I've been thinking of posting an open-ended guide to Roadfood in Little Havana for some time. A visit by some out-of-towners got me moving on it.
It started with my getting a message from a friend asking whether I knew what a frita was, had I ever had one and had I had one at El Mago de las Fritas
. The answer was yes, yes and yes! We agreed to meet at his hotel, and take one car, as parking is very limited at El Mago.
El Mago de las Fritas (Frita Magician) is a Cuban cafeteria (coffee shop), which tends to roughly fill the same position as a mini-diner in the traditional Cuban-American community. This one is a family owned and operated storefront restaurant that is widely acclaimed for its fritas (Cuban burgers). It's in George Motz' Hamburger America, and has even been visited by President Obama.
It's a small shop
We found seats at the counter, and placed our orders. Menu in English: Menu in Spanish:
Interestingly, the items are somewhat different on the two menus. El Mago with daughter Marta and son Frank:
A frita starts with a seasoned meat, usually a mix of beef and Cuban chorizo sausage. It is fried with onions on a flat-top grill, along with a good dousing of the proprieter's secret sauce, which is red, but not spicy-hot. They're served on rolls made of Cuban bread. Rolls heating up in the plancha: Ball of meat being smashed into a patty: Frita patties frying: Then some "secret sauce" and onions are added:
When done, the patty goes on a Cuban-bread roll Optional is extra raw onion:
Then comes a pile of julienned fried potatos. Most places used canned potato sticks. El Mago fries his own. This is the result: Here they are on the freshly fried patty:
Here is the finished product:
They are available Gringo-style with a slice of American cheese, as a doble (double) or with a fried egg (a caballo). Or all of the above! Here's one a caballo:
The Northern contingent at the counter: Buffetbuster, Mariton and Cousin Johnny:
It wouldn't be a proper Roadfood meetup without a photo of a Roadfooder taking a photo:
This is what he was photographing, some fresh watermelon juice. Very good and refreshing:
We ended the repast with a Cuban flan and some Cuban coffee (a cortadito). This is a rich custard baked with caramel on the bottom, and then up-ended when served. It was house-made, and very good. Flan: Cuban Cortadito:
Buffetbuster, Mariton and Cousin Johnny had Mamey Batidos (Cuban shakes made with Mamey fruit). None of them had ever heard of mamey, but I convinced them they'd like it. They did!
There was some pork belly simmering in oil on the stove, and one of the family asked whether we'd like to try a sample of the finished product, chicharones (Cuban-style cracklings). Can't turn down pork fat. Pork in Hot Oil:
Chicharones at El Mago de las Fritas:
Crunchy, Porky, Salty Goodness! El Mago de las Fritas http://www.elmagodelasfritas.com/
The next stop was El Palacio de los Jugos
(The Juice Palace). This is a rambling combination of a fruit and vegetable stand, a tropical juice bar, a fruit-shake stand, a Cuban sandwich shop and offers a large number of Cuban prepared lunch and dinner foods. They also fry up some highly regarded chicharones. The front end has an air-conditioned area where the fruit juices and batidos are sold, along with the chicharones. El Palacio de los Jugos front:
The back has a covered, open-air dining area if you're too hungry to take your food home.
The Northerners got to see what a mamey (pronounced: Ma May) looks like. Mariton with Mamey:
I had a limeade, which was sweet and refreshing, Mariton had, I believe, a papaya juice, and Cousin Johnny had juice of a fruit that I had never heard of. I also bought the Northern crowd a squeezed-to-order guarapo (sugar cane juice).
Here are a few remaining chicharones from El Palacio (they didn't last too long!): El Palacio de los Jugos 5721 West Flagler Street
Next up was La Camaronera
, which roughly translates as The Shrimp Lady. It is a Cuban fish fry house, widely known, as you might guess, for its fried shrimp. It was founded by the Garcia brothers after they left Cuba following the seizure of the family business by the government there. It was originally a seafood market when opened in 1966, but one day they put in some fryers and counters, and the business is still going strong. For 45 years it has been seatless, you either eat at the counter or get your food to go. Today, they are preparing for change. The space next door has been acquired, and will have seating once renovations are complete. The other year it was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives
We of course ordered some fried shrimp, and also some fish fingers. The fish of the day was corvina. We also got the signature fish sandwich (pan con minuta) which features a small snapper that is boned and butterflied before being fried with the tail left on. The northern contingent under the menu: Fried Shrimp Corvina Fingers Pan Con Minuta
The default way of serving fish sandwiches here is with tartar sauce, cocktail sauce and raw onions on top. They make their own sauces, and the cocktail sauce is pretty good, with a nice tart bite to it.
Here's a shot of the inside of another sandwich:
Although I forgot to order some that day, they also offer bollitos, which are black-eyed pea fritters. Bollitos La Camaronera http://lacamaronera.com/
Onward to dessert! Next up was Azucar Ice Cream Company
Owner Suzy Batlle left the banking industry and opened Azucar (Sugar) in July of 2011. The shop offers tropical ice cream flavors "just like grandma used to make," and new creations, often with a Cuban flair. It quickly became the talk of the town. Azucar Ice Cream Company
If you can't spot the building number, the crazy ice cream cone is a sure clue. Buffetbuster in front of the menu wall More menu
I had a delicious scoop of passionfruit ice cream
Cousin Johnny had a guava shake, and Buffetbuster split a scoop of ice cream and a shake. I got to taste the guava shake, and it was great.
What's behind Mariton's head is a painting of the late Celia Cruz, queen of salsa music. Poster of happy ice cream customers
Even the floor is playfully unusual, with mismatching tiles. Azucar Ice Cream Company http://www.azucaricecream.com
That was it for food for the day, although I did give Buffetbuster the address for the actual reincarnation of the original Latin American Cafeteria, famous in the 70's, 80's and 90's for its Cuban sandwiches. There are others around town, but they are copycats. It's sort of like Ray's pizza in NYC. Latin American Cafeteria Restaurant 1590 SW 22nd St, Miami, FL 305-860-5707
I had met Buffetbuster
before, but not Mariton
and Cousin Johnny,
but aftering seeing them so much in trip reports, I almost felt like I knew them! They are all great dining companions, and Cousin Johnny
was excellent at adapting to Miami driving conditions, and following my occasionally chaotic instructions from the shotgun seat. In addition to the restaurants, we went downtown so I could show them a couple of the Burn Notice
<message edited by MiamiDon on Tue, 09/11/12 1:46 PM>