Miami’s king and queen of Cuban cuisine take their breakfast together in the restaurant dining room where they are now simply loyal subjects.
At first glance, it’s hard to discern they are culinary royalty as they start their day sharing a pressed ham-and-cheese sandwich on Cuban bread and café con leche, as Marc Anthony tunes play overhead.
Quintin Larios, 86, is wearing a simple paper hat, the only thing that distinguishes him from his fellow cooks in white chefs’ coats at the new La Fragua restaurant just off Flagler Street. His wife of 56 years, Maria Teresa, is dressed identically to the other waitresses in a crisp, white blouse and khaki pants.
But their loyalists remember the name: Larios.
The couple made a name for themselves nearly 30 years ago at this very spot, the former Casa Larios. Here, just-arrived Cubans could sit side by side with Miami stars such as Emilio and Gloria Estefan for authentic Cuban dishes that tasted like home-cooked memories. (The Estefans even partnered with them to open a separate restaurant, the iconic Larios on the Beach.)
Financial woes and a slumping economy doomed the couple’s popular Larios restaurants more than a year ago. But the heart of those restaurants — the Larioses — are back, quietly cooking again at a restaurant they no longer own.
Their followers have found them all the same.
With Quintin as head chef and Maria Teresa out front — nicknamed Nene and Pupa — customers of this 3-month-old restaurant all but genuflect at meals cooked and served with the caring of a Cuban abuelita.
“There’s a Cuban restaurant on every corner in Miami, but none has Nene’s touch,” said Hilda Grandal, a longtime customer dining on a recent Friday. She had celebrated her 40th birthday at this very location when it opened in 1988.
The couple begin and end their workday with a meal together, “like two little love birds,” said Maritsa Reina, La Fragua’s owner and Maria Teresa’s first cousin. The two sit at the same table in the middle of the dining room as diners who have been their customers since the early 1970s (when Quintin was a simple line cook and Maria Teresa an hourly waitress freshly arrived from Cuba) seek them out before even before sitting down.
With a peck on the cheek (“Our story is one of love and food,” Maria Teresa said), the two break and head to their respective parts of the restaurant, Maria Teresa turning to the dining room, Quintin to the kitchen.
Quintin pushes open the swinging door and the scent of sazón and a blast of kitchen heat puff into the air.
“This is where I feel good, where it all started,” Quintin says.
Three cooks move between simmering sauces and boiling vats of yuca. Larios turns to an oven where trays of his famous roasted chicken sizzle in their red-orange seasoning. He pokes the steaming quarters with asbestos hands, tearing off a morsel to sample it. He nods.
“This was Gloria’s favorite,” he says.
Quintin was the head chef and Maria Teresa a waitress at a defunct nearby restaurant when the Estefans, at the height of their Miami Sound Machine popularity, came in with Emilio’s parents. They became regulars, and when the couple opened their restaurant in 1988, the Estefans followed, first as fans, then as business partners. Together, they opened Larios on the Beach in 1992 for 10 years, and the Larioses consulted on the original Bongos Cafe menus.
But the couple’s soul was in their own two restaurants, one of which moved to a spot blocks away at Flagler Street and 79th Avenue and a second location in South Miami, which they ran with their children. But Maria Teresa said the slumping economy took its toll on the businesses and they were forced to close them in January 2015. They filed for bankruptcy two months later.
“We suffered a hard blow,” she said. “But the point isn’t falling but getting back up.”
Reina, who was raised as Maria Teresa’s sister in Camaguey, Cuba, saw the toll inactivity was taking on her aging loved ones. They were cooking Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners out of their Coral Gables home for former customers to stay active and make ends meet. These are people who were used to working seven days a week, since arriving from Cuba via Spain in 1973. Suddenly, they were withering.
It was Quintin and Maria Teresa who had brought Reina and her family from Cuba in 1995 and started her as a window waitress at their restaurant; she went on to become manager. Reina and her family later opened a successful produce company that sells to top Miami kitchens, including the 50 Eggs restaurants (Swine, Yardbird, Spring Chicken) and the Lime franchises, among others. She needed to help them get back on their feet.
“We are so grateful to them because this place is what brought us to this glorious country,” Reina said. Quintin was “was loco, loco, loco to be back cooking again.”
They started looking for a place to open a 10-table restaurant for the couple when they found the original Larios location back on the market.
“It was destiny,” Reina said.
They recruited many of the original Larios kitchen staff and trusted managers. Everyone working at La Fragua today is either a former employee of 10 years or more or a family member.
“They are such beautiful people, like parents to me,” said day manager Victor Mora, who started as a Larios busboy in 1995 and left another job to work with the couple again.
Quintin moves from station to station in the kitchen, watching the staff work. He stops one who is chopping onions.
“Why don’t you try it like this,” he says to Lazaro Castaneda and picks up the knife to show him.
“He has so much experience; plus, he’s a perfectionist,” Castaneda says later.
Before the first palomilla steak orders come out, Larios asks a chef to make the staff a plate. He slices off a tip and tastes it. “More salt,” he tells him and moves over to taste the yuca with mojo sauce. Later, when the first pork medallions are ordered, an expediter asks if he should garnish it with parsley. Larios looks at the plate.
“No, don’t touch it,” he says. “It’s perfect.”
In the front of the house, Maria Teresa floats between tables, part waitress, part homecoming queen, not simply taking orders and filling water, but mothering: a pat on the hand to one diner, a nod to another.
“Olguita, como estas?” she says to an elderly widow sitting by herself and gives her hand a squeeze.
“I love being a waitress, serving people. It’s in my DNA, taking care of people,” she said.
A couple at a table waves her over to say hello. Again, longtime customers are back to see if the Larioses indeed have returned. She demurs that it’s her sister’s place. Then, another table flags her down: It’s Latin actresses Marta Picanes and Norma Zuniga, who were at the restaurant on opening day.
“You have to sin once in a while,” Picanes says as she splits an arroz con leche, rice pudding.
There’s a phone call for Maria Teresa. Yes, she tells the caller, the Larioses are back in the kitchen.
“This is oxygen to us,” she says as she hangs up the call. “To me, it was traumatic to sit at home for a year and a half without working.”
She floats into the kitchen, where she finds Quintin hand-pulling a tray of boiled, marinated flank steak that will soon became their famous vaca frita. She samples a strip. How long have they been married, someone asks them.
“Fifty-six years,” she says.
Quintin stops to look at his wife.
“Only 56 years,” he says. She caresses his cheek.
“Isn’t he lindo?” she says.
During the lunch crush, Quinitin leaves the kitchen to visit with diners. He stops at the counter, where sports and politics talk are in full bloom, and the couple even poses for a picture for a longtime customer. Nearly every table in the dining room is full.
“They didn’t forget us,” Maria Teresa says later, her eyes welling up. “We have been an example of what it means to struggle, to work and to dream.”
By 3 p.m., the crowd has thinned. They have been here since 7 a.m. They finish their shift and sit at a corner table to order the special (fish). As they dine, another couple — the woman had her wedding shower at the restaurant where the Larioses first cooked more than 40 years ago — comes by to pay their respects.
They’re just happy to be working again, Maria Teresa tells them. She cannot suppress a smile.
“Sometimes after a fall, you rise up stronger than ever,” she says. “We never lost faith that we could one day cook again for our Miami community — and here we are, back where the good Lord would have us.”
If you go
What: La Fragua Restaurant.
Where: 7931 NW Second St, Miami.