By Enrique Fernandez
Swayed by Miami's reputation as the largest Cuban city outside Havana, folk come to town looking for la cocina cubana. What they find -- if they even find it -- often leaves much to be desired.
There are lots of allegedly Cuban restaurants, to be sure, but too much of the food is industrial and bland. And there are few Cubans cooking or waiting tables, replaced by immigrants of more recent vintage from elsewhere in Latin America.
At least a handful of South Florida restaurants have stood the test of time -- and in some cases expanded beyond the old Cuban neighborhoods -- by taking care to maintain a culinary tradition.
That tradition has evolved in the almost half-century of the Miami Cuban-American experience, influenced by our fellow Latin immigrants. Ask a waiter at a Cuban restaurant to recommend a steak, and it's likely to be an Argentine/Nicaraguan churrasco, not a traditional Cuban palomilla. Dessert might also be Nicaraguan -- the ubiquitous tres leches, an over-the-top layering of sweet textures that pleases the palate of the children of the island of sugar.
Hints of modern-day health-consciousness are evident in the chicken versions of vaca frita seen around town. (Havana Harry's claims authorship.) Casa Larios even makes a chicken Caesar salad with it.
Like so many things Cuban-American, the Miami Cuban menu was imprinted by the time of departure, the early 1960s. Thus, the free use of canned and frozen ingredients is motivated not just by economics but by the air of modernity and sophistication that then surrounded such things as canned petit pois.
Conscientious restaurants, however, use fresh ingredients and, eschewing trendy nuevo conceits, stick to recipes their owners brought here inside their heads. And though some will lay white linen on their tables and serve the food with élan, this tradition is, at its heart, home cooking.
In a town where every inch of urban space gets renovated every two years, the worn-in look of this Little Havana restaurant inspires comfort.
"This is the only place in town where they'll purée some malanga for your baby, " says Lidia González, who has been eating lunch at the same table for 20 years.
The name comes from a Cuban patriot, Luis Ayestarán y Moliner, who had a Havana street named after him -- the street where owner Rodolfo Lleonart grew up.
Ayestarán began as a grocery store in 1966. In a couple of years the store had its coffee shop, like most Cuban bodegas still do. And in 1975 it expanded into a restaurant.
Lleonart, who runs the business with his son Jorge and his nephew Orestes, boasts that the beef he serves is choice grade and is hand-cut at the restaurant. He claims his are the best Cuban sandwiches in town and that he sells more than 2,000 croquetas a week.
"We pass the recipes to each other verbally, " he says. Nothing is written down. And there is serendipity. "Once I had a whole box of cheese so I started experimenting with a cheese flan. Now we sell a hundred of them a week."
The menu is classic. Ajiaco every Monday, according to a tradition begun by an early 20th century Cuban president intent on boosting consumption of domestic foodstuffs. Tasajo is served with boniato, a Caribbean sweet potato that offsets the beef's saltiness. Still, there is room for a Miami invento: the chicken steak, a juicy breast paillard in which Lleonart takes particular pride.
Ayestarán has a bar, Club 27, with live music on weekend nights. On a weekday lunch hour, it's filled with gray-haired men in sports shirts and guayaberas, retired professionals and businessmen, all. La dolce vita, Little Havana style.
Ayestarán Restaurant, 706 SW 27th Ave., Miami; 305-649-4982. Entrees $8-$22.
LA ROSA RESTAURANT
Like Ayestarán, La Rosa is little changed since moving to Northwest Seventh Street in 1970, two years after its founding in Hialeah. José Vázquez, who calls himself a "gringo" because he left Cuba at age 3, bought the business from the original owners, Luis Hernández and Faustino García, three years ago, keeping the same staff. For the clientele, it's been a smooth segue.
"The other day I had four generations sitting at a table, " says Vázquez. "Many children have grown up here. And our customers tell us it's like eating at home."
La Rosa is known for rice dishes like arroz con pollo and paella, and makes them to order (expect a 50-minute wait). "Even the fried rice [a Chino-Latino staple] is made from scratch, " Vázquez says.
Other favorites include oxtail, bacalao and a stuffed filet mignon that sounds excessive -- butterflied, stuffed with ham and chorizo, topped with cheese and gratinéed -- but proves as delicious as Vázquez promises.
More formal than other Cuban restaurant, La Rosa is both a business lunch hangout and a favorite for family dinners presided over by patriarchs in tailor-made guayaberas.
La Rosa Restaurant, 4041 NW 7th St., Miami; 305-541-1715. Entrees $9.95-30.95.
It began in 1975 on Southwest 27th Avenue as El Teide, for a volcano in the Canary Islands, the original home of the García family. In 1977 it moved to its current location on Northwest 27th Avenue and became Islas Canarias.
"It was my dad, my mom and me, " says Nancy García Andrade, who runs a second, more luxurious branch in West Miami. "And we always had a very personal relationship with our customer, an intimacy."
García Andrade tells of a waitress of 25 years, now retired, who never asked the customers what they wanted. She would put a plate in front of them and say, "Eat this, it's delicious." And she never failed.
Eighty percent of the Islas Canarias staff is Cuban, she says after diligently checking a payroll printout. This accounts for the authenticity of the cuisine, although García Andrade insists the key has been to "stay loyal to my father's recipes."
And the tradition continues. Not only Nancy but her brother Santiago, her cousin Jesús and her husband, Luis Andrade, continue the work begun by her parents, Raúl and Amelia, now retired.
García Andrade keeps a tight rein on what in other Miami Cuban restaurant can be a vulgar abuse of spices. "I keep the cumin under lock and chain, " she says. "Cuban cuisine is identified with cumin, but it can rob a dish of sabor."
Indeed, some of Islas Canarias' dishes, like the moros, reveal a hint of cumin, but just a hint. "There isn't a típico Cuban restaurant in Miami like this one, " she says.
Islas Canarias, 285 NW 27th Ave., Miami; 305-649-0440; entrees $5.30-$14.95. Also 13695 SW 26th St., Miami; 305-559-6666; entrees $6.49-$23.
Opening in 1988, this was a late entry to the roster of Cuban classics, but owner María Teresa Larios has paid her dues.
"My husband, Quintín Larios, and I started working in Casablanca [Little Havana's oldest Cuban coffee shop, now gone] back in '73, " she says. "He worked in restaurants all his life in Cuba. And I ran my own in Chambas, a town in the Camagüey province."
Together, the Larios worked for restaurateur Felipe Vals (Versailles, La Carreta) at the now-defunct El Trianón on Flagler Street. In 1988, María Teresa asked her children to help her launch Casa Larios, with her husband running the kitchen.
"Customers would call my husband to tell him, 'I want you to make me some pig's feet a la andaluza, ' and he would oblige them, " she recalls.
Like the other successful Cuban restaurant, Casa Larios has managed to make its clientele feel, in María Teresa's words, "like they're in the dining room of their own house."
And like the other classics, the dishes originate with the paterfamilias, who still supervises the kitchen. "They're all Quintín Larios' recipes, " María Teresa says. "I'm proud my children have joined this business, which is not easy at all."
Her son Jorge is responsible for the old Cuban magazine and newspaper pages that wallpaper the Flagler Street location. The more posh South Miami branch also features Cuban memorabilia.
"We hire from the inside, " says María Teresa. The cooks begin as dishwashers and move up the line to make their signature roast chicken, vaca frita, lamb shanks and stewed oxtail.
And the family members themselves, she says, come to work not as owners but as employees. "If we're run out of green plantains to fry, one of us will go in the kitchen and start peeling them."
Casa Larios, 7705 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-266-5494. A second branch is at 5859 SW 73rd St., South Miami; 305-662-5656. Entrees $10.25-$24.95.
Broward County does not have the same Cuban density as Miami, but Padrino's is a family-owned Cuban restaurant with a similar menu and success story as the Miami-Dade emporia.
The Padrino family, who ran a fruit market and small winemaking facility in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, opened its first restaurant in Hialeah in 1976, with Cándida Rosa Padrino in the kitchen and her husband, Diosdado, running the business. In 1981, they relocated to Hallandale.
"One of their Hialeah customers had just moved up there and succeeded in enthusing them to open in Broward, " the couple's nephew, Roberto Padrino, says.
"My uncle told me that the location they bought was too small and customers had to be turned away when the restaurant closed at night, " says Roberto, who works in the family business. The Padrinos bought the present locale and eventually opened branches in Plantation and Boca Raton. An Orlando Padrino's is scheduled to be up and running by the end of the year.
Rosa passed away, but Diosdado, who is 93, is " 'retired' in quotes, " according to Roberto. The family patriarch still goes to the restaurants and starts "whipping the staff into shape, " Roberto says.
Padrino's offers the same island home cooking one expects at the Miami restaurants. Vaca frita, black beans, roast pork, grilled fish and chicken steak, all infused with the garlic and onion sabor of classic Cuban cooking.
Padrino's, 2500 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., Hallandale, 954-456-4550; Padrino's Plantation, 801 S. University Dr. (The Fountains), Plantation, 954-476-5777; Padrino's Boca Raton, 20455 State Rd. 7 (Mission Bay Plaza), Boca Raton; 561-451-1070. Entrees $8.79- $17.99.
Pan con Bistec ready to go from the sandwich station at Islas Canarias. Photo: Donna E. Natale Planas, Miami.com staff