Chef Richard Hales has certainly made a name for himself. He’s at the helm of Miami-based Sakaya Kitchen as well as Midtown Chinese, also known as Blackbrick, a Foodable Top 25 restaurant that was named one of Bon Appetit’s “America’s Best New Restaurants” in 2014.
Part Italian, part Irish, and part Pacific Islander (Filipino), Hales’ background has played a huge role in his inspiration and influence in the culinary world. “My grandmother is Filipino,” he says. “So I grew up eating the flavors of Filipino food — vinegars, soy, chiles, the balanced flavor that you find typically in Asian food.”
Growing up in an American household, Hales was privy to both Asian cuisine and continental American cuisine. “Just combining those two cuisines growing up, it really shows in my food where it becomes playful, where I do American dishes that I grew up with and then I use an Asian, Korean, Chinese, Filipino pantry to create the dish.”
Blackbrick’s menu is extensive, and includes dim sum — steamed and pan fried or deep fried; daily Chinese bread; “from the farm” vegetables; appetizers that include crispy cumin lamb chops, salt & pepper calamari, and sweet & sour chicken wings; and dishes like dandan mian noodles (Sichuan pork sauce, bucatini noodles), kimchi & bacon fried rice, kung pao tofu, grandma’s red oxtail (with hard cooked egg), peking duck (steamed bao, roti, scallion, hoisin), fried whole hogfish, and a whole lot more.
“Traveling is very important to me, and it was certainly important when I built the menu for Blackbrick,” he says. “I saw a side of China that typically you don’t see. I saw a lot of Sichuan cuisine, Hunan cuisine, a lot of the cuisine from the northeast. It was sort of like a real eye-opener to me that there is a vast culinary world outside what we see in the U.S., which is typically Cantonese.”
While traveling, Hales fell in love with dandan (a noodle dish), and the complexity of its flavor profile (“the hot, numbing characteristics of the Sichuan peppercorn”) became the base inspiration for the menu. And it’s this signature dish — the dandan mian — that the Blackbrick team prepares for us in the episode above.
Dandan mian starts with ground meat. “We don’t buy the meat ground because we want to sort of control the process,” says the chef/owner. Instead, they ground the meat in house using a Chinese method. “You still get little chunks. We control the fat content of that as well, and it’s the first process of building a dish by hand.” The meat is blanched in oil before the sauce is built. To start, take chili bean paste and chili oil, add a bit of garlic for caramelization, and then add Chinese cooking wine, a meat stock, seasoning spice — salt, sugar, white pepper, and then add a Sichuan peppercorn oil which brings in that numbing characteristic. The noodles, what Hales refers to as “long life noodles” for the cultural belief that the longer they are, the longer you’ll live. It’s also bad luck to break them, so diners are supposed to slurp the full noodle as one. For the dish, the noodles are dropped into water for 3-4 minutes. When done, spread with peanut sauce and meat. “We get raw peanuts and we roast them in the wok,” which is then added to the dish, as well as white sesame seeds that are also roasted in the wok, and some fresh-cut scallions to bring a lightness to the dish.
“When I first started thinking about Blackbrick, it was gonna be a New-York-styled Chinese restaurant. But then as I continued to grow in Miami, I realized that that wasn’t relevant, even to me anymore.” And so, Blackbrick became a Miami-styled Chinese restaurant. “I didn’t want the restaurant to be in-your-face Chinese; I wanted it to have little subtle touches.” This aesthetic is perfectly captured in the restaurant’s decor, which Hales himself designed: basket light fixtures that look like bird cages (“You see that everywhere in China,” he says) and light fixtures that are similar in style to the hats one would wear in the rice paddies; and stylized portraits of Bruce Lee (dubbed “General Lee”) and Chuck Norris hanging on the wall. There’s even a nod to the local art culture with a Wynwood mural graffitied on the wall.