Rob Bair, founder of Tin & Taco and Gringos Locos and el jefe of the downtown taco scene, makes an effort to bring a little South Beach glam to his latest effort — a barbecue beach bar with all the proto-'80s revivalist style of a vaporwave screensaver.
Neon Beach is the name, and walking into the downtown haunt had me wishing I still owned a white linen suit, pastel tee and Carrera 5512 aviators. Well, the Carreras anyway. Not throwing, um, shade at Neon Beach, but there are, um, shades of beach-themed taco chain Bartaco here — the whitewashed walls, the light woods, the hanging basketweave lighting fixtures.
The place is also appropriately flip-flop friendly, not that you'd catch me wearing my OluKais here: The only thing I hate more than sand between my toes are the sticky remnants of beer and cocktail spills. And while Neon Beach is one of those places that blurs the line between bar and restaurant, the vibe here is most certainly bar.
The menu, however, is restaurant-sized, with many items making good use of the in-house smoker, and that includes veg fare like burnt ends ($8.50) of dry-rubbed tofu.
Now, I'm no bean curd expert, but I'm pretty sure these burnt ends weren't fashioned from the scraps and trimmings left over after butchering a block of tofu. The cubes are tossed with grilled pineapple and squirted with a zippy mango-ancho sauce, and, in true barbecue fashion, the dish is served on a paper-lined aluminum tray.
So are the "Florida Man" smoked brisket sandwich ($13) and the "Double Wide" smoked pork sandwich ($11). Thing is, when we cut those sammies in half with a plastic knife, it took a good amount of paper with it. Butcher paper is what's needed on those trays — but nothing's needed in those handhelds.
That mango-ancho sauce juiced up the "Double Wide" sandwich, layered with shaved gouda and crunched with citrus slaw and fried onion straws, quite nicely. We loved the flavors, even if the bun was no match for the weighty ingredients. With fried jalapeños and a datil pepper barbecue sauce, the "Florida Man" brisket sandwich had plenty of heat, while a schmear of nitro bacon jam lent a fair bit of sweetness as well. The overflow of fried pickles dropped hits of acid into the sandwich. Nice.
I was sure there'd be a taco of some sort on the menu, but no. Instead, we opted to munch on sesame- and scallion-flecked ahi tuna nachos ($14.50) comprised of house-fried wontons, wakame seaweed salad, and drizzles of Thai chili and wasabi aioli. It's Bair's homage to Islamorada (where the dish is a staple), but we did find Mexican flavors in the smokehouse turkey bowl ($12.50). OK, it was a semblance of Mexican flavors courtesy of charred corn, avocado and spice-rubbed garbanzo beans, but the turkey tenderloins and their heavy hickory-smoked essence impressed. It's a feel-good, healthy rice bowl — a coconut-infused jasmine rice bowl — that should leave you feeling less guilty about downing a frozen boozy Dole whip ($6.50 small; $10 large) or two.
Or three. Or four. It's a quintessential Orlando quaff, but if you're dining in and find yourself requesting more than a few from your masked server, check yourself. Neon Beach isn't a den of Orlando vice.