Fill 'Er Up on Fine Wine and Tapas

Some of the best tapas in Miami can be found at a gas station.

"Right," you say. "I want some of what he's been smokin'."

My response is simple: Yes, that's right. And, no, you can't have any.


El Carajo International Tapas 305-856-2424

Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

If you don't believe me, then join the sludge of traffic oozing up South Dixie Highway to SW Seventeenth Avenue and pull into the Citgo on the corner. Enter the classically generic gas-station convenience store, walk past the motor oil and potato chips and icky-sweet sodas, and there it is.

It, in this instance, is El Carajo, a cute, tiny, and almost ridiculously charming wine and tapas bar in the unlikeliest of locations. Go in for a tank of unleaded and a lottery ticket, and come out with a stomach full of gambas al ajillo and good rioja. How cool is that?

Note there has been some controversy about the name. According to various Internet dictionaries, carajo means either a man's naughty parts, a woman's naughty parts, the crow's nest of a Spanish galleon, or the expression "Go (commit an anatomically impossible act on) yourself."

I may not know much about linguistics, but I do know something about food. And if you don't run right out and order a whole slew of tapas and a bottle or three of wine from El Carajo's well-chosen, multiculti selection, you will have committed an anatomically impossible act on yourself.

One thing you won't need to worry about is El Carajo committing an anatomically impossible act on you. Not only does the place have an expansive roster of fine wines and champagnes and a menu of tapas and main plates half as long as a hose, but also it is amazingly, blessedly, extraordinarily cheap.

Take the tabla de carne. It costs $18 and supposedly feeds two. But it could easily choke three and quite satisfactorily fill four. On a thick wooden paddle come several pieces of rare-grilled skirt steak, three succulent lamb chops, two thin pork chops, an entire chicken breast pounded into a paillard (and a trifle overcooked), a plushly textured blood sausage, a fat link of savory-sweet chorizo, plus big chunks of fried potato and roasted red, green, and yellow bell peppers. It is not only a lot of food, but also a lot of good food.

El Carajo boasts great wines too — approximately 2000 bottles. And like the food, they are an exceptionally good deal. Wander the shelves, stacks, and generously stocked cooler; find your preferred wine; and pay retail plus $10 to have one of the friendly, personable servers pour it with your meal. You could choose from French, Italian, California, and Chilean producers, but considering El Carajo is a tapas bar, and wines from Spain are some of the tastiest and most reasonably priced on the market today, well, the choice is clear. Especially if it's the 2001 Abadia Retuerta, a beguiling blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot that tastes of smoke, plums, and chocolate — and goes down like liquid silk.

It also plays well with almost anything on the menu — from those wickedly garlicky gambas, to plump mushrooms napped with an unctuous Cabernet reduction that picks up the chocolate in Abadia, to a lovely salpicon of shrimp, octopus, scallops, clams, and (rather chewy) mussels in a slightly warm, perfectly balanced vinaigrette.

Save a sip for the rich, creamy guanabana flan and you will enjoy a delightful ending to the best meal at a gas station you will ever, ever eat.

But you still can't have any of what I've been smoking.


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