Dining in Little Havana

Filet Mignon
2012/09/11 11:28:14
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.

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
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
Miami, FL
(305) 262-0070

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.

La Camaronera
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
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
  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 filming locations.

post edited by MiamiDon - 2012/09/11 13:46:07
Double Chili Cheeseburger
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/11 11:37:33
Great one Don. Nice to see my neighborhood on the radar here.
Fire Safety Admin
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/11 11:52:01
Beautiful photos Don!  You definitely got some that I missed out on.  All four of these stops were truly outstanding, with El Mago being the clear favorite, for both quality of food and friendliness.  We can't thank Don enough for finding and joining us at these places.  It was one of the best days for Roadfood that I can ever remember. 
I will have some additional photos to add later.
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/11 11:58:15
Excellent photos!
I love seeing fellow Roadfooders enjoying what we do best.
I'm not sure I could eat at the Fritas place.  The finished products look outstanding and I'd love them, but that grill and pot are a huge turn off for me.
They'd never get by the health department in Los Angeles looking like that.
Guess sometimes it's best to sit at a table even though I absolutely love watching the preparation of food.
ann peeples
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/11 17:40:45
Thats the problem with health departments around the country-they dont understand seasoned pots and pans, no threat to food prep. Especially older establishments. Believe me, they find less wrong with older restaurants than with new.....
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/11 23:13:48
Oh, that I believe.
I'd love some of that pig skin.  Crispy!
mr chips
Filet Mignon
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 01:35:31
Great photos. We only have one cuban restaurant in portland. So envious. Some day i want to go down to miami and eat this wondrous food and see the new ballpark.
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 10:18:24
Somebody get Buffetbuster a razor, unless he's going "Brett Keisel" for the new NFL season...
La Camaronera is my kind of place!
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 10:36:29
El Rey De las Fritas is pretty good too! Have you ever been there?
Double Chili Cheeseburger
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 11:24:50
My choice. Although I think I make them better myself.

El Rey De las Fritas is pretty good too! Have you ever been there?

Ralph Melton
Double Chili Cheeseburger
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 17:36:29
I love that ice cream sculpture at Azucar.
Fire Safety Admin
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/12 20:17:12
As a matter of fact, I enjoyed each and every pic.  Don did a great job and made me want to visit the area PDQ.  Mariton, BB, Johnny all were great.  I will admit BB could have used a bit of a trim at the end but then again, that much travel ain't easy.  I do not how you found so many great places in a city that has so many.
Thanks for the post.
Paul E. Smith
Knoxville, TN 
carlton pierre
Double Chili Cheeseburger
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 08:23:58
An excellent trip report!  I used to love when I worked in Florida, and especially lov ed south FL.  I loved the corner Cuban places that had the piles of plantain chips.  Just looking at the Cuban sandwich maker here makes me so hungry for a real one!
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 09:25:19
Great report...
You are certainly stirring up some ideas for my visit to Miami next year
Fire Safety Admin
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 09:42:33
I have long suspected that Miami is a under appreciated city for Roadfood and have been wanting to spend some time here for a while.  When I found a shockingly cheap flight, the three of us (me, Mariton and cousin Johnny) decided to make a weekend of it.  I contacted MiamiDon, who was nice enough to join us.  I had some suggestions of my own, but when Don told me about the places on his list, they sounded too good to pass up!
The place I was most excited about visiting was El Mago de las Fritas, which Hamburger America author George Motz has been raving about for a couple of years.  The first problem once we entered was where to sit.  The counter was split into two lengths and we knew we wanted to sit in front of the grill, which meant sitting at the counter farthest from the door.  Because a lone diner was already sitting here, we started to take seats at the end of the counter, but owner El Mago motioned that these seats aren't recommended because of possible boiling over of the chicharrones on the stove.  I politely asked the man if we wouldn't mind moving down a few stools, which he was happy to do.  Thank goodness he was nice, because we were going to need his help again in another minute.
The woman who came over to take our order did not speak English.  Although MiamiDon certainly knows enough Spanish to get by, we were very happy that this nice gentleman was kind enough to translate for us.  The question of whether we want cheese on our fritas came up.  I was already thinking that it didn't sound like a good mix with the other toppings and when Don mentioned that cheese on it would be a "gringo" order, it only confirmed my suspicions.  I was thinking about getting a double and maybe adding a fried egg, but because of the language difficulty, it was just easier to get the same.
MiamiDon did an excellent job of describing the fritas and the process of making them.  There is undoubtedly another meat besides the fresh ground beef.  Most people assume it is chorizo and is sure tastes that way to me, but I understand that El Mago denies this, but won't say what it is.  Theonly thing I can say for sure, it is unusual and delicious!  The finished product:

During the cooking, El Mago proudly showed us a big pan of homemade potato sticks.

From what I could see, there is nothing preprocessed or straight from a can at El Mago de las Fritas.  This is a place that really cares about doing the little things right.
Beverages are no throw aways here.  In the Hamburger America book, they talk about the shakes (batidos), especially the mamey flavor.  I had never heard of mamey before, but Johnny, who watches lots of cooking and food shows, knew about it.  We were both excited to try it for the first time. 

And it was unbelievably good!  How good?  I drank four more of these over the course of the weekend in other restaurants!  Trying to come up with a description of what it tastes like, Don nailed it by saying it is like a cross between a banana and a peach.  Knowing I would be sharing this with Mariton, I coaxed her into getting the fresh watermelon joice, which she absolutely loved.
Even though we had lots of food ahead of us at other stops, there was no way we were leaving without trying the homemade flan.  And this is for Johnny's benefit, as he is a big flan fan.  Personally, I could take it or leave it.  But this

was a completely different animal.  It had a perfect custard texture, spectacular made-in-house caramel sauce, us three Northerners all thought it was clearly the best flan we had ever tried.
For the food alone, this was turning into a great Roadfood experience.  But the people here made into something I will remember for the rest of my life.  As a third generation owner in my family's business, I am a sucker for family restaurants.  Shortly after we ordered, El Mago's daughter and her husband came walking in, carrying a cake and announcing that the English speaking part of the staff was here!  The reason for the cake was that it was the 28th anniversary of El Mago starting the restaurant.  MiamiDon knew them, which undoubtedly helped in having them spend lots of time chatting with us and answering all our questions.  Here is daughter Marta

telling us the funny story of the day she had to do all the cooking one day and wondering if the regulars were going to notice the difference.  While we were eating, El Mago's son Frank came in with his wife and two sons for the celebration.  Marta introduced us to her nephew,

who she told us will be making the  fritas someday!  It sure looks like El Mago de las Fritas is in good hands for generations to come!
Earlier in the meal, I had asked if the Saturday special, chicharrones would be ready before we left.  They weren't sure.  After I had already paid and we were getting ready to leave, they brought us out some to sample. 

Now, I had eaten chicharrones before, in fact just two weeks before at the excellent Garcia's Kitchen in Albuquerque.  But these were even better.  They were crispy and hard in some spots, easier to chew in others, but no matter what, you were rewarded with intense, luscious pork flavor.  Much more so than even bacon.
I don't know know about the rest of the crew, but I left here with a huge smile on my face.
El Mago de las Fritas
5828 SW 8th Street
Miami, FL
post edited by buffetbuster - 2012/09/14 09:49:58
Michael Hoffman
Double-chop Porterhouse
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 13:45:32
Oh, what a fine report. Now I'm hungry again, and I want some Cuban food. The last time I had any it was in Cuba and it was black beans and yellow rice cooked over a wood fire.
Fire Safety Admin
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 14:21:12
Like MiamiDon mentioned, our next stop was El Palacio de los Jugos.  This place was amazing!  It was part grocery store, with all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. 

It was also part restaurant, with several glass cases full of beautiful hot foods and sandwiches available. 

Because of the daunting eating schedule we had, we were going to limit ourselves to just some beverages, as you could also get fruit drinks or batidos.  And they some unusual fruit flavors

that Johnny and I had never heard of before, although growing up in the Philippines, Mariton knew about.  Johnny went for the zanahoria, which he said reminded him of cucumber.  I was planning on trying it, but after seeing the face Mariton made while sipping, I decided to skip it.  My guanabana was much better and had a slightly sour citrus flavor.  Here is Mariton and Don

enjoying their drinks.
Before we left, Don also bought some chicharrones to take home and let us try some of these.  We were astounded to find out that these

were even more flavorful than the ones at El Mago.  He was also nice enough to buy us a couple of juices made with sugar cane,

which had an unusual taste all of its own.
I should mention that in the time we were here, we never once heard English spoken.  Everything was in Spanish, but we managed to get our orders across.  As we got back in the car to head out for the next stop, I told Don he was now 2 for 2 in great recommendations!
post edited by buffetbuster - 2012/09/14 14:25:19
Double Cheeseburger
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 15:51:27
Michael Hoffman

Oh, what a fine report. Now I'm hungry again, and I want some Cuban food. The last time I had any it was in Cuba and it was black beans and yellow rice cooked over a wood fire.

I'm sure that now that some people are going to have to make smart aleck remarks about the Maine, or Rough Riders, or Hemingway, but not me.  I'm above that.
But one thing I'm pretty sure of is you weren't sitting around that campfire with Fidel and Che!
Michael Hoffman
Double-chop Porterhouse
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 16:14:33

Michael Hoffman

Oh, what a fine report. Now I'm hungry again, and I want some Cuban food. The last time I had any it was in Cuba and it was black beans and yellow rice cooked over a wood fire.

I'm sure that now that some people are going to have to make smart aleck remarks about the Maine, or Rough Riders, or Hemingway, but not me.  I'm above that.

But one thing I'm pretty sure of is you weren't sitting around that campfire with Fidel and Che!

Nope. Not that last time. I was sitting around a campfire in 1981 with my fishing guide who was frying up some largemouth bass to go with the black beans and yellow rice. However, back in 1958 I was sitting around a campfire with Fidel, his brother Raul and Errol Flynn in the Sierra Maestra drinking beer and eating rabbit.
Filet Mignon
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/14 19:50:00
Buffetbuster was great at filling in some holes in my photographic narrative.  I fell into host mode, and was missing shots!  That photo of the coconuts was missing the guy who chopped those holes in them with a machete.   It's sort of a Cuban rural macho thing, like a cowboy skill in the USA.  They hold a coconut in one hand, and chop the two slices to make it available for sipping through a straw.  Of course, if one is clumsy, loss of fingers can result!
Fire Safety Admin
Re:Dining in Little Havana 2012/09/17 10:08:01
Chris Gould (not sure what his screenname is) just wrote a very nice official Roadfood review for El Palacio de los Jugos.