Walking in to Palomilla Grill on West Flagler Street is like entering a time warp to Miami in the ’70s — in a good way.
Located in the Trianon strip mall in the Flagami neighborhood, not far from Robert King High Park, Palomilla has reproductions of the Mona Lisa and other famous paintings on its walls and a collection of china knick-knacks on shelves. Dividing walls separate a bar and ventanita from two dining rooms, where the tables have plastic mats over white linen.
Palomilla, open since 1975, also shows signs of new life, like planters out front that blossom with fresh basil, chives and citronella. Those are marks of Alejandro “Alex” Rodriguez, Palomilla’s second-generation owner who has updated the menu with cheffy touches but kept old favorites for longtime customers.
This is still the place to get a fix of pounded-thin palomilla sirloin steak with onions and pan-seared potato cubes, or roasted pork tenderloin, or seasoned-beef picadillo, all served with white rice, black beans and sweet plantains. Seafood paella is made to order for those willing to wait about 35 minutes for authenticity.
Founder Rafael Rodriguez arrived in Miami in 1961 from Camaguey, the third largest city in Cuba, located in the central part of the island. He learned to cook in Cuba at the age of 15, first at a restaurant that his older sister’s husband ran, and at El Nickel, a cafeteria in a five-and-dime store.
When he first came here, Rodriguez worked at Harbor Island Spa in Miami Beach, delivering room service. He then partnered with Felipe Valls Sr. (of Versailles and La Carreta fame) in 1967 to open La Esquina de Tejas and El Ok, a Cuban sandwich shop across from Esquina. After President Ronald Reagan ate at Esquina de Tejas at 12th Avenue and Flagler Street, it became really popular.
Rodriguez then opened Palomilla, which was originally called Trianon, after the small palace behind Versailles, the royal chateau used by former kings outside Paris. His widow, Emy Rodriguez, changed the restaurant’s name to Palomilla Grill after Rodriguez died of diabetes complications in 1999. Palomilla is a cut of bottom sirloin that’s popular with Cubans, who pound it with a meat hammer until it is thin enough to flop over the sides of a dinner plate, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and sour orange juice.
Son steps in
Alex Rodriguez, 34, worked as a fry boy at La Carreta in Miami International Airport when he was a teen, and he took over the day-to-day responsibilities of Palomilla Grill last year from his mother. (She is still in the kitchen every day and makes the desserts.) His idea is to appeal to a younger crowd, not only Cuban Americans, without alienating his base of old-timers who come for a taste of the homeland they left behind.
Rodriguez works part time for FedEx as a highly trained specialist, working on international documentation that allows packages to be loaded onto planes. He studied aviation at the Florida Air Academy (now Florida Preparatory Academy) in Melbourne and at Miami Dade College and has a pilot’s license but does not fly for his job.
He does some of the cooking at Palomilla, including the malanga fritters made from a tuber similar to taro and croquetas (try ham, goat cheese, shredded beef or chorizo, all greaseless). He gets local produce from the Redland and now sources certified Angus beef from Ocala.
Rodriguez also makes the restaurant’s black beans in small batches, seasoned with garlic and onions and tiny peppers he grows called cachucha, or aji dulce. Native to the Caribbean, the peppers are mild but add a distinct, smoky undertone. Black beans are also cooked with rice to make the dish moros y cristianos, referring to the dark-skinned Muslim Moors who invaded Spain in the 8th century and ruled until the reconquista in the 15th century and the return to Christian rule.
Start with grilled mini churrasco pinchos (skewers), yuca frita (fried cassava root) or plantain chips. There are six types of palomilla steaks, from sagandonga that is really big and weighs 1 pound, to the Milanese with marinara sauce and mozzarella. The most popular is the half-pound La Vaticana, which comes with papas (potatoes), a play on “Papa” as many call the Pope.
Newly added grill bowls come with rice and black beans and a choice of churrasco made with skirt steak served with chimichurri sauce; fried pork chunks; chopped chicken; or palomilla steak. They’re all served with grilled onions and plantains. Or get your steak as a sandwich on bread baked by a small local bakery.
There’s also the Brazilian steak called picanha, a triangular rump cut with the fat cap intact cut against the grain. The muscle isn’t used much by the steer, so it remains very tender.
The picanha cut was introduced by Hungarian butchers in Sao Paulo in the ’60s to serve immigrant workers at a Volkswagen plant when trying to replicate tafelspitz (boiled beef in broth with horseradish), made with the rump cut known in the United States as top round. Naturally, the Brazilians put it on the grill, where the fat melts into the meat, adding unctuous flavor. For surf and turf add a Florida lobster tail or shrimp.
Vaca frita (“fried cow”) is flank steak marinated in citrus juice with garlic and salt, fried until crispy and shredded. Ropa vieja (“old clothes”) is shredded flank steak stewed in tomato sauce with a sofrito of onion, green peppers and garlic, as comforting and familiar as clothes you wear over and over. It was first made by the Sephardi Jews in Spain and brought to Cuba with them, where it is also called Cuban brisket.
Seafood lovers can get shrimp in garlic sauce or tomato creole sauce or a grilled fish fillet — whatever is fresh that day at the market. There is a Caesar salad topped with grilled chicken, but who goes to a Cuban place for salad? You want the roast pork that is briefly deep-fried after slow-roasting for a crisp crust with a side of fufu (mashed green plantain) or tostones (smashed and twice fried green plantain slices) with rice and beans, of course.
Wash it down with housemade sangria, followed by creamy rice pudding made with sweetened condensed milk dusted with cinnamon. Now that’s real Cuban soul food.