Mofongo (Miami)

I always remember March 7th, 2020, a date that shall live in infamy.  I took my first trip down to Miami in over two years to attend an old friend’s funeral, visited my family for the first time in far too long, and got to hang out with my best friend on an epic foodie adventure day.  As you might remember (because it was a year ago today, but also feels like a decade ago, and possibly also last week), this was right before so much of the country started quarantining before the COVID-19 pandemic, so March 7th was the last day I ate any meals in a restaurant.  But I went out in style, because we ate at FIVE restaurants that day.  I have already shared my reviews of Polo Norte and El Santo Taqueria from that same legendary day, along with my review of the Fort Lauderdale Skyline Chili from earlier in the same trip.  But my last Miami visit and my last hurrah going out to dinner with friends culminated at Mofongo (https://www.mofongoscalle8.com/), a popular Puerto Rican restaurant on Miami’s festive, fun, and iconic Calle Ocho, the center of the expatriate Cuban and Cuban-American community.

This evening was the first time I had met my best friend’s girlfriend, who is just the coolest person, and a damn delight.  I was so happy to be out with both of them, at last.  She started out with some nice sangria:
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We shared alcapurrias de carne ($9.50).  These are crispy, crunchy fritters made out of either mashed green plantains, grated yuca, or both, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and deep-fried.  They were really heavy, but good.  This was my first alcapurria experience!DSC03029

This was the star of the show: mofongo de carne frita ($16).  Mofongo, the restaurant’s namesake dish, is a concoction of green plantains, which are sliced, then fried, then mashed up with garlic, salt, and crunchy chicharrones (pork rinds) in a wooden mortar.  Here at Mofongo (the restaurant), they serve mofongo (the dish) in tall wooden mortars that make attention-grabbing centerpieces for every table.  The mofongo itself is sculpted into a dome, its apex artfully adorned with awe-inspiring alimentary accoutrements.  This was A LOT of food for the three of us to share, especially since my friend and I had been eating literally all day.  Somehow our trio made it work. DSC03030

A close-up of the top of Mount Mofongo, with thick chunks of rich, salty carne frita (fried pork shoulder), translucent pink marinated onions, and colorful herbs over the golden dome.   DSC03032

Finally, the arroz mamposteao ($4.50) ended up being my favorite thing we had at Mofongo!  This side order of buttery yellow rice, stewed red beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bell peppers was one of my favorite rice dishes I’ve ever had.
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Almost a full year after this legendary night out in Miami, I finally found a restaurant that serves arroz mamoposteao in Orlando: Cafe Madrid, which I reviewed right here, almost two years ago.  It was good there too, so now I have a local hook-up.

This meal was the culmination of one of my favorite days ever — definitely my favorite day of the last 365, right before the way we had to live our lives changed forever, to protect ourselves and the people around us.  That’s why I’ll always remember the date of March 7th, along with the festive surroundings, the beautiful live music (my best friend’s girl knew all the Puerto Rican songs and explained them to us), the good food, and the wonderful company.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do something like this again safely, sooner rather than later, and we can remind our friends how much we love them and missed them over another delicious meal (or five).

El Santo Taqueria (Miami)

On my madcap trip to Miami in early March last year, right before the world changed forever, I spent a full day hanging out with my best friend and eating all over the city, including Cuban burgers and Cuban pizza for lunch at Polo Norte.  For dinner, we made our way down to Miami’s vibrant Calle Ocho (SW 8th Street), the center of the Cuban community, full of restaurants, bars, and vibrant nightlife.  It is so much more fun than pricey and pretentious South Beach.  While waiting for a table at our ultimate dinner destination (stay tuned, Saboscrivnerinos!), I spotted the lucha libre-themed El Santo Taqueria (http://elsantomiami.com/taqueria-home/), and begged my BFF and his lovely girlfriend to indulge me and stop in for a snack between our earlier snack and an impending huge, heavy dinner.

El Santo was maybe the most famous luchador, an iconic Mexican wrestler who was like a real-life superhero in and out of the ring.  He starred in dozens of movies, was the hero of his own long-running comic book series, and never took his silver mask off in public, staying in character for decades as a hero and champion to fans of all ages, never revealing his secret identity.  While (almost) everyone knows wrestling is staged “sports entertainment” here in the United States, lucha libre is a grand tradition in Mexico, and luchadores can become folk heroes and symbols of national pride.

As for me, when I first got into watching pro wrestling around 1998, it was the high-flying luchadores in WCW’s cruiserweight division that drew me in and made me a fan.  Those guys were awe-inspiring — smaller competitors who held their own against the big brawlers, defying gravity with insane flips and hurricanranas while wearing cool masks.  I followed WCW until it was subsumed by WWE, and then stuck around until 2005, drifting away after one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Eddie Guerrero, passed away, tragically and far too young.  Over the last year, which I spent so much of at home, the new wrestling promotion AEW got me excited to watch and follow pro wrestling again.  AEW Dynamite became my Wednesday night tradition, and it is pretty much everything I always wished WWE was, back in the day: lots of action, entertaining characters, long-running story arcs with real character development, comic relief, no huge egos, no backstage politics, and everyone doing their best work and putting each other over (making their opponents look good).

I could mark out about AEW all day, but this is neither the time nor the place!  Flashing back to March 7th, 2020, I saw that sign with El Santo’s intimidating visage leaning out over Calle Ocho in three dimensions, and I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.  Tacos beckoned!DSC03026

The walls are adorned with lucha libre-themed artwork:
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This poster caught my eye, as a Bowie fan:
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El Santo Taqueria also displays the masks of champions:DSC03017

And even their championship belts.  (Cue my wife, who loves to say that wrestling is all about big, burly guys brawling over an accessory, but will begrudgingly admit that AEW has grown on her.)
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My buddy and I shared an order of two carne asada tacos ($9), with marinated steak, queso fresco, chili crema, tomatoes, and cilantro on charred corn tortillas.  DSC03021

We also split an order of two al pastor tacos ($8): slow-roasted marinated pork served with charred pineapple, caramelized onions, and tomatillo salsa on the same charred corn tortillas.DSC03022

These were not giant tacos — which is fine, because we were on our way to a colossal dinner — but they were beautiful and packed with flavor.  Perfect appetizers.

I got a Jarritos mandarin soda (made with sugar cane instead of high fructose corn syrup) to wash down my tacos.  Here’s a helpful hint to improve your life — some 7-Elevens now offer Jarritos mandarin soda in the fountain, so you can fill a Big Gulp with the stuff.  I’m trying to quit soda completely, but I always enjoyed orange sodas, and this one might be the best.DSC03023

I’m so glad I spotted El Santo Taqueria, and that my friends indulged me, even on this great day of indulgence.  It wasn’t on our dining agenda, but when I see masked wrestling iconography and Mexican food, nothing is going to keep the Saboscrivner away.  As the rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids sang, ¡Viva el Santo!

Chain Reactions: Polo Norte (Miami)

The last day I ate a meal in an actual restaurant was March 7th.  I was hanging out with my best friend in Miami on my first trip down in over two years, and we made the most of that pre-pandemic day by eating at FOUR restaurants.  We started our morning with cafes con leche and Miami’s best croquetas de jamon at Islas Canarias in West Kendall, but then the real challenge began.  From there, we made our way to Polo Norte (https://polonorterestaurant.com/), a Cuban restaurant with five locations around South Florida, to sample Cuban pizza and Cuban burgers called fritas.

Feeling invincible, with a long day ahead of us, we started with a half-order of garlic rolls, or pan de ajo ($1.85):DSC03007

This was a personal pizza con chorizo ($7.95), with finely diced sausage baked under the cheese.  The cheese was appropriately melty, the dough was pretty soft with the expected crispy bottom, and the chorizo was salty.  Funny enough, it didn’t remind me of Mexican-style chorizo, red and crumbly and and perfect with eggs in breakfast tacos and burritos, nor Spanish-style chorizo, dry, rich, and spicy, like salami meant for the most special of occasions.  This chorizo was salty above all else, and the entire pizza was pretty greasy.DSC03009

We shared that, and we also shared this personal pizza con maduros ($7.95)!  Yesssss, since Polo Norte is a Cuban pizza joint, you can get sweet, ripe, fried plantains on your pizza.  Maduros are a top ten favorite food of mine in any form.DSC03008

These Cuban pizzas were okay.  Even though my life was more complete, it wasn’t necessarily changed for the better.  I’m so glad I tried them, after growing up in Miami and not even knowing these existed for my first few decades, but there are certainly better regional pizza styles to seek out, even when you’re in Miami.  (I’m a Sicilian pizza fanboy to this day, after so many slices from Cozzoli’s in the Dadeland Mall food court, growing up in Kendall in the ’80s.)

But while we were at Polo Norte, already the second stop on our day of gorging ourselves around Miami, we each had to get a frita con queso ($3.95 each), a Cuban-style cheeseburger that is famous around Miami and virtually unknown elsewhere.  Not only did my best friend and I have our first Cuban pizza experience at Polo Norte, despite growing up in the 305, this was also my first-ever frita. DSC03010

Since our trip to Polo Norte, I’ve become a little obsessed with the frita burger and researched it a lot.  I have experimented a lot more with cooking at home over the last year, especially during this quarantine period, and recreated the frita several times following this recipe from the Three Guys From Miami, to great success.

The burger patties are seasoned in a way that most burgers aren’t, with paprika, cumin, garlic, and onion.  Adding so many additional flavors to the meat before cooking it makes it a little like meatloaf, as far as I’m concerned, but I love meatloaf almost as much as I love burgers.  But instead of thick meatloaf sandwiches, fritas should still be thin burger patties smashed flat on the cooking surface.  A red sauce is often squirted onto it while cooking, adding to the savory flavors.  It is tangy, but not spicy, because Cuban food is rarely spicy.  Then the burger is served on a bun that has also been lightly griddled (either a Cuban roll or a regular soft hamburger bun) with additional onion, a squirt of ketchup, cheese if you want (I always want cheese), and a mountain of crispy julienned potatoes or commercial potato sticks.

I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to return to Polo Norte on future trips to Miami, just because those visits are so infrequent and short, there are so many great restaurants to try, and my best friend, my family, and I all have our own favorites already.  But if you’ve ever wanted to try a whole new style of pizza and find yourself down south, this is one of the leading places to experience Cuban-style pizza, and you should totally get a frita burger while you’re there.  I’m reasonably sure nobody serves Cuban pizza here in Orlando, so I’m especially glad I got to try them at Polo Norte last year.

Royal Castle (Miami)

A note to constant readers: I mistakenly published this review two weeks ago, while I was still working on it as a draft.  My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption.  For those of you who have already read and reveled in my Royal Castle review, regrets for the redundancy.

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Growing up, my dad would sometimes get nostalgic about the restaurants he used to frequent in Miami that were before my time.  So many dearly-departed delis for pastrami sandwiches, Lum’s for hot dogs boiled in beer (I was so surprised to see Lum’s and those legendary hot dogs referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last year!) and Royal Castle for tiny hamburgers and birch beer.  My dad doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” at all, and reads this blog with a mix of amusement and bemusement, but I feel like I became The Saboscrivner due in part to his influence.

A transplanted Brooklynite who moved to North Miami in his late teens, he always knew where to find the best hot dog carts, by-the-slice pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.  He had no problem packing us in the car for the hour drive from suburban Kendall to the North Miami Beach/Aventura/Sunny Isles area to take us to the much-missed Mister Coney Island and Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House.  That entire part of Miami was magical to me from childhood through my college years, with two good comic book shops, the legendary Blue Note Records, and a Toys R Us on NE 163rd Street that always seemed to have a better selection than the ones closer to us.  But those places are all gone now, like so much of Miami’s glorious, golden past.  (Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)

Anyway, my dad likes what he likes and sticks to the classics, but he was cool enough to step out of his comfort zone a handful of times to take us for Thai food (once; he claimed the spices made him angry), German food (once; he got weirded out when a bunch of people showed up in lederhosen and dirndls, but who could blame him?), and even a live jazz club on Miami Beach that served burgers and ribs, exponentially expanding my limited teenage horizons.  These were all big-deal formative experiences for me back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.

Royal Castle always stood out to me because it sounded like Miami’s homegrown version of the White Castle and Krystal chains, much like how Orlando’s beloved and long-standing Beefy King is the last bastion of a local chain that was once poised to compete with Arby’s back in the ’70s.  There were once over 150 Royal Castles spanning Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, but only one remains.  Founded in 1958, this Royal Castle is a true family business, sold to 28-year-old James Brimberry by the previous owner, his grandfather, “the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  See Carlos Frias, “Miami’s last Royal Castle slings its burgers and birch beer for a new generation,” Miami Herald (June 27, 2019).

Here’s another article about Royal Castle for additional background information:

Miami Herald Archives, “Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor,” Miami Herald (February 26, 2019).

By the way, Carlos Frias is one of my favorite food writers and an excellent person to follow on Twitter, whether you live in South Florida or not.  Earlier this summer, Royal Castle made his list of Black-owned Miami restaurant recommendations:

Carlos Frias, “Eat like a local at Miami-Dade’s black-owned restaurants. Here are some of our favorites,” Miami Herald (June 2, 2020).

But it was his June 2019 article I linked above that inspired me to seek out the last remaining Royal Castle on a quick overnight work trip to Miami last fall.  I had one free afternoon to grab lunch on the way down, so I decided to storm the Castle for myself.  Since they don’t have a website with a full menu, I was surprised to see they had a large diner-like menu with breakfasts, sandwiches, and sides — way more variety than I expected from a fast food burger place.  It’s definitely more like a diner than fast food as we all think of it.DSC02630

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I already love li’l slider burgers (see my Krystal review from last summer), and despite the other menu options that I wasn’t expecting, I made the special trip out of my way to Royal Castle to try their famous sliders.  I grabbed a stool at the counter and ordered this 6-Pack combo with cheese added to the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a lemonade, which was a reasonable $12.25.  (Unfortunately they were out of their famous birch beer, which I had really been looking forward to.)DSC02634

Close-up to see that nice melty American cheese, still the perfect burger cheese (and grilled cheese cheese).  I had just driven almost four hours and was starving and in a hurry to get to my destination, so I apologize for not taking more or better photos.  Rest assured there were steamed onions and pickle slices underneath the thin burger patties, and I made sure to apply plenty of ketchup to those fries and a dab on each slider.  DSC02635

In retrospect, I wish I had ordered more food, but I didn’t have the time to savor it or a fridge in my hotel room to safely store it.  They were perfectly fine little sliders that hit the spot and got me through a bunch of work schmoozing, but for me, it was all about making that pilgrimage, feeling that Miami history, and eating where my dad ate when he was probably half the age I am now.

The Northwest Miami neighborhood has seen better days, and the restaurant probably has too, but heck, so have I.  After this year, I think we can all say we’ve seen better days.  But it’s a testament to the Brimberry family that the last Royal Castle is still standing after 62 tumultuous years, still in the family, still proudly Black-owned, and still serving filling, flavorful fast food and a lot of local flavor as well.