You've probably seen El Palacio de Los Jugos on your TV sets in recent weeks, located as it is on the corner of Flagler Street and Red Road, the epicenter of Elian-inspired demonstrations. (If the name doesn't sound familiar, maybe tear gas was obscuring the sign.) While it provides a colorful local backdrop to the action, El Palacio does even better as a marketplace with an array of fresh produce and island specialty items; a juice bar serving jugos naturales and shakes (batidos) made from mango, mamey, guanabana, guarapo, and other tropical fruits; and, most of all, as a Cuban food stand. Actually, two stands: one situated below a row of photos depicting the dishes served (soup, fried rice, oxtail, bistec de palomilla, all for $2 to $3.50), and another, photoless counter, the food from which I'll be discussing. Part of El Palacio's charm is that you can ramble under the ramshackle roof from one stall to another, then carry your pickings to the picnic tables out back.
Service is gruff but fast, on average about fifteen seconds for a three-item meal to be scooped from steam table to Styrofoam. The style may be that of institutional chow line, but the roasted chicken (pollo asado) and pork ribs both are very good, and the pulled morsels of juicy roast pork (lechón asado) are sensational. All main courses (of which there are three or four) come with a heaping helping of either bright yellow arroz con pollo or deliciously flavored red beans and rice (congri). You also get a generous hunk of boiled yuca with its traditional accompaniment of a garlic, oil, and citrus mojo sauce. Here they offer to pour the mojo over just about anything; it tastes good over just about anything, too. The bill for a full dinner comes to $4, which makes even Pollo Tropical seem overpriced. Other offerings include arepas ($2), sandwiches Cubanos, medianoches, and roast pork sandwiches (all $2.50), all of which match up favorably to anyone else's in town.
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The trick of steam-table dining is to avoid getting stuck with bottom-of-the-pan items. Sometimes luck will intercede, as it did when a kitchen worker dumped a fresh refill of plump pork into its allotted bin just as I stepped up to the counter. If something you want is low, though, request some from the back. How they comply is contingent on their having something ready to come out, and whether or not you can make your request in Spanish (most of the workers don't speak English). I usually frequent these places with a fluent interpreter beside me, but my wife was out of town. No problema when it came to ordering dinner, because I've lived in Miami long enough to know most Cuban foods by name. But even monolinguists can point through the glass sneeze guard and get what they want. When I asked for a written menu to take home, though, I ended up with a colada (for those who haven't lived in Miami long enough, that's one sweet, strong coffee with five teeny plastic cups).
El Palacio de los Jugos
5721 W. Flagler St (also at 14300 SW 8th St); 305-262-0070.
Monday through Saturday 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Sunday 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
There are Cuban markets throughout Miami-Dade that offer the same foods as El Palacio at similarly low prices. The quality here, though, is far superior to most, and sitting outdoors in the midst of this Cuban community adds an exciting on-the-road cultural dimension that one usually has to travel much further to achieve. It brought to mind bittersweet memories of Mexico, so emotional a musing that water welled up in my eyes. On second thought, that might have been owing to the tear gas residuals.