Pubbelly’s Mendín delivers ‘sabor’

Jose Mendin, right, and partner Sergio Navarro at their original restaurant, Pubbelly.
Jose Mendin, right, and partner Sergio Navarro at their original restaurant, Pubbelly.
Carl Juste / MIAMI HERALD File

There’s a quality to Jose Mendín’s food that is irresistible. It’s that elusive yet potent element Latinos call sabor.

Mendín is Puerto Rican, but though his menus at Pubbelly, Pubbelly Sushi and PB Steak include some Spanish and Latin American-inspired dishes, only one of them bears a marked national identity, and it is Japanese.

Otherwise, it’s gastropub fare: small dishes composed of unusually matched ingredients from various traditions, like a Spanish-sounding octopus a la plancha with chorizo and piquillo peppers plus yuzu and dried soy beans. As is customary at such emporia, the provenance of ingredients is stated on the menu: Amberjack from the Sea of Japan, tomatoes from Palm Beach County, octopus from Galicia, Spain. Yet, what sets Mendín’s cooking apart is its overarching sabor — seductive flavor with criollo verve and allure.

A mellow guy who seems to lack the engorged ego of rock-star chefs, Mendín, 34, works hard, running day and night from restaurant to restaurant. “Every time I open a restaurant, I lose weight,” he says. And the Pubbelly empire is about to expand, with a French brasserie and pool service at the Hilton Cabana Miami Beach.

Mendín began cooking as a college student in Puerto Rico. On his own for the first time, he discovered he had a knack for the kitchen, something he attributes to his great-grandmother, who taught home cooking classes for housewives, and his dad, “a foodie who was always taking us to French restaurants.”

At the age of 20, Mendín moved to Miami to study cooking at Johnson & Wales University. He worked at Turnberry Isle and eventually got hired in Miami Beach by Nobu, which schooled him in Asian culinary arts and sent him to London. From there he moved to Spain, training in the laboratory cuisine that was revolutionizing the culinary world, and also working at the center of ages-old Castilian food, Mesón Cándido in Segovia, world famous for its suckling pig.

He returned to Miami, and after a stint at the nueva cocina restaurant Mosaico, he joined Sushi Samba Dromo on Lincoln Road. In 2008, he became the chef at the company’s Las Vegas spot, but like many talented chefs, Mendín dreamed of his own restaurant. In 2011, with partners Sergio Navarro and Andreas Schreiner, he opened Pubbelly and began receiving accolades.

“I thought there was a need for a sushi bar where chefs could hang out,” he says. So, next door, the trio opened Pubbelly Sushi, which today is their busiest restaurant. Its wall art by Puerto Rican graffiti artist Erni Vales embodies Mendín’s notion of fusion: a Latino doing American street art based on Japanese manga.

In addition to PB Steak, the Pubbelly Group has the Italian Macchialina and the tapas bar Barceloneta. The menus at the latter two are not his, Mendín says, but a round of tapas at Barceloneta reveals his undeniable sabor in dishes alive with the happiest of flavors.

The Pubbelly restaurants are packed, not just because they’re trendy but because they deliver satisfaction.

“There’s no bread at Asian restaurants,” Mendín says, showing off the Thai influence in his amberjack plate, “but here you can sop up that good lemon grass sauce with bread.”

Whatever feels good, protocol be damned. Everything be damned, except pleasure. For all his Spanish and Asian training, Mendín remains a Boricua who knows the sensuousness of the Latin Caribbean is as rich at the table as it is on the salsa-club dance floor.

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