Anyone who watches Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel knows that the renegade chef often finds some of the best fresh food not just in high-end restaurants but also at roadside or market stands.
In fact, one of the first places he likes to visit when he arrives in a new country is the local market, where he relishes the experience of having his food cooked right in front of him and served up by the owner.
Locals and visitors to Key Largo can have this same kind of experience when they visit Island Market Place, where Bob Blevins — “BBQ Bob” — has set up a 22-foot trailer and dishes out his trademark roast pork straight from his homemade16-foot grill.
Blevins first learned the secrets of good barbecue 10 years ago working at the now defunct Blue Marlin Restaurant in Key Largo, where he built a grill and began roasting pigs.
He went on to several area restaurants before going out on his own to festivals, weddings, community and corporate events. He quickly gained a reputation from Fort Lauderdale to Key West for his barbecue chicken, pork and ribs and worked events as large as Calle Ocho in Miami and Bike Week in Daytona.
“I used to be known as Pig Roast Bob, but after doing a lot of benefits at the Caribbean Club, Robbie, the owner, was always calling me BBQ Bob,” Blevins said. “That name seemed to roll off the tongue better and kind of stuck. Now I have a following because I’ve got the best pork in the Keys. I put my heart into it. It’s so tender and flavorful that a lot of people don’t even use sauce.”
Last fall, he joined up with two partners, Tom “Bear” McCuiston and Mike Shelton, to create a catering company called South Florida Catering and Concessions. They were able to expand the business by purchasing that first trailer and setting up their home base at the market when it opened in December.
More recently, they were able to buy a second, larger 24-foot trailer that travels to events along with a 21-foot grill.
Island Market Place is at mile marker 101 in Key Largo and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. To contact South Florida Catering and Concessions, call (305) 896-1742.
“I had been thinking about changing the business for over a year, and when the opportunity came to set up at the flea market, the partners and I felt it would be good,” Blevins said. “The economy’s bad, and people have got to eat. It’s local, so everybody’s going to stop in. Plus, you have the tourists. There are 60 to 70 vendors, and they change constantly. There’s always new stuff coming in and out.”
At the market, Blevins starts the morning with a $3 breakfast of two eggs, sausage or bacon and fresh home fries. Then, the barbecue starts flowing at 10:30 a.m.
Blevins said that because his overhead is not as high as a bricks-and-mortar-establishment, he has been able to keep the prices low: a pulled pork sandwich for $5, Philly cheese steak for $6, quarter-pound Angus beef burger for $4 and a half rack of St. Louis ribs for $7.
He also does some Cuban specialties, such as the classic Cuban sandwich with pulled pork, mojo chicken, plantains and black beans with rice.
“My barbecue has always been island style,” he said. “I use buttonwood and oak in the grills because it is a sweeter flavor, and I only use buttonwood on the pork. It burns clear and doesn’t blacken the food, so it gives it a light smoky taste. An old Cuban guy taught me about the buttonwood, and if you stick some guava leaves in there, it gives it even more flavor.”
Blevins has also partnered with some of the flea market vendors to cross-promote their items. Each Saturday, he is creating different dishes from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. using spices from the Island Spice booth inside.
“We’ve all got to help each other now that we’re headed into the slower season,” he noted.
Visitors at the market take advantage of the picnic tables set up by the trailer to relax and eat, and many locals stop in just to pick up something to go. The location serves a dual purpose as a place for Blevins to do informal tastings for potential catering clients.
“I landed three weddings in the last two weekends,” he said. “They’ve called me, and then come down and tasted everything. For weddings, we have other options like prime rib, filet mignon, fish dishes, tropical food and salads. This location has been good to us, and it’s picking up every weekend.”