Big Boast, Small Roast
It seems like only months ago that the new restaurant Oaxaca was moving into the 26-seat space on Washington Avenue now occupied by Ernie's Amazing Burgers. As a matter of fact, it was just a few months ago. But Oaxaca is no more. Never was, really. For unknown reasons the owners never bothered to incorporate that region's cuisine (some of Mexico's finest) in their menu. I suppose they called it Oaxaca because it sounded good. Ernie's now inhabits this rectangular room, and it has inherited not just the contemporary décor of its predecessor but also the ghosts of deceptive promotion.
Here's what the owners of Ernie's should have done: researched hamburgers in cookbooks and food magazines. Eaten at places renowned for great burgers, even if it meant traipsing outside Miami-Dade County. Sampled different types of buns from bread wholesalers until they found the best. Experimented with seasonings and created signature garnishes or relishes or dressings. Come up, in other words, with an amazing hamburger.
Here's what the owners of Ernie's did: came up with a plan to serve a grilled eight-ounce patty of chopped meat on a regular bun, with tomato, red onion, field greens, and French fries on the side, for $5.95 (extras are 75 cents each). It's a decent burger, nice and fat, but there is nothing amazing about it. Unfortunately this is not just Ernie's problem but is standard operating procedure for many South Florida restaurateurs. Instead of putting in the effort to create great food, they put their energies into producing clever names and effective marketing strategies to make us think it's great. LBJ had a term for this: big hat, no cattle.
Ernie's also serves salmon, turkey, and veggie burgers, sandwiches, salads, and sides. On one occasion, when the restaurant was practically empty, it took 25 minutes to get a tuna sandwich and potato salad to go, a dubious feat made possible only by a front-and-back-of-the-house team effort of astounding neglect (although they were, I'll admit, friendly people, and apologetic about the whole thing). As for the tuna salad, it was filled with chopped peppers, red onion, and carrots, but the sandwich was marred by slimy field greens and a "baguette" that turned out to be a plain old sandwich loaf. I took just one regrettable bite of the commercially made potato salad. It was old.
Hype has always played a part in the restaurant business (Letterman used to walk the streets interviewing coffee shop owners who had signs in their windows proclaiming, "The World's Best Cup of Coffee"), but the supporting role of pride in product increasingly has been written out of the script. Take Ernie's French fries -- please. They're the same crappy frozen ones served in coffee shops: wide, flat, and insipidly pale. Those research sources for burgers are also available for anyone interested in making superior French fries. You'd think the owners of a business that specializes in serving these two foods would be among those most interested in acquiring such knowledge, but apparently not. Now that's amazing.
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