El Mago de la Frita, the 25-year old mainstay on SW Eighth Street and 58th Avenue that serves up Cuban-style burgers, doesn't really need any extra publicity. The joint is always packed with Cuban viejitos and families grubbing on the $3 paprika-seasoned patties and shoe string fries nestled in toasted Cuban rolls.
But it received some unexpected attention last week when President Obama decided to oh-so-casually drop by unannounced, with Congressional hopeful Joe Garcia, a regular. This Saturday we planted ourselves at the counter, not exactly a bastion of liberal politics, to absorb some of the chatter. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on el presidente's menu choices.
When we walked in, el Mago himself, Ortelio Cardenas, had left his usual post manning the grill to chat with an older couple seated at a booth. There was a lot of hand flailing and laughter and we couldn't make out much, but it went something along the lines of President Obama blah blah blah damning the entire universe to hell blah blah blah.
"Is it true he was here?" I asked Maria Sanchez, the young waitress who took my frita order. "Oh yes," she said, her eyes lighting up. "He got six fritas with cheese and one without cheese--oh, and a Materva."
"Con queso?" piped up a curly-haired middle-aged woman sipping on a 7-Up. "Terrible."
"He was so nice. Really nice," continued Sanchez, in Spanish. "I would have gotten more nervous with any celebrity. He was so natural. And that smile..."
This being Little Havana, the epicenter of hard-line Republican politics, I ask her if other patrons were as excited as she was.
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"It's funny," she says, lowering her voice to nearly a whisper. "All of these older folks talk a lot crap about Obama. But the second he walks in, everyone is falling over themselves to get photographed with him."
Her statements prove true the second I approach el Mago and inquire about the surprise visit. "I feel like I won the lottery!" he exclaims. "Do you know what it is to have the president of the greatest nation in the world come visit me?" He proudly displays several photos of the encounter printed off the Internet. "It's a blessing from God."
"He could have gone to Versailles. He could have gone anywhere. He came here. I come here almost every day!" says a young guy with a large gold anchor medallion, who gets up from his seat to examine the photographs.
"But he got one with cheese," says a woman who appears to be his wife. "Cheese!"