Utter the phrase "food by the pound" and any self-respecting gourmet will run for the hills, (okay, the swamps). Say it to a gourmand, and you'll witness a different reaction completely; most likely a stampede toward the nearest eatery offering comida por libra.
What's the difference? A gourmet is someone interested in fine food and drink; a gourmand is someone inordinately interested in food and drink. The first exhibits pickiness, perhaps even snobbishness. The second appreciates food in all its forms, as long as it's good, and especially if there's lots of it. A gourmet would disdain those Latin restaurants in Miami that specialize in serving preprepared comida por libra, or "food by the pound," cafeteria-style fare that's sold by the portion (or, for large groups and catering purposes, literally by the pound). A gourmand would give 'em a go anyway.
I'd like to be more of the latter, but I fear I'm more of the former. In general I dislike buffets, cafeterias, and food-bar restaurants where the food has been cooked in bulk and left sitting around, drying out or softening up, or doing what it's not supposed to be doing. Just walking into a comida por libra cantina can make my stomach clench.
There are some food-by-the-pound exceptions, I've discovered. Descended from Spanish tapas cafes, where the food is presented on the bars for customers to pick and choose, most of the restaurants that label themselves this way in Miami are Cuban, and they offer a wide array of choices. Pretty much everything you can think of when you think Cuban food: black beans, white rice, ropa vieja, picadillo, chicken cooked about ten different ways, yuca con mojo, plantains, tamales, and so on. Places like Blue Sky Food by the Pound (various locations in Miami-Dade) have 30 dishes steaming away simultaneously, and the turnover there is fast enough to ensure the fare is fairly fresh.
In fact the first Blue Sky, opened by Arturo Rodriguez in Hialeah in 1986 for $30,000, proved so popular the chain now has ten locations -- a pretty decent return on his initial investment, I'd surmise. I favor the second location in Miami Lakes, mostly for reasons of proximity. This past visit I found all of the dishes too salty for my taste, but the meat in the ropa vieja was tender and juicy, and the tamale I sampled was creamy, like corn pudding, and studded with crunchy pieces of pork. The plantains were perfectly caramelized, and the mixed black beans and rice, a trifle dry, were generously flavored with chorizo.
Blue Sky has other admirable qualities, particularly price. I spent about ten dollars for lunch for two, which included a Corona. Tips aren't required because there's no table service. Blue Sky is also a blessing to the working mom, who can stop by on her way home and pick up a full-course meal for her family. And it's ideal for large groups (here's where pricing-by-the-pound comes in). I know one family who has their Christmas day feast of roast suckling pig catered from Blue Sky, and I happily eat it with them every year. The pig is moist, succulent, and flavored heavily with onions and garlic.
As a gourmand or a gourmet, I'd still be pleased with Cuban Lite by Fat Busters (12234 SW Eighth St.; 305-225-2999), one of the more oxymoronic food-by-the-pound places I checked out. Fat Busters, as it is commonly known, isn't just comida por libra, it's comida sin grasa, or food without fat. Owner Thais Carreno developed a series of low-fat or nonfat recipes revising traditional Cuban fare, mostly as a way for her to lose weight. About 200 pounds later, she was so successful (and her friends so envious of her) she opened her take-out and delivery cantina in 1996. This past year she was awarded the Shining Light prize by Cooking Light magazine, and her recipes have been routinely featured in the food sections of the local daily papers.
Purists might disdain low-fat Cuban cooking, and others could outright disbelieve it: Fat-free Cuban food? Yet I found Carreno's recipes authentic, particularly her red beans, stewed without an unnecessary heap of water-retaining salt. Turkey meatballs in a vibrant tomato sauce spiked with bell peppers and turkey picadillo were also flavorful, but not dripping with fat, and a chicken fricassee was marvelous, like ropa vieja made with poultry.
For all its admirable qualities, Fat Busters does have several drawbacks. Both choices of rice, white or brown, were crunchy with dehydrated kernels, and the choices on the evening I visited were limited (no black beans, for example). Plus, hours are odd, and only a couple of tables are available in this storefront restaurant. Because Fat Busters is essentially a delivery service, the best way to enjoy it is to live in the neighborhood, and order from the weekly menu. For one person five days' worth of dinner service costs $34.92. You can choose from several entree options, including tuna-stuffed peppers, Spanish omelet (with egg substitute), or chili con turkey. And for dessert, naturally, there's low-fat flan.
Gourmets and gourmands would part company at Delicias de Espana (4016 SW Red Rd., Coral Gables; 305-669-4485), with gourmands moving on to a cafeteria where they don't have to wait for the fare to be brought to the table. At this Spanish market-cum-eatery, the food is preprepared and catered by the pound. But rather than steam-table all the dishes, portions are microwaved on demand. This can bring disappointing results. Items such as quiches and croquetas become soggy, which is a shame because the former is wonderfully rich and the latter perfectly seasoned. But the method works fine for most of the cuisine, which I can only describe as gourmet. From the roast leg of lamb, a pound-size portion of musky meat served in its own juices, to the salmon escabeche, flaky fish marinated with olives, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, the food was uniformly delicious. I was particularly impressed by the tangy, olive oil-laden ceviche, which contained supple chunks of octopus and squid in addition to an assortment of onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes. There is also a variety of tortillas and omelets combined with everything from red peppers to spinach to potatoes.
One advantage Delicias de Espana (whose owner Ernesto Llerandi has been in the culinary business about 30 years) has over the other food-by-the-pound eateries is sweetly polite table service. The servers will also bring made-to-order fare for breakfast and lunch, if you hit the right hours. Another benefit in snacking at the market is the authentic products it carries: rioja wines, olives stuffed with smoked salmon, sardines and anchovies, Manchego cheeses, and dozens of cured hams and sausages. It's possible to make a meal, or at least a tapas-style buffet, from a platter of sliced meats and cheeses, accompanied by homemade rolls or freshly twisted croissants, which are baked during the height of business every half-hour.
Speaking of baking, it would be downright rude to walk out of this pleasantly appointed market without consuming at least three desserts: the creamy flan; the custard-based tropical fruit tart topped with strawberries, pears, and kiwis; and the superbly composed tarta de Santiago, the classic Spanish cake filled with crushed, candied almonds.
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Still I almost left without sweets when I caught sight of the whole suckling pig that had been prepared for someone's catered celebration; I wanted to follow it out the door to the party so I could sample some. So much for my self-imposed snobbery. Blue Sky might make me feel at times like a slumming gourmet, but thanks to Delicias de Espana, I'm already in danger of becoming a gourmand.
Blue Sky Food by the Pound No. 2
6452 NW 186th St, Miami Lakes; 305-364-0801. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily 9:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m.
Cuban Lite by Fat Busters
12234 SW Eighth St; 305-225-2999. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday to Friday 8:00 a.m. till 7:00 p.m; Saturday till 2:00 p.m.
Delicias de Espana
4016 SW Red Rd, Coral Gables; 305-661-9610. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Monday to Friday 7:00 a.m. till 8:00 p.m; Saturday till 6:00 p.m. Sunday breakfast and lunch from 7:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m.