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.