There was a time not long ago when locals nicknamed the very neighborhood where Doce Provisions sits Little Beirut — not lovingly and not for an enclave of Lebanese immigrants, either.
It was a rough part of Little Havana: unkempt buildings and peeling paint, overgrown yards with snarling mutts behind twisted chain-link fences.
But the area, around Southwest 12th Avenue north of Calle Ocho, has started to change. That a restaurant like Doce Provisions, doing much more than cooking ethnic staples, can pop up and draw locals as well as cross-county drivers is the most obvious sign.
Doce is a gift to its neighborhood.
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Next to a barbershop and the artist Krave’s studio is the rebranded space that the defunct Little Bread transformed from a forgettable pizzeria. Inside, Doce (12 in Spanish, for the avenue on which it sits) kept the gastropub feel, from brick and white subway tile walls to rustic wood floors and reclaimed metal chairs. (Though they could do without the artsy but spine-twisting seats.)
The menu, like its owners, reflects the spirit of Miami. Lisetty Llampalla left Cuba just eight years ago, never having worked in restaurants, and in short order rose to chef de cuisine at Ralph Pagano’s Naked Lunch. Her partner Justin Sherrer remains the executive chef at the CineBistro luxury movie theater in the Dolphin Mall while working at Doce. It’s the classic story of Miami hustle.
The small dining room is quirky and interesting (with the aforementioned contortionist’s chairs), with a clear view of the kitchen and staff. Unfortunately, it also makes for a swelter at times.
Better to slip down the aisle, out the back door and into the hidden courtyard, where Doce’s menu is better appreciated under the warm embers of string lights, artistically painted walls (thank you, Krave), potted verdant landscaping and rustic tables beneath a canopy of gumbo limbo trees.
Doce’s menu, from the subtitles to the execution, is unexpected, a fusion of the flavors found on Calle Ocho with culinary twists such as pickled habanero peppers, Sriracha-honey mayo, aji amarillo and calabaza purees that elevate their bites.
The “Para Picar” (to nosh) section is a good place to start. The Lechon Asado buns meld Latin-style sour-orange marinated pork on Thai-style buns with pickled habanero and pineapple confit. They were more successful than the chorizo croquettes, in which the flavors of the Miami Smokers chorizo was missing.
Better still to order the guacamole. Their blend of spices with queso fresco and pickled Fresno peppers brighten the perfectly fried tostones with which they’re served.
The Pan y Tostada (bread and butter) section seems aimed at the lunch crowd, sandwiches that range from a short rib burger (using a special brisket blend from Sunshine Provisions) to a steak sandwich with shallot marmalade and shiitake mushrooms. The sandwich leans toward the sweet side, not entirely unpleasant but not satisfying, despite a cheese fondue sauce.
That slight imbalance of flavors on a couple of dishes keeps Doce from rising to another level. The Little Bird Fried Chicken on the Family Meal section is a perfect example. The crispy fried chicken is balanced in its savory spices, but served atop sweet plantain waffles and a homemade guava paste, drizzled with Sriracha honey, it becomes cloying. You will find yourself salvaging the chicken and enjoying it on its own.
If only all the dishes could show the even restraint of the rock shrimp mac and cheese. They call the sauce in which the fork-tender pasta luxuriates a cheddar dashi (a kind of Japanese stock), and it works perfectly with the tender shrimp. The baked crust with togarashi chili spices completes it. It’s worth ordering a second one.
Those places where savory and acid collide are where Doce shines. The lime-brightened shishito peppers. The guajillo chili and beer-braised short rib tacos with corn salsa. Both are worth repeating. The tacos came three to an order, but the kitchen had no problem adding a fourth on request. Two or four would seem to be a more sensible portion.
After the overly sweet chicken and waffles, dessert might feel redundant. And it would be with a one-note Chocolate Jar, a creme de cacao mousse with Nutella, in which the Nutella was nowhere to be found. But stick with the coconut rum tres leches and it may just be the perfect ending — tangy, rich, sweet but subdued. We didn’t try the guava and cheese empanadas despite the server’s suggestion. (She gave us an I-told-you-so smirk. Duly noted.)
Like the neighborhood, Doce Provisions still has a couple of rough spots (a neighborhood cat or two might hop up on your courtyard table while you pack up leftovers).
But it has heart and promise, which is what every good neighborhood — and every good neighborhood restaurant — needs most.
Miami Herald Food & Dining Editor Carlos Frías is on Twitter @Carlos_Frias. The Miami Herald Food page is @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MiamiHeraldFood
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Doce Provisions
Address: 541 SW 12th Ave., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-452-0161; www.doceprovisions.com
Hours: Noon-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; till midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$8; sandwiches $8-$10; entrees $12-$25; desserts $6.
FYI: Noise level moderate inside, low in outside courtyard; beer and wine license in process, no corkage fee for outside beer and wine until then; metered street parking; AX, DS, MC, VS.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)