Hail the Ancient Churro

If life were fair and rational, every corner in Miami where a Dunkin' Donuts now stands would instead house a churro shop. In a burg whose population is more than 50 percent Hispanic, there's no excuse for eating fried sawdust. It was the Spaniards, after all, who invented the heavenly alternative -- soft cake inside, super crisp outside -- almost a thousand years ago. Whether the original creators were Spain's Sephardic Jews, Moorish invaders, or the most popular legend, herders of an ancient breed of Spanish sheep called churros, Hernando Cortez reportedly brought the pastry to the New World in 1511. So it isn't like churros just need a little time to catch on.

Why they haven't, possibly, is that though churros are simple to make (they're just dough pushed through a star-shaped pastry tube), it's not simple to find good ones. The deep-fried crullers' unique ridges, which expose maximum surface to the hot oil, also expose max surface to the air, so churros dry out rapidly. Within an hour or two out of the fryer the texture of most rivals *CQ sheetrock. The star shape also picks up "off" flavors easily, necessitating frequent changes of cooking oil. And for best effect, pairing this Old World treat with a New World invention, real hot chocolate, is required; in Spain, chocolate and churros have practically been the national breakfast since the Sixteenth Century. Most Latin bakeries here, however, seem to find the cheap snack sticks more trouble than they're worth.

But never underestimate American ingenuity, North or South. In the late Twentieth Century, some ingenious New World mind (in either California or Argentina; several companies claim credit) discovered how to hollow out churros and stuff them with custard and fruit fillings. Here in Miami the results can be sampled at Manolo, a six-month-old eatery whose owner for 25 years operated a restaurant in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Manolo's churros come filled with custard, chocolate, or dulce de leche, for 50 cents each. For purists, plain "autentics churros plain" are just 35 cents.

The "creamy custard" was more than a bit too starch-thickened. And the chocolate filling was made from imported Belgian chocolate, but was actually chocolate custard, so didn't have the bittersweet intensity of a pain au chocolate. Dulce de leche, however, was dreamy. And the fresh, still warm plain churros were perfect. For chocoholics who need to kick up the jolt, three varieties of whipped cream-topped hot chocolate are available. Don't be a wimp. The Spanish style was dark, bold, and beautiful.



7300 Collins Ave, Miami Beach

305-868-4381. Open daily 8:00 a.m. to midnight

Manolo is actually much more than a churrería, or even a Latin bakery, despite a variety of scrumptious sweets, like a knockout creamy flan or soft, rich bread pudding served with dulce de leche or light cream. Huge breakfasts, served all day, seemed the most popular crowd-pleaser on a recent midafternoon visit, thanks to quality ingredients. A $7.50 all-American combo included three large sunnyside-up eggs, home fries, bread toasted on the grill, applewood-smoked bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and eye-opening café con leche. The size of the huge platter almost made dessert impossible. Almost. But Manolo's profoundly chocolate (almost black) gelato made a for-dollar cone a must-not-miss. Both gelato and waffle cone were homemade.

On another visit, a barely chocolate milkshake was disappointing, as was the $11.75 house-special planchita combo entrée. The two skewers of tough alleged filet and chicken breast (plus onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and bacon) came with the meat dramatically overcooked, and without the advertised "famous creamy dipping sauce." But a "trademark filet sandwich" was succulent, even though it was impossible to get the five-ounce steak cooked anything short of medium. The shoe-size flat filet -- which was very tender but tasted much more flavorfully beefy than usual filet mignons, more like a hanger steak -- came topped with fontina cheese, smoked ham, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and green olives, in a Catalan loaf, slightly sweet like a medianoche roll and, as with all Manolo's baked goods, made in house.


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