Old-timers occasionally still stumble through the door of this Little Havana restaurant, looking for the defunct after-hours strip club that served tepid Cuban food, lukewarm Heineken and Cuban coffee for 50 cents a shot.
They’ve come to the wrong place.
Cardón y el Tirano moved into this spot next to a coin-laundry more than a year and a half ago. And its cuisine is just as big a surprise for this neighborhood.
Little Havana is undergoing a transition, a revival that has brought more than just iterations of Cuban restaurants. As immigrants from other parts of Latin America moved into its neighborhoods and Brickell residents pushed west, the soil became fertile enough (and the rent still cheap enough) for chef Francisco Antón to feel the time and place were right to bring a more diverse menu to Calle Ocho.
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Dining at Cardón y el Tirano means an intimate meal with Antón. He took everything he loved about cooking and entertaining and surrounded himself and his diners with it, from the food to the decor.
Past the hanging plants, the doors open to a place that feels like an extension of Antón’s den. Rustic wood slats and a living plant wall bring warmth to a room with 36 mismatched chairs at tables Antón built by hand. Edison lights in copper fixtures wash the room in soft hues as classic blues and jazz play overhead. There’s even a flat-screen playing films and shows from the 1960s (classic “Batman” anyone?), though every restaurant in Miami could use fewer TVs. As in zero.
The diners around you are a mix of young families, close-sitting couples and, during one recent Sunday visit, Art Basel strays who must have read the mention of Cardón y el Tirano in the New York Times.
And everywhere there is an aroma of food made to order, the kitchen just visible beyond a window past the six-seat bar, from which emanate the scents of everywhere from South America to the Mediterranean.
The menu is filled with Antón’s favorite things, as well.
The Venezuelan-born Antón grew up with Italian grandparents who emigrated to the country’s Margarita Island, eating red sauce and sofrito that make their way onto his menu. (The restaurant gets its name, The Cactus and the Tyrant, from bordering beachside neighborhoods on the island.)
He worked under the late Dominican chef Maximo Tejada in New York (Macondo, Rayuela), where he spent as much time talking about food’s role in love and memory and creating an intimate setting where many different kinds of cuisines can share a single plate. Antón is the kind of cook who finds himself eating Mexican barbacoa tacos and wondering how they’d taste on a potato roll.
His menu is like that, too: Cardón y el Tirano crosses cultures and cuisine, and it does so successfully.
Dishes are served like tapas, meant to be shared, from small plates such as picadillo “cigars” (more on those later) to the massive head-on shrimp in the gambas and chorizo, where a sauce dotted with cantimpalo cubes and the warm baguette are secretly the stars.
Each dish has a bold point of view. To wit, those picadillo cigars. Beef empanada torpedoes are cut lengthwise, served with a yogurt sauce in a glass dish that resembles an ashtray and grated dehydrated black lime sprinkled on the plate to reference ash. Conceptually, it might seem strange to be asked to eat a cigar, but the dish comes off as playful and appetizing. The richness of the deep-fried cigar is brightened by the yogurt, and the black lime adds a citrus note without the acid bite.
His own mixing of cultures is on display in the bacalaitos. Antón stews salt cod with the Italian tomato sauce of his youth until the bacalao (soaked and drained several times) becomes a gentle paste that melds with classic bechamel sauce. Each sits on a bed of ancho chili aioli with a single cilantro leaf. It is one crispy, perfect bite.
Sharing the same section of small bites, you find lechón dumplings. Picture Chinese fried wontons filled with pork shoulder that has been marinated in beer, cachucha peppers, garlic, onion and other Latin flavor spices, as well as Korean fermented chili paste before it is braised. The dumplings are served in a shallow broth made from the pork shoulder jus, with rice wine vinegar and a dash of fish sauce. The dish hits every part of your palate from savory to umami.
Even on a busy Sunday night, a single waiter attends most of the tables, with an assist from the manager. The service never feels forced or fawning, and in describing the dishes they never try to point out how special the food is. They simply bring plate after shareable plate of comfort food that just makes you feel good. It doesn’t hurt that a wine list that ranges from South America to France has several options under $40.
A nod to his Venezuelan upbringing, Antón created a trio of “arepitas,” bite-sized arepas that are made to order, flash fried to crisp the outside while keeping the inside pillowy perfect. They are topped with avocado mousse, an ancho chili smear and a choice of either cheese or meats. We chose the shredded beef which sang of Cuban ropa vieja, and together the two cultures have never meshed more perfectly (with the exception of my twin nieces).
If all of that only entices you to wonder what his take is on tostones, know that his tostones picanha are served deconstructed. He double fries the tostones and covers them in a pungent queso llanero, torched to take on a smoky aroma. Alongside are served a slow-braised tomato-and-sofrito sauce and medallions of picanha beef, a cut of sirloin end common in Brazilian cuisine that has been salt-cured and dry-aged for 40 hours. Layer the components with a flick of pickled peppers and that first bite brings all the flavors together.
Dinner can end one of two ways: with flair or the familiar. Plantain bombolini are bite-size, sugar-powdered dough balls of plantain served over a smear of Nutella, with icebergs of avocado ice cream (yes, you read that right) and toasted pistachios. The bombolini are meant to be torn in half and smeared with the components on the plate. The avocado melds with the sweet-salty pistachios and the hazelnut chocolate for a bite that surprises.
For a more traditional dessert, ask whether the chef’s mom is in town. When she is, she is the only one who can make the restaurant’s carrot cake, a moist, dark double-layered confection that tastes more of cinnamon spice than a classic vanilla carrot cake. (She eyeballs all the measurements. Antón tried to make it in her absence and neither the color nor the flavor turned out quite right.)
This is the kind of food, the kind of restaurant, the kind of night out, that fits the evolving Little Havana. There’s no Miami Beach glitz here. And that makes it all the more reason to celebrate this proud restaurant in a shabby strip mall.
Sure, the outline of the stripper pole base still sits under one of the tables. But Cardón y el Tirano is helping redefine what this neighborhood calls a good time.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Cardón y el Tirano
Address: 3411 SW Eighth St., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Excellent)
Contact: 305-392-1257; cardonyeltirano.com
Hours: Open for lunch, noon-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Dinner, 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; until midnight Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Tapas-style servings range from $3 to $25; desserts $9.
FYI: Noise level low even with a full restaurant; limited strip-mall parking; all major credit cards accepted.
What the Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)