It's the Coffee, Stupid
Nothing made me realize more dramatically just how different living and eating in Miami was going to be than a conversation I had with a new Cuban-American friend shortly after I moved here; we were chatting about the main reason she could never live anywhere else in the United States. I expected the reason to be the weather. "The coffee," she said.
"C'mon," I scoffed. "There's good espresso, as strong as Cuban coffee, about everywhere these days! In fact you can get better coffee in San Francisco and Seattle than here."
"Not from a little window," she insisted. And nothing would shake her conviction that coffee from a window tasted different and better than the same stuff drunk ten feet away, indoors.
She was right. The reason may actually be the deliciously warm winter weather, or the warm, casual socializing that tends to happen more readily when one is standing in a parking lot than when one is sitting at an individual table, but coffee does taste better from a window. And the two-year-old Lakes Café in Royal Oaks Plaza has one. It also has top quality cortaditos -- plus an accompanying pick-me-up not available at average coffee windows: sugar or cinnamon churros, bargain-priced at twelve for $1.50-$1.60.
But by staying outside you'd miss some tasty, equally bargain-priced meals: the little luncheonette's menu is much more extensive than you'd figure from its size, running the gamut of Cuban cuisine's greatest hits from lechon asado (roast pork) -- available as a pan con lechon sandwich on Cuban bread or as a full dinner -- to an ambitious mixed seafood zarzuela (stew). The latter, at $12.99, is by far the highest-ticket item; most dinners average $6-$8, including fish dishes like a humongous fillet of baked salmon, topped with only mildly citrusy lemon sauce. All entrées, by the way, come with two sides. Fried plantains are just sweet enough. The unusually appealing tangy black bean soup is super. In addition to the fish choices (fifteen), there are many salads (five), and more yuppified beverage choices -- like Perrier -- than usually found at such a simple Latin eatery. But the best deals are Cuban classics like a $5.99 plato Cubano, featuring a rich corn tamale packed with pork as well as whole corn kernels, melt-in-your-mouth fatty chicharrones (fried pork rinds) that are worth every cholesterol point, slightly dry but big and meaty fried pork chunks, crisp plantain chips, and better yuca chips not listed on the menu that the cook threw in because he was feeling generous. And he was feeling even more generous regarding an order of croquetas surtidas; the $4.25 "appetizer" platter of assorted croquettes (strongly salty ham, moist ground chicken, and especially savory herbed cheese sticks vegetarians will love), came with what the cook described as "just a few extras"--thirteen instead of six -- well worth coming in from the coffee window.
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