What is in this article?:
- Restaurateur John Kunkel talks Thai, barbecue
- Looking ahead
Kunkel's most recent projects include Khong River House and Swine Southern Table & Bar.
Restaurateur John Kunkel has had a busy year.
Since November, the founder of the fast-casual Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain, whose 15 units he sold to Ruby Tuesday Inc. for $24 million last year, has opened two high-concept restaurants in the Miami area. Khong River House brings the food of Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to South Beach, and Swine Southern Table & Bar is a “man cave” specializing in barbecue in Coral Gables, Fla.
Khong River House is named after the Mekong River, also called the Khong in Southeast Asia. The 150-seat concept is inspired by Kunkel’s travels in the region, and he has hired Thai staff to maintain the restaurant’s culinary integrity.
At 120-seat Swine, Kunkel has brought barbecue pit master “Fireman Joe” Fantigrassi to work with classically trained chefs Philip Bryant, a veteran of Norman Van Aken’s kitchens, and Justin Stark, a barbecue lover who has spent his culinary career working at resorts across the South.
Kunkels’ 50 Eggs restaurant group also operates Yardbird, a critically acclaimed and commercially successful Southern restaurant in South Beach.
He discussed his latest projects — and plans for the future — with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Swine is two months old. How is it doing?
Barbecue’s not a food group; it’s a religion. You get that wrong [and] customers don’t just write a negative review; they come to your house looking for you.
So you had to do your homework?
We found a fireman who was a competition barbecue guy. We put him in the kitchen for a week and decided on using the deckle [the outer cap of the rib eye] that the Miami area knows as brisket. Texas brisket is more steak-y, less fatty and more dry.
Fireman Joe’s is moist, juicy and hit for 12 hours in slow smoke. We make enough for lunch and enough for dinner, and that’s it. It’s going like hotcakes.
We had to do pulled pork and ribs, too. We ended up getting a supplier out of Alabama who does whole hogs for us. The ribs are dry, with a little light Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce on the side.
The rest of the menu is a very refined take on Southern food.
Swine is the first restaurant menu that I’ve never touched. The chefs nailed it out of the gate. ExecutivePhilip Bryant is the former chef de cuisine at Yardbird and probably one of our most talented culinary guys. We have high hopes for him.
The chef de cuisine, Justin Stark, grew up in the South and loves to barbecue. Between him and Fireman Joe, when you go in the kitchen you have a cologne for the day to take home.
Philip and the barbecue guys have really assembled a pretty cool kitchen, from a classically trained Thomas Keller kind of guy to a pit master.
Last night we did our first large-format dinner at our 25-seat table in the center of the room. Our smoker’s about the size of a small Pinto, so you can get a couple of hogs in there. Last night we brought down a whole hog.
Describe the décor at Swine.
It’s like a giant man cave in there. It’s a split-level room, and the top bar looks down over the whole place, and wood is stacked throughout the restaurant because we have no place else to put it. So we have guys coming through and gathering wood [for the smoker], which is pretty cool.