"I know what good home-style Mexican food is supposed to be about," a friend of mine told me recently. "I've just never had it." That's understandable: She lives in Miami. Oh sure, we've got a couple of long-standing joints (Paquito's in North Miami Beach and El Rancho Grande in South Beach) with decent fare and loyal clientele. But these eateries are too pricey for your basic burrito and are far too crowded. Homestead, with its migrant Mexican community, can be fairly reliable with places like El Toro Taco and Casita Tejas, though even here the fire has been dampened: The chilies are kept quiet for fear of offending the gringo palate.
What my friend -- and I -- have been looking for in a Mexican restaurant may exist in California or Texas or other border states, where a healthy number of spicy, reasonably priced eateries compete for discerning patrons. But until El Fogon showed up on the scene last fall, the gulf that separates the Florida peninsula from Mexico seemed ever widening.
El Fogon, located on Coral Way, is subtitled "The real Mexican food." I can't disagree. For one thing the place is cheap. Try the $5.99 lunch special, which varies by the day but is guaranteed to be so much food you'll fall asleep at your desk at work. Or order a hefty torta (sandwich) with grilled steak and melted cheese for $4.50, which comes with French fries. Plentiful portions challenge the heartiest appetite: An appetizer of panuchos, three soft tacos lightly griddled and overflowing with cochinita pibil (marinated shredded pork), could pass as a main course. And El Fogon doesn't pander to Americans by clogging the walls with cheap Mexican souvenirs and serving fare so mild it could be compared to a Florida spring day. Instead rose-hue walls with ocean-blue accents soothe diners who are being infused with a slow, steady burn from dishes such as tortilla soup. (Very little English is spoken here, so bone up on Mexican Spanish phrases before you come.)
Everyone has their own vision of what tasty Mexican cuisine should be, so here's mine: Mole, mole, mole. Like Indian curry, mole is a complicated combination of chilies and spices, and every cook has his or her little secret in making it. The most famous type of mole includes cocoa, but that doesn't mean the sauce should taste like thick hot chocolate. Rather it should have many different qualities that hit the palate at different moments, including sweet, bitter, and hot. The mole at El Fogon, which was drizzled over a main course of pastel azteca, freshly fried corn tortilla strips and huge clumps of shredded, white-meat chicken, was authentic and ideal.
You can also think of pastel azteca as innovative nachos. Or try the espinachos as a starter. These eight or ten tortilla chips are individually loaded with refried beans, guacamole, and melted cheese. Freshly sauteed leaf spinach is a crowning touch, adding color and texture to the gooey triangles. What distinguishes these nachos, however, is the quality of both the refried beans, which had a beefy but not fatty flavor, and the superior guacamole, chunky with avocado and tomato.
Once your fingers are coated with drying refried beans, you might as well dig into a make-it-yourself appetizer of queso fundido El Fogon. This tureen of melted cheese hides a wealth of crumbled sausage, and though this can be too oily, the warm flour tortillas provided alongside soak up some of the grease. (We drained ours before eating it, if only to salve that cholesterol-stricken conscience.) Slightly less messy but no less delicious, the molletes El Fogon starter consisted of two long pieces of toasted bread spread with refried beans, melted cheese, and a choice of ham, bacon, or sausage. It's kind of like French bread pizza, but Stouffer's never made it so good.
El Fogon offers the usual assortment of tacos, burritos, and tostadas. The fajitas sounded somewhat costly at $15.95, but the huge sizzling platter, big enough for two to share, proved it a bargain. I like to look for the dishes peculiar to an establishment, however -- those that speak to the personality of the cook in the kitchen. I found it here in the preponderance of egg offerings on the menu: chilaquiles topped with two fried eggs; scrambled eggs with onions, jalapenos, and tomatoes, served over fried tortillas; and huevos rancheros, fried eggs with ranchero sauce and refried beans dished up over tortillas. Huevos motulenos took huevos rancheros one delicious step further. Soft corn tortillas were slathered with ranchero sauce and refried beans. On top of that, a layer of chopped ham and sweet green peas dotted the terra-cotta landscape. The pile quivered with the addition of three over-easy eggs, which released their rich yolks when gently pierced with the tines of a fork. Forget eggs Benedict. Long live huevos motulenos!
Still, the specialty of the house is the cochinita pibil, and justly so. The shredded pork can be ordered in a number of ways, including in a torta, a taco, or a burrito. It's best savored, I think, on its own as an entree, stuffed into plantain leaves and served with beautifully arranged side dishes of Mexican rice (not overcooked, as it too often is in local Mexican joints), refried beans, and guacamole. The attention to detail in the plating of food distinguishes El Fogon yet again from our other Mexican eateries.
The owners could turn that eye to the wine list, which presently offers of a rack of a reasonably priced rioja or two. Beers include the standard Dos Equis and a slightly more bitter Negra Modelo, as well as the omnipresent Corona. But dessert needs no fixing. We fought over a crepelike sweet, crepas con cajeta, its layers of light dough interspersed with dulce de leche and topped with vanilla ice cream. Not fried ice cream, thank God, but a Mexican sundae.
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Once every couple of years, it seems, restaurateurs in Miami notice that we're short of Mexican restaurants. Then a few open at the same time. This year, in addition to El Fogon, Oaxaca and Oh! Mexico are readying themselves to deliver us south-of-the-border fare on South Beach, and La Gloria is set to open in Coconut Grove. But the study of history tells us it's possible to predict the future, and frequently only one of the crop of Mexican restaurants survives. Now, thanks to El Fogon, the standard has been set, and the gauntlet thrown.
2091 Coral Way; 305-856-3451. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 11:00 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Sunday from noon till 10:00 p.m.
Sopa de tortilla $4.00
Molletes El Fogon $4.95
Queso fundido El Fogon $7.95
Pastel azteca $12.95
Huevos motulenos $5.