Alvaro Zamuria, the coconut guy at Palacio de los Jugos, has mad skills with a machete. A swift thwack, thwack, thwack, and you're sipping sweet, cool agua de coco straight from the source.
Maday Gonzalez, the plantain lady, can turn out mountains of crispy mariquitas and fry amazingly complex tostones - crunchy outside, chewy and somehow airy inside - all day long in her sweltering glass cubicle and never drop blistering lard on herself.
That's right - lard. Manteca. The stuff that sends the cholesterol police into conniptions but tastes like back home. Palacio de los Jugos, that Cuban-Miami landmark on Flagler Street at 57th Avenue - there are several branches, plus a few bogus locations about to be sued by the original owners - has spent more than three decades paying homage to the concept of keeping things real. The place would never mess with something so blasphemous as vegetable oil.
The Palace of the Juices is hardcore. Forget frills. Pretty much a produce plaza with stations for hot food (seafood, grilled meats, stews and soups and sandwiches) and outdoor seating under misters that do little to ease the heat, the main location attracts the cross-section of Latin Miami: Lawyers and politicians in suits, guajiros (country folk) in straw hats and anybody in between. It's also big with in-the-know gourmands and famous chefs who drool for its authentic flavors.
New York chef and Food Network star Bobby Flay never fails to visit when he's in town.
“I stay there for hours,” he told an audience at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. “I start with a little fresh mango juice. Then I get out of line. I go to the prepared foods, and I eat some plantains and some roasted pork and rice and beans. And I have to have a Cuban sandwich there too, always. Then a little bit of coconut water. You know the guy with the machete? That guy is bad. Don't mess with that guy.”
Ferran Adri, often hailed as the most important chef in the world for the revolution of his “molecular gastronomy” created in his Spanish homeland, can also go on about the joint. Martha Stewart once taped her show there.
Miami star chef Michelle Bernstein doesn't mind sharing that she has bought the chicharrones, those crunchy, salty strips of fried pork fat with juicy meat attached, to use in her signature dishes.
“I would buy them there until I learned how to make them myself. They're almost as good but not quite,” says the Argentine-American Bernstein, chef of Michy's and Sra. Martinez. “The place is not fancy, but it's as good as it gets for Miami flavors. My parents used to take me there when I was a kid. We used to sit outside on Sundays, my
Jewish father with the big pork sandwiches.”
If you're Cuban, a visit is almost a patriotic act, though folks from all over Latin America call Palacio home, too. The place on 57th is the patriarch, but there are branches at 14300 SW Eighth St. and 7085 SW 24th St.
At Palacio, you sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers who don't care how hot the day is, or how many bad, really bad calories they're ingesting. Everything about the place conjures the lost Cuban countryside:
And sometimes, feeding the soul outweighs possible health risks. For $5-$10, you walk away from the steam tables with a full Cuban meal that could easily satisfy two.
“This place is almost like church to me,” says Barbara Dominguez, 33, who lives in Chicago. She visits relatives in Miami every summer and never fails to stop at the Palacio on 57th. Today she's walking out with a jug of mamey juice and a brown paper bag quickly turning translucent from the chicharron grease. “I never feel more Cuban than when I'm here. I guess it's something about all those smells. The ripe fruits, the fried pork. It kind of feels like Nochebuena [Christmas Eve] every day of the year.”
At the inside counter, folks also yell for the tamales, for the white farmer's cheese topped with ruby slices of guave paste, for the tropical juices in their rainbow of happy colors, for the country-style, curdled dulce de leche. Everything is made on the premises. Customers sniff and squeeze fresh mangoes, mameys, avocados and papayas stacked in wooden bins. And yes, they buy the house-rendered lard to go, $5 for a half gallon.
Here comes Palacio owner Rey Bermudez Jr.'s mom, Poli Bermudez, carrying a Styrofoam takeout box she can't close because the chicharrones and masas de puerco (fried pork chunks) are piled so high.
Don't even think about saying no when she offers Palacio's nostalgia-flavored favorites. And she doesn't want to hear that the syrupy mango juice would scandalize the South Beach Diet dude.
“I'm 73, and I don't have high blood pressure or high cholesterol,” Poli, short for Apolonia, says as she offers twice-fried boniato. “I still eat what I ate in the country in Cuba when I was a girl. I don't take pills for anything. Lard is the most natural thing there is. What will kill you is the fake stuff.”
Poli runs the Palacio chain with Rey Jr., her only child. She was married to the elder Rey for 47 years but divorced him almost a decade ago, when she tired of his straying, she says. Rey Sr. ended up with the Palacio on Miller Road and 102nd Avenue and some other properties. But he still comes around to the Palacio on 57th. As a family, the trio is still pretty tight.
“When we started there, we had very few resources and very little knowledge of running a business,” says Rey Sr., 73. “We made so many sacrifices. But we were able to get ahead, and later we were able to employ so many people who came penniless from Cuba. I helped bring over 20 relatives. They all got their starts working there.”
But visiting 57th Avenue always leaves him with mixed feelings.
“Sometimes one commits mistakes in life,” he says. “It makes me happy, and it makes me sad to be there now. I saw customers bring in babies who later were grown men and women who would come in on their own. I have a lot of history there.”
“They're both stubborn. But I think one day my father will be living with my mother again,” says Rey Jr., 48.
As a simple country girl outside Santa Clara in Central Cuba, Poli used to watch her family pull yuca and boniato from the ground. She never flinched when they killed pigs to roast over wood.
“Everything is still the same in my pueblo,” Poli says. “I visit as often as I can to be with my family. I still go to the well where I used to pump water. My oldest brother, who is 96, lives in the house where I was raised. Only now there is electricity, a good refrigerator, a TV. I have helped the family a lot. I send them medicines - whatever they need. And I'm grateful that I was able to come to this country and be so successful being a guajirita who could barely read or write when I started this business with my husband.”
At 16, Poli went to work for the manager of the Trinidad y Hermanos cigar and cigarette factory.
“My mother and father didn't want to let me go,” she says. “But they were offering me $20 a month to work in their house. They were wonderful people. I learned how to cook; I learned how to sew. They treated me like one of their own. Later my sister came to work with them, too. The money helped my family.”
When Fidel Castro's revolution triumphed, Trinidad y Hermanos was taken over by the government, and its owners left for the United States.
“Things never went well for them here,” Poli says. “The husband died years ago. I think of sadness. And la senora still lives, in a modest home in Miami. Now I try to help her. I visit, and I bring her fruits and meals from here. The world can take so many turns.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Poli looks at your shoes. She wants to show you the back building, which most people don't know about. This is where most everything is made, in huge batches. But it's treacherously slippery back there. A thin layer of congealing lard covers the floor.
Then, a sight: the chicharron guy.
He's back there dripping in sweat, wielding a long paddle and watching over tubs of chicharrones frying in bubbling manteca that constantly brims over.
Each Palacio fries its own chicharrones, and the 57th Avenue location can sell about 1,200 pounds of the stuff each day, Poli says. All of the recipes are hers, from her days of cooking for the Trinidad family.
So what's the secret to the chicharrones?
“We only use young pigs. It's a very special pork that we get shipped from North Carolina; not the stuff you see at most Cuban restaurants in Miami. It comes fresh, never frozen. When pork is that good, you don't need to put any seasoning on it. Only salt,” Poli says.
The Bermudezes have always taken the food they serve seriously. They're not going to buy just any batch of bland, cheap mangoes from Mexico for their juice. They're going to hunt for the sweetest and the best. Which is why they've lost their patience with the fake Palacios that keep popping up.
“There are several in Hialeah. None of them are ours,” Poli says.
“We built a reputation over 30 years,” Rey Jr. says. “And we've had people come to us and say that the chicharrones they bought at such-and-such location were terrible. Or that they got sick from something. They went to a fake Palacio de los Jugos.”
Perhaps the reason there are so many Palacio locations around (a search of businesses in South Florida brings up at least half a dozen Palacio de los Jugos that the Bermudez family says have nothing to do with them) is that the family had not thought to register the trademark until recently.
“But that doesn't actually matter,” says Jorge Espinosa, the family’s attorney. “Use takes priority over registration in the U.S. The counterfeiters know what they're doing. They can’t just hide behind corporations they set up. They are simply stealing the brand.”
But certainly, the chicharron guy at the original Palacio is not about to give up any major secrets.
“It's hot back here,” tall and brawny Fernando Perdomo, 49, who left Cuba one year ago, says as he flips the frying chicharrones with his paddle. He does this all day long. “But I had a harder job in Cuba. I was a stevedore. And I was in Cuba. Now I have a good job. And I'm in a free country.”