The Song Remains the Same

As long as I've lived in this town, I've felt guilty for not being Latin.
Don't get me wrong. It may have taken my entire adolescence, but I did learn to love my identity -- my Jewishness, my femaleness, my Eastern European ancestry, my northeastern upbringing. All of those components combined have given me plenty of writing material. A rich culinary history and a host of eccentric relatives haven't hurt me either. So that's not the problem.

My difficulties arise when I review Latin restaurants. Depending on the color of my hair on any given day, I can look Hispanic; depending on my demeanor of choice, I can act it, too. But once I open my mouth, all is lost. I am the ultimate gringa. Consequent troubles range from the making of reservations to the interviewing of restaurateurs to the attracting of a waiter's attention. And true to form, rather than learning the language (I have a terrible ear for accents), I just worry about it instead.

I was fortunate in that my predecessors at this paper reviewed many of Miami's countless Cuban, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Argentine, and Mexican restaurants; on arrival here, I got to cut my teeth on rice and beans of varying hues at my leisure. But while revising the New Times restaurant capsules this past summer, I realized how long it's been since I've eaten in some of these places. This week I decided to close out the project by taking my gringa self to a bunch of different eateries that share several major characteristics: (1) They all serve a cuisine that's descended in some way from the Spanish; (2) they have two or more locations (well, La Casona doesn't, but so what?); and (3) most of them hire musicians with a relentless passion for "Guantanamera."

Here's how I fared:

La Casona
6355 SW Eighth St., Miami; 262-2828. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 1:00 a.m.)

I was really looking forward to dining in this airy, tiled restaurant, one of the most venerated Cuban cafes in the city. But so much went wrong with my meal here that I kept looking around for the candid camera.

For starters: A little late for our reservation, we wound up listening to live, synthesized Spanish tunes for an hour in the bar while waiting for our table, despite several reassurances that "we're just clearing it now." The reason for the stall became apparent as we were finally seated -- singer Maggie Carles was belting out Latin and American favorites to a highly appreciative crowd. I think I was the only one who didn't know the words to "Guantanamera."

La Casona's waiters could use some of Carles's orchestration. A busboy serving rolls dropped one on the table and chased it with tongs like a dog after his tail, never quite snapping it up. When he finally seized the errant bread, he placed it on my bread plate. I was hungry enough to eat it anyway; we were actually served four rounds of rolls before our food appeared, 45 minutes after we'd been seated.

Unfortunately, it was our entrees that arrived, completely bypassing the ham-and-chicken croquetas and fried plantains with caviar we'd ordered as starters. Realizing his mistake, the server took the dishes back to the kitchen, promising a quick return with our appetizers. But another waiter came by with a menu, claiming the restaurant had run out of the black grouper and herb-marinated shrimp wrapped in pastry that I'd wanted for dinner, and which I had just seen come and go. By this time I was both exasperated and exhausted -- it was after midnight -- but hunger made me stay. I ordered grilled swordfish instead and was finally happily munching away on four crisp and delicious croquetas and three meaty tostones garnished with mild sour cream and slightly salty black caviar when the waiter made another announcement. "We found one," he said.

He was referring to the seafood-stuffed pastry. Where did he "find" it, I wondered? In the oven, logic told me as I viewed the very brown specimen. To the restaurant's credit, this would have been delicate and flavorful had the grouper not been dry enough to splinter and the shrimp a mushy mess. Though overdone, the dough was rich and flaky, the creamy garlic salsa verde in which it was sitting a mellow complement. Buttered white rice and beautifully candied plantains rounded out the meal nicely.

Pork in malt sauce was a vast improvement. A plenitude of tender boneless pork cutlets was bathed in a dark, sweet sauce and accompanied by an accomplished version of rice and beans and those tasty plantains. And, by way of apology, our waiter bought us a round of drinks, the kind of gesture that won't make me stay for dessert but just might bring me back for a shorter, less stressful dinner someday.

Taquerias el Mexicano
1961 SW Eighth St., Miami; 649-9150. (Also 521 SW Eighth St., Miami; 858-1160.) Open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

This no-frills cafeteria serves three honest Mexican meals a day, and as a result is one of the few resources in the city for huevos rancheros (two fried eggs doused with ranchero sauce) and chilaquiles (tortilla chips simmered in green sauce and served with scrambled eggs). But knowledge of Spanish is a must for proper communication -- the restaurant doesn't have white wine but it does have vino blanco, and a request for a tamale appetizer led to our being served three full meals for only two people.

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