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.