José Mendín is ready to take us to Puerto Rico.
Even when he was fusing flavors at Miami Beach’s Pubbelly in such a way that it earned him five straight James Beard award nominations, his mind always was on the cuisine of his island home. And now, he says, it’s time to bring the flavors of Puerto Rico to the mainland.
Mendín has partnered with Puerto Rican soap star Julián Gil — the first person ever to give him a cooking job — and the owners of Balans restaurant to take over the recently closed MiMo district spot to open La Placita. The restaurant, a turnkey operation shooting for a late December opening, will offer Mendín’s interpretations of classic Puerto Rican fare.
No fusion. All island flavors.
“That’s what I’m shooting for, to make it an iconic Puerto Rican restaurant,” he said. “I want to bring my take on Puerto Rican food, a better version of it.”
For a Mendín, who was born and raised on the island, it’s actually a departure. Puerto Rican food is what he eats at home and with family. In his working life, he has often focused on bringing the Asian flavors he learned so well at Nobu to familiar Latin food, both at Pubbelly Noodle Bar and Pubbelly Sushi.
“I’m not known for cooking it. I’m known for eating it,” he joked.
Miami doesn’t have a landmark Puerto Rican restaurant. But Mendín feels the time is right, particularly since many Puerto Ricans left the island after Hurricane Maria and settled in Florida — and he’ll be employing many of those one-time evacuees.
When the storm forced him to temporarily close PB Ysla, his Pubbelly-style restaurant in San Juan, he found jobs for 15 employees in Miami at his restaurants. (He even put many of them up in apartments and family’s homes.) One of those, Jose Torres Cuevas, will be his day-to-day chef at La Placita.
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@laplacitamiami Opening December 2018 in MiMo (old Balans space) Well the cat is out of the bag, we are opening my 1st puertorican cuisine restaurant in Miami, this is a dream come true, can’t wait to bring el sazón boricua and a lot more surprises. Stay tune for more info. Junto @juliangil vamos a traer la mejor experiencia puertorriqueña!
The original La Placita de Santurce is a San Juan gathering place for food, drinks and music, the hub for after-hours street parties. And that’s what Mendín intends for the Miami version, with the Cocktail Cartel handling the drinks.
Gil’s celebrity status (and his 2.3 million Instagram followers) in Latin America will certainly bring in the crowds. Gil, a telenovela star who was born in Argentina but raised in Puerto Rico, invited Mendín to cook at his restaurant in Puerto Rico, Urdín, when the young chef showed an interest in cooking. A year later, in 1997, he came to North Miami’s Johnson & Wales. The two reconnected while Mendín was opening a Pubbelly Sushi in Mexico, where Gil was filming.
Back in South Florida, Puerto Ricans will be eager to introduce their fellow Miamians to their cuisine through Mendín’s skilled hand. Sure, there will be mofongo (mashed green plantains with heaps of garlic and pork), bacalaito cod fritters, acapurrias fritters, tripleta sandwiches and a carne guisada that is Mendín’s mom’s recipe. And, yes, there will be a pastelón de asado, a sort of shepherd’s pie made with sweet plantains, short rib and bechamel.
That’s classic. But his prospective menu also shows hummus de gandules (pigeon peas), a Frita Boricua, a riff on a Cuban hamburger, so he clearly is bringing his Miami influences. He has been working on his recipes over the last year at PB Ysla in Puerto Rico, trying out dishes that cross over.
“I want to go back to my roots because it’s very important to me,” Mendín said. “It’ll be very fun, bold flavors — something that’s never been done in Miami.”
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