Real Deal Barbecue at Shorty's
BY ARIELLE CASTILLO
On the surface, Shorty’s Bar-B-Q seems like the anti-Miami. The original location of the local, five-restaurant mini empire, on South Dixie Highway near the Dadeland Mall, is pure throwback roadhouse. The floors are poured concrete, while the walls are covered in rusty license plates and bleached cow skulls. Instead of napkins, diners reach for rolls of paper towels. Waitresses collect the leftover rib bones in a paper bag and offer plastic finger bowls for the post-meal cleanup.
While newer, vaguely Southern restaurants try to emulate this authenticity, Shorty’s is the real Miami-Dade County deal. The South Miami location opened in 1951 under the auspices of namesake proprietor Shorty Allen, years before the mall, Metrorail, or multiple office towers sprouted in the neighborhood. Allen, a Georgia transplant, decided to replicate the barbecue tradition of his home state—centered around hickory wood smoke and a tangy, tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce. This style made perfect sense when Miami was still a sleepy Southern outpost. Much has changed in the city since then, but, comfortingly, very little about Shorty’s has.
The eatery remains a great equalizer, particularly at lunch. The daytime rush sees lawyers, constructions workers, doctors, and Pinecrest moms in dainty boucle jackets get un-dainty with ribs a few tables down from retail workers from Dadeland Mall. A hefty contingent of the lunchtime crew is white-haired—clearly regulars for decades. “We have customers who have been eating here since the early ’50s,” says Teresa McGrath, a server at Shorty’s for the past 20 years.
Part of the democratizing force is that these various groups rub elbows here—literally. Most of the tables at the original Shorty’s are of the picnic variety, with long, communal seating stretching down the dining room’s main section. Booths and stools dot the perimeter. The restaurant’s sister locations—in Doral, West Miami, Davie, and Boca Raton—mimic the style. This means there’s no “best” table or special treatment— everyone gets the same service.
Ironically, the no-fuss atmosphere has made the joint a favorite spot for various celebrities. LeBron James has been spotted here, as has TV host and Barbecue Bible author Steven Raichlen. Photographer and Grammy-winning documentarian Timothy Greenfield- Sanders, a Miami native, has called the restaurant’s brisket plate “flawless,” and always makes a trip there when he’s in town.
But Shorty’s inspires the same devotion in everyday locals, especially for lunch. That’s when specials run from $4.99 for a quarter barbecued chicken to $6.99 for spareribs, both of which come with french fries or a sweet or baked potato, house-made coleslaw, and thick garlic bread. “Back in the ’80s, my mom used to work for all the Burdines stores in South Florida and talked about this barbecue joint near Dadeland,” recalls local artist Helena Garcia, who grew up in Boca Raton and would drive down to Miami with her family to eat at Shorty’s.
The time it takes for the barbecue to hit the table also contributes to the restaurant’s brisk lunchtime business. “Normally we can get people in and out in 40 minutes, even when we have a line,” says Chuck Housen, general manager of the Dadeland location. “And we still cook everything fresh every day.”
The coleslaw and barbecue sauce are still made using Shorty Allen’s recipes from the early ’50s; they endured, even when the business was sold to a group of four owners in 1981. “The four gentlemen who bought the restaurant from Shorty were smart enough to not try to reinvent the wheel. They always wanted to stay close to the original recipes and the original concept,” says Housen.
Also watching over the consistency of the recipes are the members of the staff, many of whom have worked here for years. Besides McGrath, several servers count tenures of more than a decade. While there’s no official barbecue pit master, the longtime standing of the staff means everyone involved knows just how the food is supposed to turn out.
According to McGrath, this kind of consistency is the Shorty’s secret. “I think the customers just really like the food, really like the service, and they become our family, too.”
photographs by gary james