When the first Benny’s opened in 1994, houses in the area surrounding the Florida International University’s Main Campus dive were still sporting blue tarp roofs thanks to Hurricane Andrew, which swept through town a little more than a year before.
Chef-owner Benny Ojeda was there to help heal the area with his homey and delicious Puerto Rican cooking. He became something of a celebrity, especially after food dude Guy Fieri raved about his mofongo on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives in 2009.
Capitalizing on their success, Benny and his wife Wanda who come from the stunning beach town of Cabo Rojo have opened a second spot, just months old. It’s more than twice the size with seats for more than 140.
It sports some fancy flourishes, including a three-tiered fountain gurgling in the middle of the tiled floor as well as walls painted with flowerboxes, windows and shutters, meant to evoke old San Juan. But it is still a spot where jeans and flip-flops are perfect attire.
Yes, Benny’s signature mofongo, a chunky mash of fried green plantains and chicharrones with fresh garlic is authentic comfort fare. It is served in small or large sizes with a choice of toppings (fried chicken or fried pork skin are best) with a cup of broth for dunking. It is pure comfort food for homesick puertorriqueños. And it is worth a try, too, for the uninitiated. But honestly, it is not for everyone. There are better things on the menu here.
As the name suggests, it is the fresh and local seafood that should get attention.
On our visits, we were treated with warm hospitality by a young waiter who happily guided our ordering without becoming too cozy.
We did well with fist-sized flaky, golden puffs of empanadas still wafting with steam and stuffed with tender lobster chunks and nice bitey shrimp. Super tender octopus ceviche with tiny diced yellow onions, tomato, green and red peppers is another refreshing and well-handled starter.
And, while some might be tempted to order a sampler platter of appetizers, I would warn against it unless you have an unlimited craving for all things greasy. Yes the surrullos, or cheese stuffed corn fritter fingers are tasty, but I suggest choosing one fried food and moving on.
All the classics, including mondongo (stewed beef tripe), salmorejo de jueyes (stewed crab meat) and stewed goat, are available, too.
Thick soups or Puerto Rican style gumbos like the one we delved into with thumb-sized snappy tail-on shrimp in a tangy tomatoey broth over white rice make a satisfying meal. A rich and more complex chicken fricassee in a terracotta-colored sauce with meaty knots of chicken on the bone is another filling and hearty winner.
But what would a trip to a Puerto Rican restaurant be without a taste of the national dish of arroz con gandules? Here we nearly licked the plate clean of our pea-sized brownish beans sauteed with rustic yellow rice. It was a treat alongside the juicy pernil, roast pork rump, that is as juicy as a summer peach but with dark mahogany skin, salty and crisp.
No matter what you order, it will be improved with Benny’s “famous” hot sauce, the brown, chunky lighter fluid is made with seven kinds of chilis and a base of brown mustard. You can also buy bottles of it to take home if you feel like making your friends and family teary-eyed.
Just in time to christen the new store, Medalla Light, the most beloved of Puerto Rican light beers, just hit the Miami market. A limited but perfectly good wine selection from Spain, Italy and California works with the simple menu. It’s worth exploring the fresh juices, too. A frosty just blended sweet lemonade is a delight in these summer months.
Desserts include a funny invention called the flancocho, or a traditional single cup of flan made over a layer of biscocoho or cookies, forming what I jokingly dubbed a Puerto Rican tiramisu. A trembleque de coco is served rather unceremoniously in a foil cup but included enough of that jiggly sweetness to qualify as the real thing.
Every day is Christmas here when you receive the complimentary sweet thimbleful of coquito, the addictive and scorchingly potent coconut and rum eggnog that tastes like the Caribbean.
Though I was charmed on my several visits here, I think the best endorsement comes from my dining companion, Puerto Rican native Miguel who, with a smile as broad as his plate, declared simply, “I feel like I’m home.”