Porfirio’s, the fancy new Mexican restaurant in South Beach — the first U.S. link in a Mexico City chainlet — is one of the most stunning restaurants I have been in this year. And one of the most disappointing.
Its vast, stone courtyard is as majestic as an Aztec temple. With a marble fountain the size of a shipping container and giant fans overhead, the patio exudes a grand elegance, while a high-ceiling interior with moody lighting could double as a nightclub.
But once the waitstaff shows up, it’s suddenly like the South of the Border Pavilion at Epcot Center.
I expected a mariachi band to start up at any moment. Instead, the piped-in music was some annoying techno that had me begging to leave. The food, though billed as contemporary Mexican cuisine, is as modern as a telegram. It is neither innovative nor particularly good.
Porfirio’s version of chips and salsa finds four freshly pressed corn tortillas served in a vertical metal holder alongside three nicely spicy salsas and some browning lime wedges. A jar of refried beans with a smoky bacon undertone was tasty but none too exciting.
Good-looking staffers handle trays, bottles and hot tortillas like jugglers. Only not very good ones. Plates land at the wrong tables, and servers wander around baffled while dishes grow cold. Bussers pull platters before guests have finished or, worse, leave them piling up.
They cluster around like street urchins about to take your wallet. And, essentially, they do. Though not well-trained in much of anything else, they are relentless hardsellers, pushing bottled water, booze, entrées you don’t want and ice cream you don’t need.
A fast-talking waiter was like a magician whirling menus and napkins to obscure his upselling swagger. He pushed two of us to order more than a family of four could have possibly consumed.
We started with carnitas de pulpo, chewy pencil eraser-size nuggets of octopus fried in lard and served with underripe avocado. Fried tuna tacos with graying chunks of fishy tuna were chewy.
And though our server swore the mole was the best he had ever tried, our enmoladas were truly inedible. An off-putting tang and an odd, flowery sweetness reminded me of nothing so much as bubble bath. Inside the flour tortillas were insipid threads of breast meat that tasted like the overboiled chicken left on the carcass when you make broth.
Though the menu touted red snapper, the waiter insisted there was only grouper to be had. He pushed us to buy the $52 dish to share even though I already ordered an entrée. I had to nearly wrestle him to persuade him to instead bring the single portion: a vile filet that had the distinct texture of frozen fish camouflaged beneath what I would swear were canned pineapple chunks.
On another visit, we were bamboozled into a mammoth platter of chamorro al horno, a dry and dusty pork shank for two, even though my husband and I had ordered more than enough.
It’s hardly worth describing the few dishes that were actually successful, like a sweet corn elote with limey tajín, a fluffy tamale enveloping tender pork, and a chile rellenos stuffed with a sweet and spicy picadillo.
We spent an awful lot of money to enjoy some complex and fiery hot sauces, nice homemade tortillas and a few decent dishes presented in colorful props. Until you can eat the décor at Porfirio’s, there is nothing to bring me back here.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.