Brisket, ribs and barbecue: Miami native, Buffalo Bills receiver opens new restaurant

Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie says of his experience with the restaurant: "I didn't know about brisket or pulled pork. But I know it well now." Courtesy Mel Rodriguez

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. -- It's a humid, 88-degree day, and the line outside at La Traila Barbeque is more than a hundred people deep an hour after doors opened for the first time on the Saturday before Memorial Day.

People happily waited -- roughly two hours -- with anticipation for something many had not tasted before. South Florida specializes in a variety of food, but premier barbecue isn't one of them.

"What is brisket?" one patron asked out loud, reading the digital menu on her phone. After ordering it, she fell in love. Another man walked out with a to-go plate, calling it the best barbecue he's ever had.

Parked near the door wiping sweat off his forehead and handing out free beers and cups of water to waiting customers stands Buffalo Bills do-it-all wide receiver and return man Isaiah McKenzie. For much of the spring, he has spent his days catching passes from Bills quarterback Josh Allen. On this Saturday, McKenzie is a barbecue customer service rep trying to keep folks happy on opening day at his restaurant.

Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 170 pounds, he doesn't give off football player vibes, and he prefers it like that. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos tells customers he "just works here."

"I just want to be normal," McKenzie said. "It's barbecue and beer; you can't beat it. Miami is great at Latin food, but not barbecue. Definitely not like Texas. Living here, I would go to Outback Steakhouse or Flanagan's to get ribs -- I thought that was barbecue. I didn't know about brisket or pulled pork. But I know it well now."

That turn happened early in 2020 when McKenzie met his eventual tag team business partner, Austin, Texas-born pitmaster Mel Rodriguez, who educated the fifth-year NFL player on the food game. For NFL fans, McKenzie is the spokesman, football celeb and recognizable face for the restaurant as a Miami native.

McKenzie, 26, provided much of the startup money for La Traila, while Rodriguez runs everything full-time on the ground -- the cooking, culture and management. Together, McKenzie and Rodriguez are bringing real Texas barbecue to South Florida.

The hometown player hurt local fans' hearts when he had a career-best three touchdowns in the Bills' 2020 regular-season finale win against the Miami Dolphins that ended the team's playoff dreams. But, he hopes one day his barbecue will find its way to the Dolphins via postgame meals.

Barbecue beginnings

A month later on a return trip to La Traila, customers were still lining up an hour before doors opened to get a taste of their barbecue.

"Isaiah and I are a good mix," Rodriguez said. "We both know our strengths. When he's here, he's great with customers. He's humble. He takes pictures with customers if they ask. But he'll work the register. He'll serve food at pop-ups. He loves that. People come to see him. I'm behind the scenes running the day-to-day, and of course, cooking."

It's a story of barbecue, football and a chance meeting through family.

McKenzie and Rodriguez were two guys from different circles. At the time, Rodriguez was dating the sister of McKenzie's close childhood friend. They all met one day in 2020, right at the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the country, at a family function. Rodriguez cooked for them. McKenzie loved it and shared his vision of wanting to invest some of his football money into a food truck.

Starting a business during a pandemic wasn't the smartest of plays, so they decided to execute a few pop-ups, which are temporary retail spots where they could sell their barbecue. They did a free pop-up in Hialeah, Florida, where 350 people showed. That turnout landed McKenzie and Rodriguez a weekend rental location at a Miami fresh food market. Another pop-up a few months later led them to a better fit with Unbranded Brewery in Hialeah. They loved the fit; what's better than barbecue and beer?

But Rodriguez, who was running everything while McKenzie played football in Buffalo in the fall of 2020, still envisioned having their own brick and mortar restaurant. This spring, as the world began opening up thanks to vaccinations, the pair jumped on a permanent shop in a location that was previously owned by a barbecue shop that failed to succeed during the pandemic.

'It's going to take a team'

A month in at La Traila, Rodriguez increased their daily meat order to 2,000 pounds to satisfy the long lines of customers. Food is prepped as it is ordered, the way Texas-style barbecue is meant to be. They open at noon and sell out by 5 p.m. (or earlier) most days; brisket typically sells out first.

Rodriguez, 40, learned barbecue from his family in Austin, particularly his father. He has been on the pit since a teenager.

Everything about their restaurant feels like Texas, from the brick walls to breakfast tacos for two hours in the morning before the main menu is served.

"When I moved to Miami, I realized barbecue here isn't very good," said Rodriguez, who moved to the area from Austin four years ago. "We're ahead of what people expect, so we have wiggle room, but I told my staff I don't want to just make good barbecue. I want to make damn good barbecue."

McKenzie added: "We didn't know that we would have long lines. We didn't know that we would sell out. We just wanted to open up and make some food. We're still learning on the fly, but it's been good."

Locals aren't the only ones trying out La Traila; a few NFL players have taken in the scene and the food, too. McKenzie's Bills teammate, offensive lineman Dion Dawkins, showed up on opening day, as did New England Patriots running back Sony Michel. Former Denver Broncos cornerback Kayvon Webster, who owns a soul and Cajun food truck based in Miami, showed some love by stopping in and buying a large order in late June.

McKenzie and Rodriguez have made their restaurant a foodie experience. All of the meat is smoked, and Rodriguez chops it in front of you. Many of the menu items are specialized, such as the brisket and queso empanadas, or McKenzie's favorite, the brisket sundae -- a mix of macaroni and cheese, baked beans, beef brisket, crema, queso fresco, creamed corn and homemade sauce.

There's a lot more that goes into owning a business than throwing money at it. McKenzie was shocked to learn restaurants have to pay taxes on the 20th of every month and there's a lot of paperwork that goes into doing business the right way. It's important for McKenzie to be a "hands-on" owner when he is able to be present outside of football.

McKenzie's goal when he heads to the Bills' training camp on July 28 is to get the restaurant's employees up to speed so they can take some of the pressure off Rodriguez.

"I want everybody to speak the whole language," McKenzie said. "I want it to be a well-oiled machine. Mel is the perfect guy to run the day-to-day. But small details make a great restaurant, and he shouldn't have to worry about the front of the shop or the back of the shop. We have big goals here. It's going to take a team."

McKenzie now has two teams: the Bills, who are aiming to repeat as AFC East champions, and La Traila, which is aiming to make the best barbecue in South Florida.