Anyone looking for hardcore Mexican food or even Tex-Mex, L.A.- or Baja-style comida: Centro Taco is not the place. This is about flavor, not authenticity. Call it South of the Border, South Florida style.
Chef-owner Richard Hales, the guy behind Sakaya Kitchen and BlackBrick Chinese, takes on Mexican cuisine here with an aggressively modern, local, light and delicious focus. Where else would you find latke bravas made with grated chayote doused in spicy adobo sauce with shreds of raw apples and pickled cabbage? Did I mention it is also a vegan paradise with nary a lard-laden anything in sight?
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That’s not to say animal products are absent. On the contrary: Look for exceptional pork dishes and pristine seafare, including oysters.
What you won’t find: burritos, enchiladas, ground beef, chiles rellenos or nachos. Not much of anything is drowning in red sauce and smothered in cheese.
The downtown spot (formerly Sakaya Kitchen 2) boasts an ironic décor. The blond butcher-block tables are set with black ants marching across a white tin mug and dia de los muertos skulls in sombreros on plates. Floral wallpaper conjures a homey living room though with an ornately framed Bill Murray in Russian military garb. The glaring lighting tends to a bit cafeteria-like, slightly jarring but — like the restaurant’s Latin rap music — cool. The bathroom is wrapped in pink flamingos.
Staffers are nattily arrayed in chambray shirts and black jeans. At dinner they are way more attentive and knowing than the day staff, which seems distracted but still awfully earnest.
Three friendly sauces greet each diner, including a creamy salsa verde with a vinegary tang, a classic tomato-and-onion rough-cut salsa, and a limey cilantro number. Ask for something with more kick and you might get treated to a smooth, red habanero-laced special.
There is a fantastic array of tacos. One better than the next. A pair of perky shrimp butterflied on the plancha are painted with a red sauce and served over a smooth and earthy black huitlacoche, toasted pepitas, a dollop of caviar, loads of fresh herbs and peppery nasturtium flowers, all piled onto a perfect, hot tortilla.
The daily Baja-style fish might be a golf ball-size hunk of hogfish floating in a cloud-like puff of golden beer batter and dotted with a limey cream. Local gator in a pibil sauce is not a favorite dish by a long shot, but I’ve only ever had gator that wasn’t chewy and dry once or twice in my career.
A triumph: The pork gordita, a Haitian-inspired dish made of crispy, bronzed cubes of fried pork griot, topped with crumbled white cotija cheese and a zippy, pickled cabbage and carrot pikliz. It was so good, in fact, we had to order another to avoid a fork fight.
Ingredients are gorgeously simple. From the soft, pliable and perfect tortillas made from Oaxacan white corn that is ground, pressed and grilled in-house by Erica Cruz to the housemade tangy crema that brings soothing richness to the stark flavors on the plate. Credit to Hales and chef de cuisine James Seyba for keeping things rustic and still thoughtfully balanced.
Order the ceviche of the day and find a plate of sparkling fresh flesh bathed in a bright and citrusy broth dotted with grapefruit and red onion.
Bright yellow, light and crisp, bolitas made from freshly ground corn from Mississippi’s Grit Girl are a revelation, especially as we had them showered in tiny cilantro buds and dunked in a creamy avocado salsa verde.
Also stunning are salads, including the chopped bok choy with fresh nibs of corn cut from the cob and local heirloom tomato hunks in a delicate green goddess-style dressing that has a hint of tang.
One of the loveliest dishes I have had this year is the sangrita (or “little blood,” not to be confused with the wine-based sangria) salad. A mix of citrus and pomegranate forms a sort of marinade for crunchy batons of jicama festooned with broad smiles of fresh avocado, grapefruit and sprinkled with crunchy bits of roasted almonds and cilantro. Only complaint is vegetables need to be chopped smaller.
Mrs. Hales, Jenny, is credited often on the menu, and from her offerings it seems as if she is a raw foodie.
Desserts, however, are the weakest link here. I found vegan milk and cookies made with a horchata as well as the chocoltaco with crystally almond ice cream and a grainy Key lime tart all rather unappealing. Still, the outrageously moist, dense and caramelly brownie with a distinctly Mexican chocolate and toasty pepitas is the kind of thing I have a hard time writing about without a spoon in hand.
Food is hearty — even if portions tend toward petite, which means prices do add up. This is no dollar taco truck. Expect Miami’s finest in all its eclectic glory.
Victoria Pesce Elliott: @VictoriaPesceE