In an era of golden arches and gourmet hamburgers Miami’s “fritas” are not only still alive but they are thriving. Exquisitely simple (a lean burger patty with onions, shoestring potatoes blended with a tomato paste sauce served on a Cuban bread roll) the mini Cuban hamburger has remained a Miami staple since the early 1960’s.
“The secret is the dedication and care with which we serve our food,” commented Mercy Gonzalez one of the owners of the El Rey de Las Fritas (The King of Fritas) one of Miami’s most popular frita establishments.
“We have the meat delivered to our four stores daily and only one of four family members know the recipe to prepare the beef,” Gonzalez added. “If I told you the recipe, I’ll have to kill you. It’s a family secret.”
Gonzalez’s father, Victoriano “Benito” Gonzalez, began serving fritas in Miami in 1966. Before the Cuban revolution, which ended all fun and creativity on the island, including distinct popular cuisine, Gonzalez owned a “puesto,” a frita stand in Cuba. The frita became all the rage in Cuba, especially Havana, shortly after the Great Depression.
My first encounter with the Cuban delicacy was as a result of that very same Cuban “no fun, no rights” revolution that chased many Cubans, including my family and the Gonzalezes, to Miami. Some time in the mid-1970’s, in Hialeah, my Abuelo Pepe picked me up after a baseball game and drove me to a little restaurant named Badias’— there, he ordered a couple of fritas and Matervas (a soda that was popular in Cuba and was also transplanted) for us.
While we waited for our food he recalled how he routinely used to take my dad, when he was a kid for a frita on Friday afternoons in Old Havana.
My first reaction to the frita was shortsighted — I kept comparing it to a cheeseburger and in my estimation, as a nine-year-old, the frita came up short. What didn’t disappoint was the time spent with Abuelo Pepe.
While we ate our fritas that day, and all the other occasions on which he took me for a quick bite, my granddad shared more stories about life in Cuba — the good, the bad and the ugly.
The first time I heard about Martin Dihigo (arguably the best Cuban baseball player ever to lace up cleats) el Machadato (the fall of Cuba’s first dictatorship under President Gerardo Machado) and the great Cuban sonero (Cuban son singer) Beny Moré, I had julienne potatoes and onions spilling onto my lap — safe it to say, the frita grew on me. In fact, for years I thought the frita was Abuelo Pepe’s and my culinary secret.
“For a long time, the frita was indeed one of Miami’s best kept secrets,” commented Miami food blogger and burger authority Sef Gonzalez, better known as The Burger Beast. “The frita is Miami’s version of distinct, local cuisine. Anyone interested in burgers or regional food needs to go to Little Havana and step into one of the many frita establishments and savor a unique Miami experience.”
This past weekend I took my daughter for her first frita. It was a brisk Saturday afternoon and the counter at one of Mercy Gonzalez’s El Rey de Las Fritas was packed. We saddled up to the stools, ordered two fritas and Matervas and began to exchange stories.
“Papi,” my daughter said from the backseat on our way home. “I loved the frita because when we were eating you talked a lot about Abuelo Pepe and how things were when you were a little boy growing up in Miami. I love family stories.” Thanks to the frita, the tradition continues.