2.5 stars for Ralph Pagano's Naked Taco in Miami Beach

 

TV chef shows legit off-camera chops in new South Beach taco shop.

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By Jodi Mailander Farrell | jmailander@MiamiHerald.com

Eating at Naked Taco in Miami Beach is like stepping onto the set of a racy, rapid-fire reality TV food show. 

A waiter with hair sculpted into devil horns delivers free tequila shots to the table. The menus urge diners to “get naked.” A DJ pumps throbbing beats beneath paintings of naked Day of the Dead girls. 

The camera-ready restaurant, open since February, is the work of chef-owner Ralph Pagano, whose small-screen résumé includes stints on Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef America, Pressure Cook and the current Lifetime cooking show All Mixed Up

The fast-talking Brooklyn native’s off-camera cred is equally legit: Pagano is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked his way though some of New York’s top kitchens. In South Florida, he headed up hospitality for Gulfstream Park and the kitchen of STK Miami; he’s now executive chef at Alba, a French-Italian restaurant in Sunny Isles Beach.

Naked Taco takes the place of the short-lived New York import Serafina in the lobby of the Dream South Beach Hotel, the former home of Tudor House. 

The restaurant’s naughty campiness flashes back to South Beach of the early 1990s, when drag queens and foam parties dominated an unchecked scene. 

The cantina offers three dozen tequilas, 10 styles of margaritas spiked with tropical fruit flavors like tamarind and guanabana, and limited selections of wine and Mexican beer. (This is where you can send your college-age nephew and his buddies when they visit this summer.)

A one-page menu is split into easily digested sections for predictable Baja street fare like fajitas, burritos and tacos, as well as respectable guacamole and ceviche.

Affordable entrees — the average menu item costs about $12 — and some standout taco fillings make this a top stop to refuel after a day on the beach, which is only 150 feet away. 

Our favs: Florida lobster with tequila-lime butter, corn salsa and red cabbage; barbecue-style lamb with mint yogurt; deep-fried cauliflower with spicy chile garlic and avocado crema; and fried chicken with melon, mint and chipotle ranch dressing. 

Along with traditional soft corn or flour taco shells, diners can go “naked” and choose a lettuce wrap instead (welcome to today’s South Beach). Homemade gelato, caramel flan, churros, Mexican chocolate mousse and specials like the coconut tres leches are enjoyable sweets to end a meal. 

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Naked Taco offers early morning diners several types of Mexican-style huevos, plus standbys like Greek yogurt, granola and tequila — always tequila. 

Pagano has made his name hustling on television and conjuring edible creations out of what’s on hand. In South Beach, he may have carved an affordable niche out of the pricey hotel-restaurant scene. Stay tuned. 

Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.

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