Food

What do you eat at a ‘Cuban-American diner?’ We tried several of the re-imagined classics

The breakfast sandwich (Taylor Ham, runny egg, cheese, crispy potato strings) at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove.
The breakfast sandwich (Taylor Ham, runny egg, cheese, crispy potato strings) at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove. cfrias@miamiherald.com

Anyone who has ordered rubbery scrambled eggs at a Latin cafe has wished for a Chug’s diner.

Maybe they had never ascribed a name to it. But it is this: A greasy spoon that does classic Cuban breakfast and lunch food with more skill and better ingredients. That place may just be the new diner in Coconut Grove by Michael Beltran, protege of Michael Schwartz and Norman Van Aken and chef-owner of the finer-dining spot down the street, Ariete.

Key West was a huge influence on chef Norman Van Aken, who became one of the great innovators in American cuisine. He discussed hitchhiking from the Midwest over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

They call this a “Cuban diner.” It’s actually more of a Cuban-American diner, a rendering by a Miami-born chef of Cuban roots.

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Indoor seating at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

It’s the kind of place were you’ll hear staff call out, “Soy cortadito for David!” But also a busy, buzzy, quick-service spot where familiar dishes get loving treatment from a chef who knows how to make a duck confit work inside a media noche sandwich.

It’s a place where pastelitos are filled with buffalo chicken or peanut butter and jelly. Where yuca balls come with a green goddess dip, eggs and meats are all organic and fritas are topped with more than basic crispy shredded potatoes.

Counter service is quick and staff brings out the orders either to the row of counter seats and couch inside or to tables in the courtyard. (Outside seating is best in the morning and after 5 p.m. when the quickly blistering sun isn’t baking overhead.)

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Outdoor seating at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

After a slammed opening weekend — where the ham or pastrami short rib croquetas ($2) both sold out before noon — here were some of the highlights from a recent visit.

Duck media noche

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Duck media noche at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove. Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

Call the traditional media noche the smaller cousin to the Cuban sandwich, served on a sweeter yellow egg bread that toasts to a crispy brown in the press.

Instead of roasted pork, Chug’s version uses duck confit — duck cooked slowly in its own rich, savory rendered fat — and orange mustard and sweet-and-sour pickles in place of the off-the-shelf stuff you’ll find at your usual dive. (Unless this place becomes your usual dive.) $15

El Gringo frita

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El Gringo frita at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

A traditional frita is hard to beat: a small, griddle-flattened beef patty flavored with strong spices like cumin, smoky paprika and, at times, chorizo oil. Top it with crispy potato sticks and Cuban bread rolls.

Chug’s has four kinds of frita riffs on its menu. One uses Taylor ham and an egg. El Gringo uses chorizo in the patty in a twist, adding avocado slices, green goddess dressing (garlic, mayo, herbs) and thick-cut bacon made in house. $10

Yuca cheese balls

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Yucca balls with green goddess sauce at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove. Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

These perfectly crispy spheres are filled with cheesy, starchy yuca, the perfect accompaniment for green goddess dipping sauce. Five golf-ball-sized tots are a generous portion. $7

Una completa

Call this the McDonald’s Big Breakfast of a Cuban diner. If you’re looking for simple breakfast, it’s three eggs cooked any way (though you’ll want them over easy), a slab of buttery, pressed Cuban bread to dip into the yolks and breakfast potatoes on the side. It’s the bread-and-butter of any good Cuban diner. $8

Minuta sandwich

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Minuta fried fish sandwich at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

Nothing is more iconic than a fish sandwich with a tail.

The classic fried snapper sandwich, found around town for about $6-7, is enormous here, served on an oblong Cuban bread bun. The batter is crispy, the fish a generous portion and the horseradish mayo the slightest twist to pair with shaved lettuce and tomato. Ask for extra lime to squeeze on the fish. $10

Café con leche

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Cuban coffee along with the paper boats that serve as order numbers at Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove. Carlos Frías cfrias@miamiherald.com

It’s hard to argue with your standard Cuban coffee mixed into whole milk with a splash of evaporated milk (and, if you’re a seasoned pro, the tiniest pinch of salt). Here, the twist is the coffee bean.

Chug’s uses a specialty dark roast with background notes of berries and cinnamon that could taste like a latte in someone else’s hands. But here, they make batches of fresh espumita — the first drips of coffee whipped with sugar — to give the coffee that creamy, simple-syrup sweetened flavor requisite in a café con leche. Or, for that matter, in a cafecito. $3.50 (Single-serving cafecito, $1.50)

Cast-iron pancake

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This is off-script for a Cuban-inspired diner, but not for the American in Beltran’s Cuban-American background (much like the breakfast sandwich with Taylor Ham). This single pancake is made in a cast-iron skillet, which gives it a slightly toasty bottom and crusty edges. The fluffy, quarter-inch-thick pancake is slathered with butter and rich, sweet maple syrup.

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CHUG’S: A CUBAN DINER

3444 Main Highway, Coconut Grove

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