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If you live on South Beach, chances are you've walked down Washington Avenue and passed the tiny, triangular-shape La Molienda on many occasions, probably peeking in with piqued curiosity each and every time. It's an unusual space in that it takes the notion of storefront restaurant to the extreme -- there is no storeback, so all twenty indoor seats have a view out the front window; a dozen more chairs are lined up outside. Medellín natives Raul Vasquez and Lina Montoya set up shop seventeen months ago, and right from the start their cooks, Esperanza Montella and Maria Sierra, have been dishing fresh, flavorful, and scandalously inexpensive fare from an open kitchen on the right side of the room.
We started off with rounds of French bread served with two ceramic bowls, one filled with a fried onion and tomato dip, the other with a spicy sofritolike spread of jalapeño, onion, and garlic. A parade of appetizers followed -- at prices from 60 cents to $3, it's one of the few places left where I can afford a parade. At the head of the succession was a thick, fresh pork chorizo imported from Colombia, the mildly charred exterior crackling under the fork's pressure, giving way to a juicy cumin-and-chili flecked-center. The sausage matched well with maizitos con queso, slabs of white cheese with a basket of white arepas that were denser, drier, and more farina-ish than the sweet yellow version sold by Miami street vendors; in fact without the moisturizing effect of the sausage juices, they would have been too dry. Spears of neatly breaded and crisply fried yuca sticks arrived next, followed by chuzo de pollo, a wooden skewer speared through six meaty, exquisitely juicy squares of chicken breast basted with a mustard-based barbecue sauce; three of these could be regarded as a satisfying main course for less than $10.
Considering the propensity of poultry on the kebabs, the sparcity of such in the chicken soup (one lonely nugget) came as a surprise. Still the stock was chock full of yuca, diced potatoes, carrots, celery, and unabashed chicken flavor. We wanted to keep the parade going with chicken pie and Creole potatoes, but neither was around to participate -- Molienda tends to be missing menu items quite often.
Main courses are mostly meat, with only a paltry number of poultry picks and an occasional fish special available. Beef stew, flank steak, grilled pork, and bandeja paisa (the Colombian national platter of assorted meats), served with rice, plantains, and salad, are available for $9.50; another $3 will get you the Colombian steak, a hefty flank grilled and topped with stewed onions and two fried eggs. Nightly early-bird specials (before 7:00 p.m.), like Monday's chicken stew and Friday's grilled beef, come with soup, salad, rice, and plantains, for $6.
Next time you find yourself walking past La Molienda, don't just look in the window; step in, take a seat, and look out the window while enjoying a home-cooked Colombian meal in a friendly environment for less money than most restaurants charge for valet parking.