‘Haitian barbecue’? It’s a hit in a changing Little Haiti

Plumes of blue-gray smoke signal lunchtime at this corner in Little Haiti.

A police officer in an unmarked black Impala slinks next to the billowing black smoker outside the new Bon Gout Haitian barbecue restaurant and lowers her window.

“Y’all got food ready yet, in there?” the officer asks.

Pierry “Wiwi” Saintjoy shuts the lid on the oaky clouds scenting racks of spare ribs and smoke-ringed brisket that have been cooking since 5 a.m. “Yes, Miss B! C’mon in.”

Scooters zip in and out of the restaurant like Miami-to-D.C. shuttles, picking up delivery orders. Inside, it’s 15 minutes after a Friday noon opening, but already the line is a dozen people deep at this six-month old neighborhood spot.

The smoke is Bon Gout’s beacon. And finally, neighbors know where to find them.

Miami, June 11, 2019 - Jean Lucel (left), Wesley Bissaint (center) and his mother Miselie Marseille (right) at Bon Gout Barbecue, 99 NW 54th St, Little Haiti Jose A. Iglesias

For two years, the partners in this business, Jean “BJ” Lucel and Wesley Bissaint, hauled their smoker and grill around Little Haiti to cook roadside barbecue true to its name. Their dining rooms were vacant weed-covered lots, the parking lot outside Lucel’s tattoo shop and weekends pop ups at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex.

But as outsiders prospect for cheap real estate in Little Haiti, Lucel and Bissaint staked their claim. They unhitched their grills and anchored them to a storefront in the neighborhood where they grew up. They started feeding locals, first with their brand of what they’re calling Haitian barbecue, then by hiring their friends and neighbors in a community amid transition.

Little Haiti responded by showing up hungry — with money in hand.

“Everybody knows our history here,” Lucel said. “Our stomping grounds were right here.”

Bissaint works fueling aircraft at Miami International Airport. But what he really wanted to do was follow in the family business.

His mother, Miselie Marseille, who everyone just calls Mamma Chef, had co-owned a pair of restaurants in the neighborhood, including Le Jardin on 79th Street. She told him stories about her own mother’s restaurants in Haiti, where she said they served the former Haitian president François Duvalier.

Miami, June 7, 2019 - Analie Michel rubs seasoning on racks of ribs before cooking at Bon Gout Barbecue as she and the rest of the crew prepare to open for business. Bon Gout Barbecue, 99 NW 54th St, Little Haiti Jose A. Iglesias

So Bissaint bought a grill and started barbecuing in the back of Le Jardin and whatever empty lot he could find near busy roads. When his childhood friend, Lucel, opened a new tattoo parlor, Bissaint approached him about partnering to barbecue in front of the shop. Lucel and his father already run a food bank, where they give out produce fresh from Homestead behind the tattoo parlor every Tuesday morning.

So he and Bissait each put in a $100 to buy meat from a local restaurant depot and started grilling at the shop.

“The first day, we sold out,” Lucel said. “From that day, we never looked back.”

The community loved it. Code compliance didn’t.

Rather than shut them down, local police and city officials who had tasted their deep-flavored barbecue steered them toward making it legal. The manager for the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, Abraham Metellus, offered a spot as vendors at the weekly marketplace.

“I had a chance to see (Lucel’s) desire, his tenacity. He worked hard to build this business,” Mecellus said. “They got together, they pooled their resources and they made something.”

Metellus gave them tips along the way: register your business with the state, incorporate, take food safety courses, get your catering license. After each task Bissaint and Lucel completed, Metellus gave them another. Think bigger, he told them.

“We understand change is happening in our community.... Little Haiti has a story to tell and we need people to help tell that story,” Metellus said. “If one person wins, we all win.”

Miami, June 7, 2019 - Bon Gout Barbecue, 99 NW 54th St, Little Haiti Jose A. Iglesias

You need look only as far as the northern end of Little Haiti, which real estate agents and developers have successfully rebranded Little River. It now hosts a sleek, hip new food hall named for an important Haitian landmark, The Citadel — yet only one of its restaurants serves a version of Haitian food.

Bon Gout was a chance to chart a different course for the heart of Little Haiti.

“They’re a poster child of what can happen in Little Haiti,” Metellus said. “We need more folks that are willing to adapt to the changes.”

Bissaint and Lucel partnered with another friend, Eddie Rawson, a Pittsburgh native and local artist who had helped run a non-profit hospital his grandparents founded in the Haitian countryside. He painted the mural inside Lucel’s tattoo parlor, created the graphics for Bon Gout and innovated what he calls Zacos, a portmanteau for tacos and Zoe, a slang nickname for Haitians.

They opened Bon Gout on Lucel’s birthday, Dec. 5 of 2018 — and watched the dining room fill up with regulars.

“They’re neighborhood heroes,” Rawson said.

Word spread. On a recent Thursday, a pair of local architects sat by the window, taking client calls and munching on brisket tacos. A local contractor and restaurant builder, Jean Longchamps, whose office is nearby, stopped in for the third time that week. (“Maybe time to open another location? This place is always full,” Longchamps said.)

Miami, June 7, 2019 - Pierry Saintjoy works the girl at Bon Gout Barbecue as he and the crew prepare to open for business. Bon Gout Barbecue, 99 NW 54th St, Little Haiti Jose A. Iglesias

They’re all here for American Southern barbecue with a Haitian twist. Ribs are barbecued for six hours, the brisket smoked for eight, a perfect pink smoke ring lining the inside of the beef. The rub, made with a mix of Haitian spices, imparts a deep flavor and a seasoned crust.

The meat is served either in sandwiches on Cuban bread or on platters with a host of sides, such as collards made with the seasonings of traditional lalo Haitian field greens or a Southern-style mac and cheese casserole. Barbecue sauces are housemade. (The one to order is the Bon Gout Gold with a mustard tang.) And the pikliz has two settings: hot — and Haitian hot.

“Mamma Chef” Marseilles handles the handful of traditional Haitian dishes, such as griyo (fried pork chunks), bannann peze (fried green plantains) and diri kole ak pwa wouj (rice and beans).

“Some people come because of the barbecue. Some love it because its Haitian food. Some love it because it’s both,” Rawson said.

Two local Miami police precincts are still their best customers. Miami police crime prevention specialist Barbara Sweet — the so-called Miss B — popped in on a Friday for lunch.

“We’re trying to include them in everything we do. They are doing something positive for the community,” Sweet said. “They’re feeding people. Good-hearted people. And they’re instrumental in the Haitian community.”

Bon Gout now employs 11, all from Little Haiti, Bissaint said. When he looks around a full restaurant, he sees more than profit. He sees his role in a changing Little Haiti.

“We’re feeding families. That’s a big thing,” Bissaint said. “To be able to feed people and to see them enjoy it, that’s the drive. That’s what keeps us going.”

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Bon Gout Barbecue

99 NW 54th St., Little Haiti

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”