Food trucks were slow to arrive but quick to take off in Miami, with dozens cramming the streets for roundups and art walks. Most produce little more than fast, fried food, frankly, but chef Zé Carlos Jiménez and his black and green MexZican truck stand out with authentic flavors, visual appeal and spicy zing.
Now Jiménez has gone all bricks and mortar on us with a little hideaway off U.S. 1. The somewhat seedy entrance is through the parking lot it shares with a “gentleman’s club” and a pizza joint where there always seems to be a hookah pipe on the table.
Once inside, though, the look is clean and the scene is mellow. Lime-accented white walls are covered in framed Mexican movie posters, and black mica tables are set with sturdy red cotton napkins.
A simple, two-sided menu arrives quickly, as does a basket of rough-cut tortilla chips as warm and golden as a Oaxaca beach. Some nights might bring a single salsa for dipping, others, two or three. We most enjoyed the bright, deep flavors of the roasted tomatillo and jalapeño versions, but there are heat levels for all palates.
Jiménez, who is always visible in the open kitchen, hails from Cuautia Morelos, south of Mexico City, and it is there that he learned to cook from his beloved grandmother.
He leans heavily on such tradition, but also creates modern dishes such as his sub-like “tortas” on soft baguettes filled with refried beans, carne asada (or chicken or pork), crumbled Oaxaca cheese, chopped tomato, onions, avocado, mayonnaise and sweet sautéed onions and chiles.
It is the traditional flavors, both subtle and bold, that most lure me. Chiles rellenos, sopa de tortilla and a chunky guacamole with just enough jalapeño kick are must tries.
The ceviche is a punchy but not overly acidic mélange of tender corvina chunks licked by a limey brine and peppered with red onion and tomatillo.
The tacos — on softly griddled corn tortillas as big as a bread plate — are piled high with beef, chicken or slow-cooked pork as tender and juicy as Grandma’s best brisket.
The enchiladas de pollo consists of four perfectly rolled corn tortillas enveloping soft, shredded white-meat chicken with a dusting of white cheese, onions and lettuce, a dollop of crema and a vibrant roasted tomatillo sauce.
The puffy, beer-battered shrimp are also a treat with their creamy, chile-spiked dressing and a crunchy confetti of chopped lettuce and cabbage.
For salad lovers, the cactus is refreshing with its tomato and cilantro in a light and tangy dressing. The nopalitos likely come from a jar, but the flavor is fantastic.
The string-bean looking nopalitos also find their way into the molcajete, a volcanic-rock mortar filled with a deeply flavored roasted tomato sauce loaded with shrimp, steak, fiery chorizo and melted queso fresco. It’s a bit awkward to eat, but delicious nonetheless with the tray of warm tortillas.
A rudimentary wine selection includes a decent tempranillo and half-dozen Mexican cervezas. Another good choice, especially for kids, is the delicious, house-made aqua de horchata (rice water), just sweet enough to make a refreshing drink rather than a dessert. If you want sweet, super-cloying jarritas (sodas) — we like the mandarin — will hit the spot.
The MexZican Gourmet is a bit less upscale than its pricing, but if you order well and enjoy the gracious hospitality, this may become a favorite spot for lunch, dinner or brunch.