sugary red sauce cribbed from Mama Lucy, his maternal grandmother back in Georgia. He adds two slices of white bread on top before closing the Styrofoam and handing it over. “You still married, Otis?”
Mama Lucy’s is a full-on restaurant, officially. Its building—a stack of concrete blocks with hurricane shutters blocking the windows—looks more like a bomb shelter than a traditional establishment. No one eats inside. Holmes never cooks inside. He stays outdoors, five days a week, up to 12 hours at a time, sun or rain, because a big black grill pumping out smoke on the corner of a busy street is how Miami does BBQ.
Louis “Shorty” Allen, a migrant from Georgia, was one of the first to set up a grill in Miami. His stand, which opened in 1951, fogged up US1, deliberately. Drivers complained that they sometimes couldn’t see the road, or oncoming cars. Such smoky advertising once sparked a fire that burnt Shorty’s to the ground. It’s been rebuilt, and still serves pulled pork sandwiches to a city that’s grown congested around it.
Other Georgians followed Shorty, settling by skin tone into a very segregated city. From Overtown and Liberty City down to Black enclaves in Perrine and Goulds, basic Southern BBQ began appearing by the sides of different main arteries, often with nothing more to the operation than a grill and a sharp knife.
“A lot of people can’t afford brick and mortar,” says Bernard Allen of Brownsville Grills, a main supplier of the converted propane tanks that Holmes and many others use.
Street BBQ remains popular to this day, with a rotating roster of proprietors. There was a pastor moonlighting in empty lots around Midtown, towing his grill behind his truck. There’s still Fat Man’s BBQ, a lone grill seriously hidden among a row of warehouses. An operation called Bee’s BBQ asks friends to put the word out that this weekend they’ll be, say, behind the Cricket Wireless on 17th Avenue. Saint City BBQ, down the road from Holmes’ corner, is the side hustle of a storefront church. The BBQ component squats in the congregation’s parking lot, a couple of big black grills belching onto 22nd Avenue.
To watch Holmes in action, and to surrender to his charms, is to be reminded that old-school hospitality still carries coin in a modern world.
“When I started a few friends told me I wouldn’t be able to compete with that church,” Holmes says. “I told them they can fuck off with that.” Now that he’s established and popular, Holmes welcomes his rivals. “I’m happy for the guys that’s doing it. Takes the pressure off me. I’d die if I was the only one out here.”
The diaspora populating Miami—just about everybody is from somewhere else—flavors the wider BBQ scene. There’s Haitian BBQ here. Jamaican, too.
“There’s Argentinian-style, and Spanish,” adds Allen of Brownsville Grills. “I don’t care where you go, it’s a pit over fire. That’s what it’s all about in Miami. We got the beaches, we got the BBQ, we got the smoke.”
Texas-style is the predominant trend. Society BBQ in Midtown features twice-smoked burnt ends. La Traila, located in Miami Gardens not far from Mama Lucy’s, is “craft Texas” fronted by a former Dolphins wide receiver. Hometown BBQ, winner of a Michelin Bib Gourmand, is the second incarnation of a popular Brooklyn restaurant, the Miami branch hidden inside a produce market near the county courthouse. I keep it simple at Hometown: the brisket sandwich, a Frito pie and a beer. And I’m happy.
Particularly compelling among these new and ambitious joints is a hybrid of sorts called the Drinking Pig. It’s got a refined, upscale take on BBQ, while still maintaining the backyard, ad-hoc hustle I associate with Miami. Or front yard, in this case, as that’s where it is located, in someone’s front yard.
Driving there for the first time, I grew increasingly certain Google Maps was screwing up. I was steering deep into a residential neighborhood. All I saw were houses along thin streets meant to be accessed only by residents. When I got to the address, I found a yellow No Outlet sign, concluded Google was indeed wrong, and kept driving.
Only after I accepted that the dead end was in fact the right place did I park, step out of the car and into what felt a bit magical, like I’d stumbled onto a secret. Just five picnic tables under an awning. Tiki torches and tea lights. Overhanging trees. A small staff that was all family.
“BBQ is something people will travel for,” chef Raheem Sealey told me after that first visit. “They’ll go down a dirt road for it.”
COVID-19 brought Drinking Pig to life. Sealey was plating duck and wagyu beef as the executive chef of Kyu, an expensive and popular Korean restaurant shuttered by the pandemic. With time on his hands, Sealey decided to try and create the best BBQ in the city. He liked the science of it.
The menu is classic. Brisket, spareribs, cornbread, an addictive mac and cheese. The sides are crafted in the kitchen of the house, which belongs to Sealey’s cousin. The meat smokes outside in a giant oil drum contraption that looks like a version of Holmes’ grill gone way upscale.
The restaurant is only open on the weekends, and only during the day. I got there for dinner exceptionally early by Miami standards—six thirty on a Saturday—and received the last meal of the evening.
The whole operation is more polished than the street-food standard. There’s an Instagram page. I’ve seen the restaurant on TikTok. Sealey has appeared on a podcast, saying he aspires to turn Drinking Pig into a freestanding restaurant someday. His hustle is still in the incubation stage. In its currently modest incarnation, it’s succeeding.
Henry Perry, the founding king of Kansas City BBQ, hung a sign in his restaurant asserting he was there only to grill meat. “My business is to serve you, not entertain you.”
Jack Holmes sees his role differently. He knows he’s Mama Lucy’s main attraction.
“I call all these people on their bullshit,” he says of the stream of customers that smile when he insults them, or flirts with them as if he hasn’t been with the same woman for 34 years (she works with him on the premises) or simply asks them almost anything.
“It ain’t about the ribs, Robert,” he tells me. “It’s only about the conversation and the lies they want to hear.”
He has a gift. It’s obvious. When the orders come in, Holmes takes a look at the name on the white ticket, throws out an innocuous opener like “Where you from?” or “Where’d you go to school?” and whoever it is, they open up. Pancreatic cancer has caused a woman to lose a lot of weight. Another woman orders two containers of ribs for the two lovers she keeps under the same roof, men she has labeled Number One and Number Two.
Just asking Otis—a customer he’s never met before—if he’s “still married,” prompts Otis to offer up a sordid history. He’s definitely not married anymore. “What you did, Otis? What you did?”
The diaspora populating miami—just about everybody is from somewhere else—flavors the wider BBQ scene.
“I did everything,” Otis says. “You name it, I did it.”
Standing beside the grill for a couple shifts, I’m amazed at how much information I also volunteer. Yeah, I’m divorced, too, long ago. No, no kids. My brother is in Seattle, my sisters remain in Chicago, where we grew up. Our parents are getting old. My dad can’t golf anymore because of shoulder pain; he probably won’t ever golf again. If Holmes was a police detective, every suspect would simply admit the crime. To watch him in action, and to surrender to his charms, is to be reminded that old-school hospitality still carries coin in a modern world.
“They come out just for him,” says Sheila, Jack’s wife and the self-described “glue who holds everything together around here.” “They tell me they won’t stop unless they see him out there.”
Holmes grills Wednesday through Sunday, from around 11 in the morning until he sells out, which can be close to midnight on the weekends. Sundays are his busiest day, especially during football season. “They asked me last night, ‘Why you run out? You know the Dolphins are playing.’ I said I want to get home to watch the game, too.”
Mondays and Tuesdays he likes to golf, or maybe work in his yard for a while. By Wednesday he’s back on his corner, outside, throwing smoke onto a city back in line already, sharing life stories while he chops up their ribs.