High on the Hog
The last time we wrote about the Miami Smokers - in Fall 2013 - they were peddling bacon toasted krispy treats and, frankly, excellent BLTS at the Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market.
Even then, they were talking about their plans for a community smokehouse and world bacon domination. A year and a half later, Andres Barrientos, 31, and James Bowers, 34, are holding court in their smokehouse and sandwich shop in west Little Havana. Fans will recognize memorabilia from the events that have kept the pair busy over the past few years — the BEER marquee on the ceiling from Basel Biergarten and artwork from Daniel Fila at Krave Art — but behind the door to the back, there’s a whole warren of rooms dedicated to the work of smoking and curing pork products.
“We’re on a mission to bring timeless curing and smoking techniques to consumers, one slice of bacon at a time,” say the pair. Once home to a bait shop, this space — all 2,700 square feet of it — is where they’re growing their dream.
Before they got involved in breaking down hogs, the two Miamians took apart old cars when they were friends in high school. They went their separate ways — Barrientos went into culinary school at Johnson and Wales while Bowers studied architecture — and reconnected later at Aaron’s Catering, where Barrientos was executive chef and Bowers worked as sous chef. After a pop-up brunch series, the idea of creating a smokehouse and turning out nose-to-tail charcuterie took hold. “We wanted to give people better food,” says Barrientos. “We made a commitment to look for better pork, with the best taste, responsibly raised.” They paid a visit to Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee, where Allan Benton taught them the ins and outs of having a smokehouse.
GETTING PIGGY WITH IT
They built their own bacon smoker and started making bacon by first curing, then smoking, top quality heritage pork. Like many food artisans, the Miami Smokers started selling their products at the farmers market, luring customers with the perfume of sizzling bacon and the quick thrill of candied bacon treats. They increased their visibility at high-profile South Florida food events, including the Basel Biergarten pop-up at Art Basel; Swine and Wine and the Grand Tasting at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival; Cochon 555; and Taste of the Nation at the Eden Roc, among others. Meanwhile, they landed on a space. The pair spent last April through November building it out, doing much of the work themselves, ripping out three layers of ceiling and four kinds of flooring. Then came construction of the series of rooms for preparing, curing, cooling and smoking. “The USDA wants a flow of how your product goes through,” Bowers explains. “A new product (raw meat) doesn’t cross a finished product.” The space was ready for a Valentine’s Day grand opening.
In the back of the house, each room serves a different purpose. The kitchen area is for preparing foods served in the sandwich shop. A packaging room holds the vacuum sealer. Other rooms, cooled depending on their needs, are used for making sausage, curing meats, hanging them and smoking them. They use cold smoking for flavor, not for cooking. “That’s barbecue,” says Barrientos. “We don’t do barbecue.” Instead, their bacon and smoked sausages go into the smoker to take on the flavors of apple, hickory and maple.
For their products, Bowers and Barrientos are committed to using the best Berkshire pork (they don’t use beef) and other tasty breeds. These include the curly-haired Mangalitsa and Georgia’s Ossabaw Island hogs, whose lineage can be traced to Spain, and listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Their dark meat is similar to that of Spain’s famed jamon iberico.
“Part of the challenge is the product,” Bowers says. We use pasture raised, raised humanely and fed wholesome diets,” he says. “The taste is there and you can see it in the pig — for example, their glands are bright red, not green and sickly,” as he’s seen in other pigs.
Miami Smokers’ cases are stocked with fresh sausages (Italian, Mama T’s Thai and maple habanero breakfast patty were available the day we visited); bacon made from heritage pork, dry cured and aged for 30 days; and salamis. On the walls, in shelves built into a massive piece of salvaged art, bacon jerky, candied bacon and smoked salt are stacked for sale. They also sell eclectic hand-crafted foods: local honey from Keez Beez; Chef Allen’s Urban Pickles; rock candy from Raley’s Confectionary in Tallahassee; Nic & Luc’s preserves and Coconut Cartel coconuts. You can also get a shot of slightly carbonated Awaken Cold Brew from Relentless Roasters on tap.
Thanks to a social media connection, the pair recently struck up a collaboration with Knaus Berry Farm, the seasonal bakery and produce stand in the Redland where customers line up for hours every Saturday for their cinnamon buns. “I made a comment on one of their Instagram bacon posts, and they jumped on it, so we made a play date,” says Knaus’ Tom Blocher. Knaus added their bacon to the last batch of cinnamon buns of the day, and followers couldn’t stop talking about it. “It worked pretty well,” says Blocher, enough to consider it for their next season in 2016. “They’re great guys.” They’re also working with Fireman Derek’s Pies in Wynwood, where bacon fat biscuits are on the menu.
Miami Smokers products are now in a number of restaurants, including the Matador at The Edition, Seagrape at The Thompson, Kush and LoKal, Wynwood Brewery, BoxElder, and the Cafe at Books and Books. But to achieve total bacon domination, they want to sell their products nationally. “The goal from the beginning was to do wholesale bacon products,” says Barrientos.
That doesn’t mean they’ll value their sandwich shop any less, though. They’re getting residents in their working-class neighborhood and beyond. “We’re a destination,” he says. “People are coming from Boca and the Keys. One of the coolest things is hearing people say this is the best sandwich they’ve ever eaten.”
Found a Cure
At Miami Smokers, you can grab a sandwich or pick up a package of sausage or bacon - it’s all made on premises. Andres Barrientos preps for lunch in the kitchen, where daily dishes are made. To make sausages and cured meats, they use a series of rooms with different purposes that are coded to different temperatures. Here, bacon is being ground to use in Knaus Berry Farms cinnamon buns. Jason the intern is stuffing fresh sausage. In the curling room, kept at 38 degrees, slabs of pork belly are sprinkled with salt, sugar and spices and stacked in bins. Other bins contain pigs feet being cured for trotter terrine. The salt pulls out the moisture and the meats lose 20 percent of their weight in two weeks. Salamis, bacon and prosciutto goes to another room kept at 55 degrees, where it dries out. James Bowers uses a tester to check the pH. Meats cure anywhere from a few weeks to three months, depending on the product. For a smoky flavor, bacon and meats can go into the cold smoker. The process turns the pale pork a rich caramel color and makes it firmer. Andres skins a wild boar brought in by a fan.
MIAMI SMOKERS URBAN SMOKEHOUSE
360 NW 24 Ave., Miami
The sandwich shop is open 10-6, selling packaged products like baconjerky ($6) and candied bacon ($6), and sandwiches made with their bacon, sausages and Berkshire pork ($9-13). They plan to open earlier for breakfast.