Fritas are Cuban-style hamburgers, a beef patty seasoned with paprika and onions, griddle-fried, and stuck in a bun with a thatch of canned shoestring potatoes. It's the ultimate Cuban street food, eaten on the go from stands, and wolfed down in lieu of hot dogs at ballparks. It is the house specialty at El Rey De Las Fritas.
El Rey has been holding court on Calle Ocho for 25 years, its 20 stools occupied morning, noon, and night by locals seeking a low-cost, home-cooked alternative to nearby fast-food franchises. The room is small and a bit ramshackle, its white, teal, and orange-striped walls a funky mimicry of Howard Johnson's. The menu consists of bright photos of foods and beverages atop those walls, with prices and bilingual descriptions under each. Almost everything costs less than $3.
That would include the $2 frita ($2.25 with a slice of American cheese). The patty is highly seasoned, a bit greasy, and thin enough that degree of doneness becomes a nonissue -- in other words, just as a frita should be. The potato sticks provide more than enough crunch (and are filling), the white burger buns are delivered fresh daily. So is the bread used for the pressed Cuban sandwich, which, for those new to these shores, contains roast pork, boiled ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickle slices, and mustard. The softer, sweeter egg bread used for medianoches is likewise consistently fresh.
Another popular sandwich is the pan con bistec (which at $3.50 qualifies as the high-roller special), a thin slice of fried sirloin steak topped again with shoestring potatoes. These shoestrings lace through quite a few of the offerings, including the $2.95 breakfast sandwich of tortilla española (with or without ham), which contains a generous amount of omelet -- and puts the Egg McMuffin to shame. You can do even better with the $2.19 breakfast special of two eggs, ham, bread, and Cuban coffee (Fun Fact: Espresso contains less caffeine than any other roast).
Empanadas here are different than the South American varieties -- the large tortillas are folded over either guayaba (guava) or beef, the latter tasting like a frita in giant, deep-fried won-ton skin.
El Rey makes a wicked shake, batidos infused with a multitude of tropical fruits: banana, mamey, mango, papaya, watermelon, guarapo (sugar cane), and exotic-tasting guanábana (known in the Caribbean as soursop), a large custard apple whose often off-putting gelatinous texture is easy to take in a shake. Other batidos include chocolate, malt, and trigo, a vanilla shake blended with wheat puff cereal; in Mexico they make a similar beverage with raw oats.