Javier Ramirez is a Miami based finance professional passionate about chef-driven cuisine, culinary tourism and food photography. He writes about his tour of Casual Culinary Classics with outsider impressions by top Venezuelan food blogger Nidal Barake of yoculinario.com.
Being a culinary enthusiast and living in a popularly attractive city as is Miami means that you must be prepared to entertain relatives, friends and and friends of friends at local restaurants and also have a short list for the regular “where should we eat” prompt.
After years of experience and as someone that is truly passionate about helping people eat great food, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most effective strategy has to do with tailoring any recommendation. The more you understand the party who you are recommending to and their expectations, the better (assuming you have also done your homework in terms of understanding the objective of each restaurant’s offering). I usually deal with the latter by asking a few questions, like how many in your party, what is the purpose of the meal, do you have a particular cuisine you prefer, etc. The former I deal with through the obvious route: visiting as many restaurants as possible and making sure I never recommend a restaurant I’ve never been to.
When I’m approached by people from out of town, their homebase is also a key factor. It’s not the same to make a recommendation to someone visiting from New York than someone from Caracas. Miami has experienced over the last 4 years a Vegas-like explosion of clone restaurants from existing ones in big cities like London, Los Angeles, Milan and New York, so it would be foolish to send someone from the Big Apple to, for instance, db Bistro Moderne or The Dutch, despite the fact that they are two of Miami’s best restaurants.
I believe that the person’s profession and profile also matter tremendously, as well as their level of culinary acumen. For instance, a friend who is a high profile art dealer from New York visited recently during Art Basel and wasn’t impressed by my short list of local concepts I suggested she try. She went to Hakkasan and had “a tremendous meal” but did note what attracted her the most was the extensive Champagne list. You live, you learn.
On the opposite end, when it comes to friends who either work in the restaurant industry or with a high level of knowledge about it, I’ve recently discovered that the best way to show them Miami’s culinary offerings is through a small tour of what I call “casual culinary classics” or CCC. These are places that have been around for decades and that provide a great glimpse into Miami’s culture, history and flavors. The vast majority of these places are of Cuban origin and are conveniently located along the iconic “Calle Ocho” of Miami. Which makes it very convenient for non-typical, but very appropriate multi-stop-lunch. Despite the large number of options, I have screened it down to 3 places: La Camaronera, Latin American Restaurant and El Mago de Las Fritas.
Below are the impressions of my friend Nidal Barake, force behind the very popular Food Blog yoculinario.com on his recent “CCC” tour.
As soon as I found out I had a two day layover in Miami, I texted Javier for his latest tips on where to eat. He came up with an offer I couldn’t refuse: he would take me on quick lunch time tour of classic places offering casual food. This was music to my ears, since I appreciate great casual food as much as I can appreciate a great Michelin starred restaurant. Also, who has lunch in three different places, on the same day? Specially if that day is any given Monday…
I. La Camaronera- 1952 W. Flagler St. Miami, FL 33131 305 642 3322
We arrived at noon at the very popular seafood joint and before we even had time for any chit chat our waitress arrived. As I usually do, I asked her:
- “what is your best dish?”
- “Everybody orders the fried shrimp and the fried fish sandwich (minuta)
- “Well… bring them on!”
In no time we received a plate of the freshest shrimps, golden and crispy on the outside, warm and fleshy on the inside, which we devoured without hesitation while we were cutting in half the “Minuta”. That sandwich was very simple yet amazingly delicious, even though the bread was a regular, cheap burger bun, it contained a perfect filet of fish that was fresh, tasty, crunchy, steamy… which explains why the bun is simply a back seat passenger aimed at holding the fish, which was the real star of the dish. The positive surprises did not stop there, when we ordered the check while we were still having the last bites of the Minuta, we were impressed with the price of such great bites. It almost begs the question of why would you pay up to 10 times more for poorer quality food only benefiting from just a fancy setting if all you want is fresh, perfectly cooked seafood and fish? And this is what you get at La Camaronera.
II. Latin American Restaurant- 898 SW 57th St. West Miami, FL 33144 305 267 9995
Javier’s research into Miami’s best Cuban sandwich has generated quite the controversy, or so he tells me. Ask 10 sources and you will get 10 different answers, and some people even believe nobody is town is doing it right. He has settled on the advice of local casual food expert burgerbeast.com, and that is how we arrived at our second stop. As soon as we entered, the place drew me in with it’s ambience, imagine a classic American Diner, with a Cuban twist, where they serve “Sandwich de Lechón” instead of waffles, and Papas Fritas instead of hash browns. We sat at the counter and ordered the croquetas, the Sandwich de Lechón (pork sandwich) and of course, the Sandwich Cubano. The croquetas came first, a big plate of two fried tasty ham croquetas, served with what we learned later was all the stuffing of their Sandwich Cubano! Talk about an appetizer to leave no room for anything else….. Second came the Sandwich de Lechón, definitely the strongest dish of our second stop, good, juicy pork leg, served with sautéed onions. Added mustard completed a truly great sandwich, despite the slight staleness of the day or so old French baguette. The final element, the one we had been waiting for the most was the “Cubano”; thinly sliced pork and ham toasted inside a French baguette with pickles and cheese which had melted, creating the perfect combination. Whether this is the best or not in town I guess is still up for debate but this was indeed a great contender.
III. El Mago de las Fritas- 5828 SW 8th St. Miami FL 33134 305 266 8486
The “Frita” (known also as Cuban Hamburger) is probably the ultimate street food imported from Cuba; making it by default one of Miami’s ultimate casual food staples given it holds the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba. While there are many places that serve a very nice Frita, many agree that the best is provided by El Mago de Las Fritas, a place that has been around since 1984, and still attended by “El Mago” (The Magician) himself. This was our third and final destination of the day, and at that point, we were more driven by our exploration spirit than our appetite. Our first gratification was that El Mago was sitting there at the bar, so we greeted, chatted and even took some pictures with him (if Obama did, why wouldn’t we?). Of course we sat at the bar and ordered a couple of Fritas, ipso facto, two patties were put on the griddle, and a lot of sauce poured over them, then placed inside a bun with shoe-string fried potatoes. It was delicious, and even though we were already full we devoured them as if we were starving. Definitely a visit to Miami and its culinary universe is not complete without a stop at el Mago de las Fritas, where I would also like to return to try their Cuban tamales.
My experiment with Nidal proved successful: high culinary acumen, out of town visitors with an appreciation for casual food benefit tremendously from this type of guidance, and enjoy it more than lunch at one of the “hot” restaurants enjoying the popularity wave. Worth noting that this tour would only be possible for lunch, since two of these three places aren’t open for dinner.
Nex time you have a friend in town and you want a casual, flavor filled, heritage heavy experience, taken him to Calle Ocho on the “CCC” tour. They will appreciate it.