Food

PB&J pastelitos and mamey gazpacho: Meet Miami’s next generation of Cuban restaurants

Peanut butter and jelly pastelitos will be served at Chug’s, a Cuban-American diner.
Peanut butter and jelly pastelitos will be served at Chug’s, a Cuban-American diner. Handout

A revolution in Cuban food is underway in Miami.

For the American-born children —and grandchildren — of Cuban immigrants, the flavors their families brought over from the alligator-shaped island are no longer the limit.

Miami’s new dining scene represents childhoods straddling cultures. A fusion of Cuban heritage and the American experience has created something unique: Cuban-American cuisine.

What started with the Mango Gang in the 1990s continues with a new kind of Miami-born chef of Cuban roots.

Call them the Yuca Tots.

They built on the flavors and techniques of Douglas Rodriguez, Allan Susser and Norman Van Aken, all James Beard award-winning chefs who applied advance culinary techniques to South Florida’s home-cooked flavors.

This new group of chefs — ranging in ages from their 20s to their 40s, Millennials to Gen Xers — are not tied to tradition as much as they are inspired by it. They are not held back by what is or isn’t considered authentic and are creating a new kind of Cuban cuisine that is authentic to each of them.

And they’re writing the book on what it means to eat like a Cuban-American in Miami.

Amelia’s 1931

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The Cuban Tots at Amelia 1931 can be made of yuca, malanga or sweet potato. These malanga tots are topped with vaca frita shredded beef and aji amarillo pepper sauce.

This spinoff to Finka (see below) takes fusion to another level.

Here chef Eileen Andrade takes inspiration from her late grandmother, Amelia Garcia, who ran the counter at nearby Islas Canarias, and applies Peruvian and Korean flavors to Cuban casual counter service.

The food is approachable (with most items under $15) but not simple. A Cuban bento box features Korean fried chicken, avocado salad and maduros (fried sweet plantains). General Tso’s flavors are applied to alligator fried rice and the arroz con salchicha, a Cuban home staple, uses wild boar sausage.

And a fantastic separate section of the menu is dedicated to tots — not tater, but yuca and malanga root. The crispy yuca tots, creamy inside, are topped with pulled pork cheeks, mariquitas (crispy green plantain) and cilantro aioli. Malanga tots get vaca frita (shredded marinated fried beef flank) and aji amarillo mayo.

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13601 SW 26th St., Kendall

Ariete

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Ariete’s frita is pretty legit.


Michael Beltran took his childhood in Little Havana and melded it with what he learned under James Beard award-winning chefs Michael Schwartz and Norman Van Aken. The result looks like this:

The foie gras uses sour orange. Baked ricotta includes nispero (sapodilla). The house charcuterie features a duck pate with dark rum. A calabaza squash side is heightened with jerk seasoning. Majua, a small Caribbean smelt eaten as street food in Cuba, shares the menu with a smoked pork chop finished with a mango mustard sauce.

He even twists a traditional gazpacho with chilled mamey.

“Nobody buys it, but it’s going to be on the menu because I want it to be there,” Beltran said.

He finishes with a traditional flan made with candy cap mushrooms.

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3540 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove

Cafe La Trova

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Michelle Bernstein may be parts Argentine and Jewish, but she’s thoroughly Miami-born — and it shows in the food at her newest spot.

Rather than a traditional sit-down restaurant, she and her chef-husband David Martinez partnered on this old-world Cuban music lounge in a still-sleepy part of Little Havana with mixed-drink master Julio Cabrera.

Cabrera, who was named Bartender of the Year at the annual Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, delivered on his lifelong dream of owning a high-end bar like his father had in Cuba before the revolution.

His cocktails range from perfectly made classics like daiquiris and mojitos to a Yin & Tony (gin and tonic) made with elderflower liquor, an old fashioned with cafecito syrup and a Mentirita made with rum and Materva soft drink (brewed in Hialeah).

Pair that with Bernstein’s take on the food of her Miami upbringing: empanadas with roasted calabaza, melting croquetas filled with paella ingredients or jamon serrano with fig jam, and a lechon with chicharrones made with tangerine mojo.

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971 SW 8th St., Little Havana

Cao Bakery & Cafe

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The new Cao Bakery & Cafe stores give the former Vicky Bakery stores a trendier feel. Tamz Photography Handout


Diners were flummoxed when they happened upon their usual Vicky Bakery and found a new name out front.

That’s because Tony Cao, a grandson of the Vicky founder, Antonio, bought out his seven Vicky bakeries and turned them into a separate company. He wanted to bring his childhood — born and raised in Miami to Cuban-American parents — into the food he’d learned from his father and grandfather who own some of Miami’s best known traditional Cuban bakeries.

This menu reflects those Cuban-American influences. Bacon maduros are wrapped sweet plantains. Arroz con pollo is bundled in croqueta-like fritters. A Sloppy José is stuffed with picadillo beef. And a Medio Dia sandwich is a Media Noche-like ham and cheese pressed between guava pastelitos.

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Multiple locations including: 7830 SW 24th St., Westchester

Chug’s

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

Take your favorite Latin breakfast and lunch spot and heighten it with better ingredients and more skill.

Beltran calls this offshoot of Ariete a Cuban diner, but its soul is Cuban-American. The media noche sandwich is made with duck confit instead of pork. Yuca and cheese balls are served with green goddess sauce. And several riffs on the frita Cuban hamburger include a version with avocado and thick-cut house-made bacon.

His sous chef Gio Fesser, American born of Cuban roots, stuffs Cuban pastelitos with decidedly non-traditional fillings such as peanut butter and jelly, buffalo chicken and apple pie. That’s as American as it gets.

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3444 Main Hwy., Suite 21, Coconut Grove

Dos Croquetas

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Miami’s beloved finger food gets a makeover.

The star of Latin birthday parties and ventanita Cuban coffee windows, these deep-fried bechamel fritters are a staple of Cuban households. But Victoria Carballo, a career caterer, and her nephew and business partner Alec Fernandez took the ham, chicken or bacalao and gave it a uniquely new Cuban-American cultural infusion.

The 305 Croqueta is stuffed with Cuban style picadillo (ground beef), sweet plantains and queso blanco. It’s paired with a guava aioli. A Mexican Street Corn Croqueta is filled with chargrilled corn, cotija cheese and chili-lime cream.

And a buffalo chicken croqueta pairs well with the newest American obsession, the Dame Dos Ale craft beer, specially brewed by MIA Beer Co. for Dos Croquetas. It’s just one of several craft beers on tap.

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10505 SW 40th St., Westchester

Finka

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From the day Finka opened five years ago, it was a hit unlike anything else in the far-western suburbs of Miami-Dade county.

Why? It applied Korean and Peruvian flavors to Cuban dishes locals knew by name. Eileen Andrade’s grandparents founded one of the best-loved Cuban restaurants in the county, Islas Canarias, whose croquetas are still the traditional gold standard.

The young Andrade built on that tradition. She took a fascination with Korean and Peruvian cuisine — which has boomed in Miami in the last five years — and applied those techniques and flavors to the food of her youth.

Black beans are turned into hummus. The KFC — Korean Fried Chicken — glazed with gochujang hot sauce is served with boniato bread. Salmon tartare uses Peruvian aji amarillo. Pork ribs are glazed in sweet sriracha.

It’s no wonder lines still snake around the entrance on weekends.

14690 SW 26th St., Kendall

La Mesa

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Frankie Zerquera seemed to reach into the Miami ether and pull down a distillation of Miami at his upcoming restaurant.

“Cojelo Suave” (take it easy) and “Living My Best Life” are twisted into neon at his upcoming restaurant La Mesa, an evolution of the “Miami food” he’s making out of a ventanita in a Doral gas station that he calls Cafe 72.

The menu is filled with Miami fusions like Masitas Oriente (fried pork chunks with an Asian twist) and Cuban avocado toast on buttered, toasted Cuban bread. He was the manager of Gigi’s, whose Asian small-bite menu has obviously influenced his Hialeah background.

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8872 SW 24th St., Westchester

The Local Cuban

Alberto Cabrera grew up feeling deeply Cuban in Miami, raised with the flavors his parents brought from the island, but also inspired by the dishes he found in the homes of his Venezuelan, Colombian and Nicaraguan friends.

The result is a preternatural ability to expertly cook approachable food that is Cuban at its heart but reflects a true Miami palate. The Local Cuban in the Time Out Market on South Beach is his latest effort, where he packs Cuban flavors and textures in unexpected places.

The media noche croquetas, dipped in a mustard aioli, evoke perfectly the Cuban mini sandwich on eggbread. His Chicharron de Puerco is smothered in a truffle black bean puree and mango relish. His Arroz Imperial, usually a take out food by the pound, is rice covered in duck ham, duck fricassee, covered in melted smoked gouda.

Cabrera trained under Miami culinary masters, original Mango Gang members Douglas Rodriguez, who elevated Cuban food to fine dining, and Norman Van Aken, who coined the term fusion as it applied to his Nuevo Latino Key West-inspired food. It shows.

“It represents my experience in this city and the people who grew up with all these different cultures,” Cabrera said.

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1601 Drexel Ave., South Beach

James Beard award winner Carlos Frías interviews José Andrés, Michelle Bernstein, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Marcus Samuelsson and Norman Van Aken over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frías won the 2018 James Beard award for excellence in covering the food industry. A Miami native, he’s also the author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”
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