Jefe's Original Fish Taco & Burgers is nothing new to Miami. The yellow-and-orange surfer-themed truck that features "vatos making tacos" has been on the scene since in 2010. The truck is still rolling, but it now has a brick-and-mortar eatery in North Miami.
Located at 12581 Biscayne Blvd. in a shopping mall across from Johnson & Wales University (and only a few blocks from the weekend madness of Home Depot), the little café still has no sign proclaiming its arrival, but once you're inside, there's no denying you're in the right place.
A black-and-white surfer mural dominates one wall, and bamboo covers the counter, which is where you'll find Jefe's owner, Jack Garabedian.
He's been working on this permanent Jefe's location for more than a year and a half, with the doors finally opening a few days ago. He didn't plan for the spot to take this long to launch, but now that it's open, it's clearly his baby, as evidenced by the way he greets every person at every table, checks each taco before presentation, and mentors his staff in proper Jefe procedures.
The menu expands on the truck's offerings. Items include grilled sandwiches such as the Big Boss BLT ($9), the Gobbler (roast turkey, Havarti, bacon, tomato, banana pepper rings, and mayo on Texas toast, $10), and hot pastrami ($10). Salads for the Soul are a nice touch for the summer months and include a wedge ($9) and the Tijuana Cesar ($9). There are also seven burger options, ranging from a simple burger ($4) to the Gringo Ese ($11.50), a monster of a sandwich that tops a beef patty with mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese dressing, Monterey Jack cheese, crisp fried onions, and tomato.
Of course there are tacos. Jefe's serves pork carnitas, beef machacca, New Mexican yardbird (chicken), and Ensenada-style fish tacos. At most joints, if ask what kind of fish is served in fish tacos, you'll probably get a shrug. Garabedian explains that his fish changes daily based on what's good, but he likes to choose Pacific seafood. Last night's tacos were made with dorado. Add some guacamole ($1.25 extra), a squeeze of lime, and a hint of house-made hot sauce (included, but ask for it), and you've got a bite bursting with flavor. At $2.50 each, they're a bargain.
The Tijuana Cesar is a delightful surprise. Romaine lettuce is tossed with house-made caesar dressing and then topped with fresh coita cheese. Croutons are replaced with crisp tortilla strips and fried capers. The salad is served with a lemon wedge that makes the simple meal pop. According to Garabedian, caesar salad was actually invented in Tijuana, so it made sense to include it on his menu.
The only possible complaint about the meal is the lack of a cold beer to go with the tacos. Garabedian is working on that, but for now a large selection of Mexican sodas, juices, and sparkling waters is available.
Though the little taco shack has no PR machine behind it, the joint was jumping on a recent Tuesday evening. Garabedian says he's relying on word of mouth from "stalkers," people who follow the truck on Twitter and Facebook.
The fact that the restaurant serves honest food at honest prices (dinner for two was an easy-to-digest $25), along with attention to detail (burgers are made with Angus beef and all sauces are made in-house, including the spicy ketchup that comes with the real-deal fries), should ensure its success.
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That's great news, because Garabedian hopes to open four other locations, using his food truck to "test the market" in select neighborhoods before committing to brick-and-mortar spots.
Jefe's Soul Shack is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Credit cards are accepted, but bring cash for a tip.