In Miami, cold is measured by the line outside La Palma Cuban restaurant for hot chocolate and churros.
When it was still over 65 degrees Wednesday afternoon, the line outside this West Miami favorite was a modest 20 or so.
Then the temperature started to drop. The sun disappeared, and the crowd grew as thick as the hot chocolate served here.
At 59 degrees, the line was 50 people deep. The temperature dropped again, and the line measured 80. By 10:30 p.m., the temperature read 55 degrees and the line swelled to more than 100 people. It snaked from La Palma’s walk-up window on Southwest Eighth Street, around the corner and up 61st Avenue to the parking lot, where cars were double parked and encroaching on neighborhood swales.
“This is our annual tradition when it gets a little frio, since it’s so rare that it gets cold in Miami,” said Sandra Chianesse, a 40-year resident of Miami and the last person in line. “So we celebrate it with churros calientes. Plus, they’re delicious.”
Northerners may scoff at Miami’s definition of cold. Even those in Tallahassee, dumbfounded by snowfall Wednesday, may roll their eyes.
But for Miamians, that first cold snap means one thing: time to wrap up in scarves and fuzzy boots and get in line for fresh-fried churros and hot chocolate. And the best-loved Miami spot is the 24-hour La Palma, which has been serving churros and hot chocolate since 1979.
Fried churros in the air
The scent of fried dough wafted over a hungry line of churros lovers Wednesday night. It emboldened them as the carnival-like air grew crisper. And when they finally reached the counter, next to a sign in Spanish that reads “Miami’s Most Famous Churros,” they ordered churros by the dozens.
“When you stand in line for this long, you’ve got to make it worth the wait,” said Gaby Boudani, who bought three dozen churros and three hot chocolates to take back with her to Florida State University the next day.
She brought along her friend Ryan Eagleton, a Miami native who had never partaken in the churros-and-chocolate tradition.
Churros are a boom-or-bust economy here. On an average summer day, La Palma might sell 40-50 orders of churros. But during a cold snap, they expect to sell almost 1,000 orders — 4,000 churros — during a regular shift.
“When the temperature drops below 65 degrees, that’s when the locura starts,” said restaurant supervisor Pablo Fajardo. “The numbers are just crazy.”
So Fajardo watches the weather forecast like the stock market. He prints out the latest update and posts it inside the open windows facing Southwest Eighth Street, where all three deep fryers will be bubbling into the night.
Three waitresses handle the front window until 6 a.m., when another three start their shifts. When Fajardo heard the weather forecast, he ran to BJ’s Wholesale Club to buy another 40 gallons of milk for hot chocolate.
Churros + hot chocolate = magic
That marriage of churros and thick, hot chocolate is what makes La Palma a Miami favorite.
The churros are regularly made in-house from wheat flour. On the days when the restaurant is slammed, La Palma brings in supplies from sister restaurant Versailles, which also sells frozen churros to other local restaurants.
Churros come out of the deep fryer golden brown and are tossed in a paper bag with granulated sugar. The result is a dessert that is crisp and sweet on the outside, doughy on the inside.
But the ritual is not complete until the churro is dipped in La Palma’s hot chocolate, which is made with whole milk and thickened with corn starch.
The buzz is enough that on this night, the line is a mix of locals and out-of-towners, from Philadelphia to Quebec, in town for the holidays.
Sara Aviles, who grew up in Miami but has lived in Montreal for 23 years, brought her mother from Westchester and her Canadian friend, Robert Sicotte, for their first taste of La Palma churros.
“The crunch, the fat, the sugar: It all comes together,” Sicotte said after tasting his first bite.
“It’s perfect for when it’s cold,” Aviles added.
Cold, that is, by Miami standards.