Charlotte All the Times
From the front the Charlotte Bakery doesn't look much more encouraging than any of the many other sources, on this still relatively ungentrified stretch of Washington Avenue, for empanadas. But some of the fare inside is uncommonly tasty. This is especially true of savory pastries such as the $1.50 "mini-lunch" (ham and gooey white cheese wrapped in a warm croissant shell), which have flakier crusts and higher-quality fillings than most of Miami's South American street food. Generously stuffed arepas (usually $3, but the friendly counter folks have been known to charge only $2 on days when the stuffings are slim) make an especially satisfying meal.
A surprisingly ambitious starter was mojo shrimp, fresh Florida shellfish precisely sautéed with a mix of orange, lemon, and cilantro, then finished with a sauce of white wine and butter. More homey but equally good was a Venezuelan sampler including guayanes cheese (similar to mozzarella but looser), tequeños (dough-wrapped sticks of firm white cheese), a fried cornmeal tamal, two-bite beef empanadas, and housemade guasacaca sauce, a thinner and delectably tangier guacamole that went well with everything else on the platter.
Not just for show, the big grill turns out a respectable parrillada (flank and skirt steaks, chorizo and morcilla sausages, sweetbreads, and a beef sparerib) for one that's big enough for two.
At lunch, specials ranging from $5 to $8 include pesado frito, a platter of three well-seasoned fresh red snapper fillets, lightly breaded and fried. All lunch and dinner entrées come with a side (yuca fries recommended) plus a basket of savory oil-drenched garlic/herb rolls from the bakery next door.
There's a bit of crossover, incidentally, between café and bakery items. Since the cafés are strictly Venezuelan-style, it's a wise idea to stop next door on your way home to pick up some Chilean and Argentine empanadas, too. The Charlotte is one of the few Latin bakeries in this town where items are clearly labeled, making comparative taste-testing possible. The subtle but definite differences between the empanada styles of these three countries -- Venezuelan with a pulled pot roast filling, Argentine with a ground meat filling and puff pastry crust, and big Chilean babes with a similar but olive/egg-enriched ground filling and pielike baked dough -- is not only an interesting learning experience, but a darned good breakfast.
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