One of Miami’s alluring qualities is that the rules are different — or practically non-existent — here. Rarely does someone tell you, “That’s the way it’s always been done.” There is no tradition-bound formula.
Which makes it the perfect place for the Vagabond’s Alex Chang, a 25-year-old, self-taught chef of Mexican-Chinese descent who wrote his Miami destiny when he and his roommate at the University of Southern California named their underground restaurant “Paladar,” after the Cuban tradition of home-operated eateries.
Chang, who had never been to Cuba or Miami, was recruited here by restaurateur Alvaro Perez Miranda to helm the new restaurant at the historic Vagabond Motel (now Hotel), lovingly restored to its mid-century modern glory by developer Avra Jain. The airy dining room features an open kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking an awakening Biscayne Boulevard, a graffiti mural by Miami artist Trek6 and Instagram-like portraits that bring it up to 21st-century speed.
It’s a thrill to eat once again in the iconic motel, and Chang’s adventuresome menu shows he’s ready to play. He even has the cojones to serve chapulines, toasted baby grasshoppers.
The insects may be popular gourmet treats in southern Mexico and Los Angeles, but they’re still widely viewed in Miami as reason to call pest control. Sautéed with chile, lime, cilantro and peanuts, the chewy, raisin-like grasshoppers are practically indistinguishable from the nuts in the small bowl. The spicy starter makes a good bar snack, but don’t expect to see them duplicated at Duffy’s on game day.
Drawing from his multiethnic heritage and post-graduation experiences working in kitchens in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Tokyo and Belgium, Chang mixes small plates and entrees with wild abandon — another rule broken — on a one-page menu with two dozen choices, nearly half of which are spectacular vegetable dishes.
Roasted whole carrots in tantalizing shades of orange, red, purple, ivory and yellow are arranged atop thick, mole-like sauce made from carrot-juice reduction jazzed with a Middle Eastern za’atar herb blend, dried chiles and a spoonful of cool yogurt. Sprinkled with ground hazelnuts, the smoky-sweet dish renews respect for the root.
Equally impressive is the zucchini salad: thin, succulent ribbons of vegetable tossed in a nutty, earthy Mexican pipián sauce of roasted pumpkin seeds. Tarragon and pistachios add layers of flavor.
Other vegetable dishes are treated with the same inventive flair. Blistered cauliflower sports a cloud of foamy goat’s milk with dots of smoked trout roe. The Arab world meets Central America in heirloom tomato fattoush salad, with toasted pita bread, black sesame and feta sharing space with mild-sweet black sapote, or chocolate pudding fruit, which grows in South Florida but rarely appears in restaurants.
Meat lovers are not neglected. The buttery 16-ounce bone-in short-rib is smoldered in a Mexican charred paste of achiote seeds, dried chile, cumin, cloves and white vinegar. Black beans and roasted plantains on the side were a little soggy, but we have no doubt they will firm up once Chang spends enough time in Miami.
Grilled skirt steak paired with creamy corn pudding and dried, smoked chipotle meco chiles is another meaty pleaser. Finger-licking jerk chicken wings, smoked over allspice leaves and served with crunchy, spicy Haitian pikliz, are evidence that Chang has done his homework on Miami’s Caribbean-dominated Upper East Side.
Although there’s the obligatory cheeseburger, proteins here invite exploration, from buttermilk-fried quail with Southern bacon gravy and braised greens to crispy pig’s head, pan-seared beef heart, sweetbreads “Milanesa” and rabbit-leg piccata. Dry-aged beef tartare springs to life under the zesty spell of yuzu kosho, a Japanese condiment made from citrus peel and chiles, and a separate smattering of pickled green strawberries. Mellowed with miso, the minced, raw beef comes with lettuce leaves for scooping.
By comparison, seafood choices are unusually mild and tame (safer territory for the weak-kneed). Sweet and sour shrimp sports a light batter with pineapple-vinegar sauce and leafy blades of minutina. Yellow jack, the replacement for grouper on one of our visits, had such a light crust and drizzle of sauce that it seemed invisible on our tongue after sampling so many strong flavors.
The only pasta on the menu is a dreamy ricotta gnocchi (technically gnudi) that was one of my favorite dishes. Made even creamier with kale butter and colorized by braised savoy cabbage, the pillowy dumplings are topped with breadcrumbs.
Tasty but tiny, Vagabond’s ambitious, cross-cultural offerings come in modest portions that may leave you feeling slightly empty at the end of the night. A per-guest charge for water also doesn’t float well — neither do service missteps like scooping up utensils and not replacing them. But the cheery wait staff and a good-value wine list that pulls from under-appreciated regions deflate indignation.
Desserts are hit-or-miss. One dining companion dug the pistachio “cake,” a powdery mash of pulverized cake with fennel panna cotta, nuts and edible flowers, while another compared it to the dry, regurgitated mass pulled from a vacuum filter.
On the other hand, a deconstructed Key lime pie made with sorrel, coconut and meringue came as an identical jumbled heap, but was scarfed down with delight. Strawberry granita — sweetened with amazke, a rice-based, sake-like Japanese drink, and paired with black sesame and puffed rice — was a refreshing triumph.
Expect similar surprises from a new brunch menu, which puts squash blossoms in quesadillas and tops yeasty waffles with plantain butter.
The Vagabond, which first opened in 1953 as a motel and restaurant-lounge, has retained its atomic-age geometric design: eccentric cantilevered rooflines and welcoming porte-cochere among them. Recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, the Vagabond and its exterior have been fully restored according to strict federal guidelines.
Inside, however, Chang’s kitchen is a rule-breaker for the benefit of all of us.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.