Word on the culinary street was that a lady at Joanna’s Marketplace in South Miami made this great chorizo, but when I dropped in, there was none to be found. Yet, I was surprised to hear at this big gourmet deli, tucked away behind a strip mall, patrons eagerly asking for croquetas, and very disappointed that they’d sold out, as I would learn they always did around midmorning.
Their maker was a Cuban who was eagerly discussing his food with a customer in Spanish, although English is the lingua franca here. I approached him without identifying myself as a food writer, and he went on and on about the food, having me sample some of what he had made that day. I had found my favorite gastronomic species: a food nut.
Ramón Dueñas, the Cuban chef who makes croquetas and other Cuban specialties in this unlikely venue, and Melanie Schoendorfer, the specialty manager at the market responsible for the famed chorizos I had come seeking, thrive in the nurturing environment of Joanna’s Marketplace. Though this is a family business run today by one of Joanna’s sons, Ramón and Melanie are, from a culinary perspective, Joanna’s children.
Ramón served me a small taste of his arroz con pollo made with brown rice — “people here are very health conscious, you know.” It was wonderful, and I’m not a big fan of “healthy” Cuban cuisine, since I figure nutrition-free starch, fat and sugar to be basic to the sumptuousness of its flavor. Somewhere he found me a ham croqueta that had survived the onslaught. It was a cross between a dense Cuban coffee-shop version and the creamy Old World béchamel type served at better Spanish restaurants. The breading was unique, too.
“I use panko,” he told me after I identified myself and interviewed him in earnest. “It’s the closest thing to the hand-grated bread crumbs we used in Cuba.” True that. I remember my mom grating hard day-old bread back in the day; eventually, she would use packaged cracker meal, which Ramón says absorbs too much frying oil.
Dueñas hails from the town of Santiago de las Vegas, which he claims was the home of “the best croqueta in Cuba.” Arriving via the Mariel boatlift, he worked different kitchen jobs — eventually at Joanna’s, where he came up with his croqueta recipe, selling about 300 a week. He does it the old-school Cuban way but uses shallots instead of onion, and besides ham, he does a spinach and a mushroom croqueta.
“There’s no good Cuban food in this town,” says the highly opinionated Dueñas. “Everything is Mickey Mouse.” And he gives me his recipe for congrí oriental, a rice-and-red-bean dish from the east of Cuba. “These are the best people I’ve ever worked for,” he says of Joanna’s. “I do whatever I want. No one interferes.” They shouldn’t. Though Joanna’s clientele is “mostly americanos,” they come flocking for Dueñas’ Cuban treats.
The makers of Babe Froman’s sausage, which includes the famous chorizo, agree. “They’re very supportive,” Jason Schoendorfer says when I finally catch up with him one Sunday at the Pinecrest Farmers Market, where he and Melanie have a stand. Melanie began making sausages at the deli for a weekly cookout, but they became so popular that she and her family — her sister and stepfather were helping mind the stand while Melanie was home with a new baby — branched out to the farmers’ market, and now they’re planning a bricks-and-mortar store. The sausage they sell on their own is still made at Joanna’s, which generously lends them its kitchen.
In spite of his outrageously Teutonic surname, Jason is Miami Cuban: His Swiss grandfather was a master pastry chef in Cuba. Melanie is half Italian and half French-Canadian. The chorizo I’d come seeking turns out to be like a fresh Argentine sausage but with a smoked paprika Spanish seasoning. “We call it Chorizo 305,” he says. “Miami style.”
Their best-seller, however, is an Italian cranberry sausage; though when his Sicilian grandmother Lucia complained that cranberry was not Italian, they made a traditional sausage they call Lucy, in her honor. Surprisingly, the cranberry version tastes great, as does their old-school Italian, their bratwurst and their Chorizo 305. All are made from Berkshire pigs, an antibiotic and hormone free heritage breed. I could taste why, like Dueñas’ croquetas, they sold out at Joanna’s so fast that I could never find them.
These are Joanna’s “children.” Her real child is John Lederman, who runs the store, started in 1992. “We’re very fortunate to have Ramón,” he says. “He has a good palate and not just for Cuban food, and he’s always a positive person.” As for Melanie, he hopes to have a good relationship with her when she leaves to run her business full time. “We’ll always carry her products.”
They’re not the only Joanna’s talents. John brags about the personal attention deli manager Felix Ramírez brings to each order. And baker/pastry chef André Anastassi, from France, makes the bread — some of which takes 36 hours — and the croissants, brioche and other delights, which are diabolically delicious temptations to a food writer trying to lay off the carbs.
Joanna’s Marketplace is a treasure to local gourmands, and a maternal institution to those lucky enough to be in their employ.