Custard's Last Stand

Three years ago, when I sang the praises of the original Casa Larios on NW Second Street near the Mall of the Americas, I deemed its Cuban cuisine some of the most authentic in Dade County, especially taking into account our miserable, multicultural times, when one is never sure which intrusive culinary source -- be it Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Colombian, or whatever -- toils in the kitchen, amending and altering the experience to its detriment. Ethnocentrism has no place in civilized society, but in the rudimentary realm of the kitchen, it does -- and should.

Casa Larios remains an excellent restaurante tipico, a frills-free place to go for highly seasoned, home-style Cubano classics such as oxtail stew, picadillo, roast lechon, breaded steak, boliche, and a cornucopia of Cuban sandwiches and Latin desserts (regular or cheese flan, rice pudding, natilla custard). At Larios the cooks understand the components that make for a memorable Cuban meal: the garlic and bitter-orange and lime juices of a good mojo marinade; the sofrito, that fundamental blend of sauteed onions, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, and spices that lays the strategic groundwork for such disparate dishes as ropa vieja and enchilado de camaron. Like Cuba, Larios is an island unto itself. From the domino-playing Calle Ocho crowd to society matrons from Hell, everyone -- le tout Miami -- feasts there.

But the story of South Florida is one of consistent change tempered with an equally persistent fickleness to which no critic can be immune. Now that Larios on the Beach has landed on the sand-strewn thoroughfare of Ocean Drive, I'm tempted to recast my vote in favor of the new restaurant. True, the food isn't quite as flavorful as Casa Larios's, but it manages very well in terms of combining authentically homespun cuisine with a quintessentially contrived pizzazz of the sort that has justly propelled Ocean Drive to national -- no, international -- prominence. Let there be no doubt about the menu -- it is in every way a true product, faithful to its origins and inspirationally rekindled. Patrons accustomed to the ubiquitous synthetic/creative cuisine of a vast majority of restaurants on the drive will doubtless be disappointed. Larios on the Beach echoes the Beef Council's motto, "real food for real people." And thus far, the nostalgic aromas and tastes of la vieja Cuba have been reeling in even the most humanoid of Beach replicants. Admittedly a dubious encomium, but one worth noting.

In a sense, the idea of this Larios overrides the reality. Located right beside News Cafe in a building complex owned by that salsarific homecoming queen, Gloria Estefan, the restaurant reeks of partydom. It's impossible to conceive of a more festive ambiance than a Cuban dining room in full swing, but Larios on the Beach has managed to heap one extreme upon another. The extraneous noise factor is shrill enough to make Hurricane Andrew's "awful howl" sound like the dulcet tones of Olga Guillot, but that's the price one pays for the effervescent energy and vitality of Larios on the Beach at night. As for raising decibels to levels that would make a hearing composer out of Beethoven, the compensatory pleasures on one's plate balance it all out.

The food can be variable at times. I was a little unlucky on two visits with two appetizer croquettes ($1.75), which were beautifully crisp upon frying but whose chicken filling was as cold as a sarcophagus -- a far cry from the magnificent croquetas my grandmother used to make when I was a child. Conversely, the corn tamale ($3.50), served in its husk and covered with tasty morsels of pork, was every bit as good as hers, and tender and moist almost to a fault. I was less happy with the ceviche ($6.75), which was as tough and bland as the Quayle family and seemed to lack sufficient marinade time. (This is the Cuban version of a South American classic, meaning that some of the cilantro and jalapeno pepper flavors are missing). Other appetizers include meat-stuffed potato ($2.95), plantains with garlic mojo ($2.95), a better-than-normal shrimp cocktail ($8.50) and the delightful fried pork chunks ($4.75), the perfect compliment to a frozen lime daiquiri.

With the exception of ropa vieja and rabo encendido, most of the traditional favorites of Cuban fare are offered at Larios on the Beach. They're slightly more expensive here than at Casa Larios, too. But remember, compare the outlay at a Cuban restaurant with that of any other ethnic or high cuisine -- it remains a steal. I was amply rewarded by the bistec empanizado ($7.85), a province-size slab of pounded and breaded fried steak served with white rice and black beans. Other recommendable items include a good, if not front-rank, shrimp creole ($10.95) and a tasty pork loin ($8.75).

About the beans, though: they're a disgrace. One of the oldest tricks in the omnivorous Cubano's trade is to take about a fourth or fifth of the beans and puree them as a thickening measure -- texture and taste being equally important. Alas, Larios's are as watery as bilge, and offer no more of a taste sensation than canned stew. A far cry from the concoction of the eastern Cubans (the orientales who actually grow black beans on the eastern end of the island prefer red kidney beans, hence the difference between congri and moros y cristianos). Black beans can only scale heights when laden with garlic, onions, green pepper, a dribble of Spanish olive oil, a sprinkle of oregano, cumin, and sugar, and a dash of vinegar. Some have even taken to adding red wine to the beans prior to the final cooking phase, and letting them sleep overnight. Beans are an art form when properly handled; unfortunately, Larios on the Beach seems to take the Mel Brooks approach to them -- a fart joke.

The restaurant comes to dessert exultantly. There are five types of flan -- regular, cheese, pineapple, mamey, and coffee -- plus an extraordinarily unctuous rice pudding, and natilla (all $3.50). The mamey flan, in particular, has the appealing voluptuousness of a sex kitten, rosy and inviting and sinful all at once. A masterpiece of tropical fruit and custard.

And by the way, in closing: Larios on the Beach automatically adds a fifteen percent gratuity to one's check. This will doubtless make mathematically dim-witted patrons at dinner's end supremely happy. For the more arithmetically adept -- and irredeemably miserly -- members of the gang, best to put a blissful face on it, for the service, considering the cattle-drive combustion during peak hours, is attentive and sure-footed. Even if one thinks tipping is a province in China, the waiters are hard to fault -- or remunerate charitably in these post-cyclone days.

LARIOS ON THE BEACH 820 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 532-9577. Open Sunday -- Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Fiday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.


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