For a city that embraces a reputation for glitzy excess, for its glut of luxury cars and high-end retail and Art Basel and the South Beach Wine & Food and Brickell City Centre and $1,300 Ultra Fest VIP tickets and Pitbull New Year’s Eve on national TV, Miami has plenty of hangouts that exude the quirky soul that makes regular people love to live here.
A burgeoning arts and dining district carved out of a rundown array of graffiti-speckled warehouses? We’ve got it. A historic neighborhood where cackling, cigar-chomping old Cuban men play dominoes in front of delighted tourists in double-decker red tour buses? Yep. A swath of farmland where you can pick your own strawberries and where Southern accents mix with all the other ones? Sure. An excellent Spanish restaurant where they pump gas and sell power steering fluid out front? Here we go.
El Carajo, the bakery/wine shop/tapaceria embedded in a Mobil station on South Dixie Highway, opened in 2011, and six years in, it’s still a corner of Miami serendipity beloved by regulars and discovered by newcomers. Its passion for quality extends from the impressive and fair-priced (and 24-hour) wine shop and aromatic bakery up front to the cramped but cozy-in-a-good-way dining room in the back.
Communal tables inspire new friendships, struck over fried sardines, rich cod fritters and robust red wines. Even the tightly packed individual dining tables (52 seats in all) foment friendliness, such as the time on one of our visits that the woman at the adjoining table offered us the delicious seafood paella her daughter rejected.
You’ll start with crunchy bread and pepper-specked olive oil and a menu tightly rolled like an ancient scroll and tied with twine. If you forgot to bring your staple gun or glue pot to adhere it to the table, you’ll wrestle to keep the menu unrolled long enough to read it (the server had a magic folding technique that bought us some time). That menu is packed with Spanish classics, some of them solid, others truly memorable.
Upon ordering, you’ll marvel as the army of servers whisk tapas from kitchen to table as if on an episode of “Beat the Clock.” Food is served piping hot, fresh, impeccably prepared. Caldo Gallego, the Galician white bean soup, was whisked out of the kitchen five minutes after being ordered, curling with steam, rich with smoked pork and sausage and bacon and Serrano ham and tempered with flecks of bok choy — a must-order. Lobster bisque was lush and creamy, with bits of lobster and a splash of sherry to sweeten.
Tapas Calientes include a six-pack of meaty grilled ribs, virtually fat-free yet delicious, with a surprisingly spicy Canarias sauce on the side; dip at your own risk. Pulpo a la Gallega is straight-ahead Spanish octopus with olive oil and house-smoked paprika, perfectly textured. Those fried sardines come with all the challenges of eating whole fish, heads and tiny bones and all, but the sweet meat inside is your reward (a garlic sauce on the side didn’t really register).
Cod fritters with cilantro aioli and croquettes with cod, chicken or ham are greaseless, hot and spot-on, although if you’re looking for decadent croquettes oozing with cheese (you know who you are), these aren’t those.
The Ensalada d’El Carajo is fresh and a nice healthy offset to all of the meat and fried stuff, with mesclun, goat cheese, mandarin oranges and bacon bits — even if it seems out of place here.
That seafood paella is something else, though, the brothy rice supporting lots of sweet, fat langostines in the shell, bits of varied seafood and a confetti of vegetable bits with a rich, authentic flavor.
If you have room for entrées after all this, the filetillo al Miñon Encebollado, filet mignon sautéed with onions and peppers and soy demi-glace, is tender and satisfying. But the filete de trucha al limón is the one to get, the soft, sweet fish nicely sautéed and attacked from all sorts of flavor angles: garlic, caper, lemon, coffee spice and soy. All entrées are served with two sides, including house roasted potatoes, sweet carrots and gigantic stalks of asparagus.
Desserts are the standard Spanish fare, including our decent crema Catalana. Better to pay the check and get fresh baked goods, a bottle of wine and a tank of regular on the way out of this Miami classic.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
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If you go
Place: El Carajo International Tapas & Wines
Address: 2465 SW 17th Ave., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 305-856-2424; el-carajo.com
Hours: Noon-10 p.m., Monday-Wednesday, until 11 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Tapas, soups and salads $4.50-$14.50; rices $16.50; paellas $25; entrées $14-$26.
FYI: Parking is free in the private lot; wine on menu or buy in store with corkage $10; reservations accepted. Major credit cards.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)