Abuela has an image problem.
Sure, she cooks like nobody’s business. But anyone who has watched a Latina grandmother mix pork fat into a dish with impunity knows she can stand to cook a bit lighter.
She could learn something from Jimmy’z Kitchen.
For eight years now, chef Jimmy Carey has made a career out of just that: taking the traditional Latin dishes he grew up eating as a boy in Puerto Rico and using his background as a Johnson & Wales-trained chef to make home cooking healthy enough for every day.
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His Jimmy’z Kitchens, which started with a small outpost in health-centric South Beach in 2008, have spread to four locations. But the original Z-word in Wynwood was his flagship restaurant in the heart of that neighborhood. So that’s where we went back for several meals over the last few weeks.
Jimmy’z Kitchen’s concept is fast-casual, Miami-style. Order at the counter, take a seat and soak in the pops of orange walls and chartreuse chairs in an industrial space on the ground floor of the Cynergi condos. EDM and pop music reminiscent of its South Beach origins makes the space feel lively even when only half a dozen diners are seated, waiting for their meals on a Tuesday night.
The restaurant radiates “lunch destination” rather than relaxing dinner spot. But that only reinforces it’s fast-casual intent. Think of it as a local, spiritual cousin to a Chipotle.
That he was born in New York but raised in Puerto Rico means Carey had one foot in each culture when creating his Latin-focused menu. He clearly didn’t shy away from tinkering with tradition.
Nothing shows his bravado more than his interpretation of mofongo. The green plantain mash, redolent with garlic and pork, might as well be pictured on the Puerto Rican flag. The very thing that makes it delicious is the pork crackling, the chicharron, mixed into the mash. How do you mess with that?
One bite into Jimmy’z mofongo is proof enough that a dish can taste authentic while also remaining on the lighter side. His mofongo is served in a tight mound in a pond of Creole sauce. The light tomato-based sauce with onions and peppers isn’t how mofongo is traditionally served, but it allows the mash to absorb moisture without Abuela’s bacon drippings.
The dish is served on a bed of protein, with a choice of chicken, shrimp, fish of the day, churrasco steak or pork, in which case it is served au jus instead of with the Creole sauce.
The pork on our first visit was flavorful but could have used more jus to keep the mofongo moist. It’s worth asking for plenty of it when you order at the counter. On a second visit, we tried the churrasco mofongo, which included a hearty strip of steak snaked over the top of the mofongo. It was more than enough for two people to share, and the steak was well seasoned with a stripe of chimichurri sauce.
The mofongo is such a star that the rest of the menu seems in orbit. Pressed sandwiches, salads and light entrees with Latin flavors feel aimed at the “eat to live, not live to eat” crowd.
That said, a diner looking for a healthful meal after spinning class or a 10-kilometer run would be more than pleased with the jerk chicken salad. The chicken is liberally seasoned while remaining light and is served over a hearty salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, fresh mango and toasted almonds, all with a side of a zesty sherry vinaigrette.
Those looking for a more traditional plate might opt for shrimp Creole, delicate white shrimp in the same Creole sauce as the mofongo, served with a side of jasmine rice.
Some dishes are good despite outward appearances. The ahi tuna tiradito wasn’t much to look at, with pieces cut into strips, others into cubes, and haphazardly pressed into a pile amid a pool of soy-citrus marinated. But the flavors were fresh and the huge portion satisfying and easily shared.
A section of Jimmy’z menu dedicated to pressed sandwiches appeals to a more devil-may-care crowd that hasn’t declared war on carbs.
A Scooby-Doo-style tripleta sandwich is just for them. Puerto Rico’s answer to the Cuban sandwich comes at Jimmy’z with roasted pork, ham, provolone cheese, bacon and caramelized onions. It’s served on Cuban bread rather than the chewier Puerto Rican bread, but it doesn’t detract. It’s meaty, hearty, crispy, savory and definitely not health food.
And a dessert section highlighting homemade flans and mango and guava cheesecakes are definitely from Abuela’s playbook.
Jimmy’z proves fast-casual can be many things: lighter and featuring local, Latin flavors, with enough on the menu for the friends and family of the CrossFit crowd.
Follow Miami Herald food and dining editor Carlos Frías on Twitter @Carlos_Frias.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Jimmy’z Kitchen
Address: 2700 N. Miami Ave., Miami
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2 stars (Good)
Contact: 305-573-1505; jimmyzkitchen.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday. Closed Monday.
Prices: Salads $9-$15, entrees $11-$19, mofongo $9-$18, sandwiches $9-$13, desserts $4-$6.
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; wine and craft beer available; parking on street or free on first level of Cynergi condos parking garage; noise level loud.
What the stars mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)