When I visited Paris, my girlfriend spent the whole flight chattering about Coquilles St. Jacques and goat-cheese tarts and escargot. Except to annoy her by interjecting “You mean snails?” every time she mentioned the escargot, I mostly kept quiet. My first meal was going to be at the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysees, where I wanted to check out a report that Le Big Mac was stuffed with foie gras. (It wasn’t. Damn Internet.) I like gourmet food, but nothing beats eating a cow. At heart, I’m a burger guy.
So I was delighted to learn that the Travel Channel was debuting a show called Burger Land in which host George Motz criss-crosses America in search of the perfect hamburger, the fatter and greasier the better. But my hungry smile flipped upside down when I learned that the second episode — which airs at 10 p.m. Monday — was devoted to Miami and Latin-influenced burgers like the Cuban frita.
After the idiocy of the politicians and the kleptocratic tendencies of the billionaire sports-team owners, the frita has always been my biggest disappointment in Miami. I had one at a now-forgotten joint on West Flagler soon after I moved to Miami in 1989, and the purported hamburger patty tasted more like sawdust than meat.
More generally, after two decades as a foreign correspondent covering Latin America, I don’t think its cooks know what to do with hamburger. Latin America has lots of delicious food, from Peruvian ceviche to Panamanian sancocho, but its burgers are weak stuff. The vilest hamburger I ever ate was at a McDonald’s in Nicaragua when the country was under Marxist rule. Don’t take my word for it — Denis Johnson, in his novel The Stars at Noon, captured the place with stomach-curdling accuracy:
“With the meat shortage, you wouldn’t ever know absolutely, would you, what sort of a thing they were handing you in the guise of beef. … It’s the only Communist-run McDonald’s ever. It’s the only McDonald’s where you have to give back your plastic cup so it can be washed out and used again, the only McDonald’s staffed by people wearing military fatigues and carrying submachine guns.”
My estimation of Latin hamburgers is widely shared in the burger world. “I tend to agree with you,” says Sef Gonzalez, whose Burger Beast blog is the holy scripture of South Florida grill gourmands. “Even Colombian hamburgers, which everybody from Latin America is hyping as the next big thing, are really based on the condiments, the pineapple and mango and that stuff. That’s true in general in Latin burgers: What’s important is not the meat or how it’s cooked but what’s on it.”
So it was with a certain cynicism that I watched an advance copy of Burger Land and listened to host Motz heap praise on four Miami-Dade Latin burger joints — especially when two of them turned out to be Calle Ocho places, El Rey de las Fritas and El Mago de las Fritas, that feature the you-know-what. Another, the Pincho Factory on the far west reaches of Bird Road, offers the bizarre-sounding tostón burger, in which the bun is replaced with two fried plantain patties. The fourth, Latin Burger and Taco, isn’t even a place, exactly, but a truck.
Arguing with Motz about burgers is risky business. He has made a movie and written a book and even invented an iPhone app about hamburgers. (What? You don’t have Burger GPS yet?!!) An admiring writer once referred to Motz as “the Indiana Jones of hamburger archaeology,” and that’s no exaggeration: He has written about everything from the green-chile burger at the Owl Bar & Cafe in San Antonio, N.M., to the slug burger at Phillip’s Grocery in Holly Springs, Miss. (By the way, “slug” is a reference to a nickel, which is what those deep-fried Mississippi burgers used to cost, rather than something you’d find in your bun in Paris or maybe Managua.)
Still, the plywood flavor of that long-ago frita on West Flagler lingers with me still. I decided I couldn’t take Motz’s word; I had to try his prize Latin burgers myself.
And, four burgers later, color me impressed.
First and foremost, fritas don’t have to taste like the Sahara desert. Apparently the place where I had my infamous timber-burger was using one of the aberrant frita recipes that call for padding the hamburger patty with stale bread crumbs soaked in milk. “Arrrgh!” shrieked Mercedes Gonzalez, one of the owners of El Rey de las Fritas, when I told her about my very first frita. “We would never do that here. The bread doesn’t add any flavor — it’s just a way of making the hamburger look bigger and bigger. At some places, the frita is almost all bread.”
For sure the fritas at El Rey and its cousin (almost literally — the two places were founded decades ago by brothers-in-law) El Mago are meat all the way through. They both have a tangy kick of chorizo in them. At El Rey, that’s because the patty really does contain a generous dollop of the sausage. The all-beef frita at El Mago fakes it with a light infusion of vinegar and paprika, the two main flavorings of chorizo.
Both fritas are seasoned with garlicky Cuban mojo sauce and topped with shoestring potatoes, standard in most recipes. (“Everybody’s sauces are slightly different,” says El Mago’s Barry Hennessey, “because nobody’s making them in a measuring-cup way. It’s all by feel and sight.”) For an added jolt, get one topped with pepper cheese; for more moistness, have a fried egg on top.
Fritas, though they were invented by Havana street vendors who cooked them on little carts equipped with propane burners, have largely disappeared from Cuba, a casualty of the general economic malaise there. (“Thanks, Fidel!” sarcastically chirps Motz, whose cooking expertise extends beyond burgers to know which side his Miami Nielsen ratings are buttered on.)
But the Latin Burger and Taco Truck offers a sort of spiritual homage to both the frita and its origins, even though owner Jim Heinz, who comes from Tennessee by way of Texas, is about as gringo as you can get. Heinz doesn’t call his Latin Macho Burger a frita — “I hate fritas, dunno why you would load potato chips on a good burger,” he says — even though his patties are about one-fifth Argentine chorizo.
And indeed, what gives the Latin Macho Burger its swaggering flavor is the mix of Oaxaca cheese, caramelized onions, jalapeños and red-pepper mayonnaise that’s cooked on top. The effect is more Tex-Mex haute cuisine than Cuban.
The oddest of all the burgers in Burger Land is the tostón burger at the Pincho Factory. Slapping a hamburger between two slabs of fried tostón sounded to me not only unappetizing but an invitation to a heart attack from all the grease. But biting into one, I quickly discovered why the burger has become one of Pincho Factory’s five best-selling dishes: The tostones are served sizzling hot, before they get a chance to turn gloppy and congealed, and they add a manly crunch to your burger. (For the really manly, there’s the Cartel Dog, Pincho Factory’s indelicately named take on the Colombian hot dog.)
Owner Nedal Ahmad decided to open a burger joint after friends wildly praised his work on the grill at a Fourth of July barbecue two years ago. “I probably should have taken into account how much beer they’d been drinking,” he admits. “But it’s worked out OK. We’ve done well enough that we’re going to open another location in Coral Gables soon.”
A Palestinian American from Chicago, Nedal learned the joy of Latin fried food from Nicaraguan street vendors in his Miami neighborhood. Which reminds me: I should point out that the corporate bosses at McDonald’s didn’t know their Nicaraguan franchisee had kept his restaurant open even after commercial relations with the United States ruptured in the early 1980s. When they found out from the harrowing description in Johnson’s novel, they quickly ordered the golden arches torn down and the Mc pulled from the sign.
I was there when McDonald’s officially retuned to Nicaragua in 1998. At the grand opening of the new Managua store I ran into Nicaraguan Vice President Enrique Bolaños, who was there to read an official proclamation and sample the Big Mac. “When foreign investors see that big M, they know we’re not running around in loincloths,” he explained. Plus, he added, the french fries were pretty good: “Much better than the ones at the McDonald’s in Moscow.” There may be hope for the Latin American hamburger yet.