One of the things I like about Mexico is that the Eiffel Tower isn't there. Nor is the Colosseum, Big Ben, or any other "must-see" attraction that might distract from a more immediate bonding with the country's present-day culture by which, of course, I mean indulging in the indigenous foods. According to many people, including my wife, a trip to the Yucatán necessitates visiting the Mayan ruins, but I don't make a big deal about it I know that at the end of the dusty trek we will reconnect with the native people by dropping in at our favorite panucho stand on the main street in Chichén Itzá.
Homestead has even fewer tourist sites than Mexico. Mostly people stop here on weekend hops to the Keys or Biscayne National Park, to shop for antiques or pick a peck of the pulchritudinous produce that peppers the neighboring farmlands. Those in the know also make a point of visiting one of a number of Mexican restaurants on and around Krome Avenue. Homestead is home to the real enchilada.
My southern sojourns often used to end with a gnawing suspicion that regardless how good the restaurant I just dined in, the place across the street might have been better. The solution, of course, was to frequent more than one at a time, which is what I do nowadays. I'm not fanatic about it, meaning I don't eat at every Mexican joint in town. Usually four or five will suffice. I also attempt to limit the gluttony by sampling only a few favorite items at each stop. And I always take along my wife. It's the least I can do in return for all of the fascinating museum exhibitions she's exposed me to.
Our first port of call is El Nicamex Restaurant because it serves the best salsa and chips. What else do you start with? Actually the fried corn tortilla chips are almost identical at every Homestead eatery: thin, crisp, cleanly fried. But the salsa here is a raw, chopped mix of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeño peppers, all judiciously juiced with lime.
The simply decorated 68-seat eatery, with maps of Central and South American countries adorning its white-tiled walls, also makes a riveting chile relleno, the giant poblano pepper pumped with lots of melted cheese, battered with wispily whipped egg whites, and deep-fried to a golden brown. Barbecue enchilada is another dish I've designated as a Nicamex house specialty, the shredded chicken interior dabbed with a sweetly nuanced chili sauce, the tortilla topped with oozy cheese. We ordered these foods à la carte; no sense in loading up on rice and beans just yet.
Taquería La Tapatía, owned by Hiberto Cendejas of Michoacán, is inevitably the second destination of our whistle-stop tour. The narrow, rickety shop tackles typical taquería street snacks from tacos to tostadas to tortas (crusty Mexican-style sandwiches with meat of choice, lettuce, tomato, avocado, jalapeño, and hot sauce). All fine and dandy, but we come for the giant "barbacoa" burrito bursting with peppery morsels of pork that have been marinated in ancho chili, garlic, pimiento, pineapple, and vinegar. Alas, the eatery was closed the day of our most recent trip, leaving me feeling the way I suppose a spoiled gourmand might if his caviar course were canceled.
My mood brightened considerably upon entering the sunflower-themed confines of colorful Casita Tejas. Cesar Berrones and his family opened this "Little House of Texas" in 1987, and they've been rustling up bountiful portions of Tex-Mex-influenced fare ever since. Casita excels at seafood dishes such as lime-garlic-cilantro-seeped tilapia ceviche, and grilled dolphin tacos, but the showstopper, and what we regularly revel in, is the camarones al ajil: eight ample, unpeeled, butterflied shrimp sizzled on the grill after marinating in enough garlic and chili guajillo to make Bobby Flay swoon.
As usual, we segued from shrimp to what I refer to as the Tejas two-step: steak fajitas and a couple of Tecate beers. I generally consume one of these brews quite quickly in order to quell the rebellious fires in my throat ignited by a jalapeño-sparked pico de gallo that accompanies the fajita (which also includes the usual fixings and the best homemade corn tortillas on the block). My wife does a variation on the two-step, drinking instead horchata a refreshing milky beverage made from a sweetened rice base flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. Sadly most if not all the Homestead horchatas are prepared from a mix.
I'm not as rigid in my menu selections as it may appear. I don't deny that I always order the camarones al ajil, but sometimes, when I'm in a devil-may-care frame of mind, I might two-time the Tejas two-step and dance instead with mole de pollo, a tender chicken leg and thigh in piquant sauce smoothed with bittersweet chocolate notes and wash it down with Negra Modelo. Occasionally I have also been known to cap a meal here with "chimi," an apple-stuffed flour tortilla flash-fried and finished with caramel sauce and Cool Whip, but this time my wife gently reminded me we still had two more stops and added that the next one was just across the street, which wouldn't allow for walking off much of the food. I wondered whether this was a sign that her enthusiasm was beginning to wane. So I forwent the chimi, and we ambled the short distance to El Toro Taco Family Restaurant.
This original branch of El Toro Taco debuted in Homestead in 1982. Owned and run by the Hernandez family, who hails from San Luis Boticín, the 96-seater has terrazzo floors, wooden tables and chairs, and walls festooned with sombreros, bull horns, and, well, you can picture the rest. Success has brought about a few other Toros in South Florida, but I can't imagine any making as magnificent a menudo as the one done here. The traditional stewlike soup from northern Mexico is a spicy blend of beef tripe, green chilies, and hominy. El Toro's rendition is hale, hearty, and hot, brought to the table with tortillas, diced onions, and a slice of lime.
About halfway through the menudo I became certain of my wife's rapidly diminishing appetite. I knew I'd be pretty much on my own from this point, so the only sensible thing to do was have the rest of the stew packed to go, and concentrate on zopes thick, fried corn tortillas, slightly larger than a silver dollar and topped with shreds of chicken breast (or refried beans) and queso blanco. I tried to reinvigorate my wife's interest by noting that if there were pink, pickled onions on top, these zopes would be just like panuchos, but she wasn't biting. I was beginning to feel a little swelled myself, but could I possibly come here without ordering the best barbacoa (shredded beef) tamales in town? I took some to go and we hustled out, both of us eager to escape before being subjected to one of El Toro Taco's spontaneous outbreaks of mariachi music.
La Quebradita Taquería is the last stop, so designated because it reminds me most of actually being south of the border a pleasant final impression. The homespun space has an especially authentic feel in the daytime, when sunlight streams through wooden blinds onto vividly colored tablecloths; there's also a little outdoor dining patio in front. Quebradita is owned by Ecuadorian native Luis Aguirre, but his cooks are from Mexico, and they fling out fearless taco fillings such as tongue, which I can't say I've tried, and chicharrones (pork rinds) in hot sauce, which I never miss. Not to suggest the chefs are becoming a bit more timid, but I noticed the sesos (cow brains) taco had been removed from the menu since our last visit.
A lingering sense of Mexico isn't all we take with us from La Quebradita: I always make sure to get a gordito to go. The sandwich, composed of pork, refried pinto beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream in a thick, fried tortilla bun, would ostensibly hit the spot should hunger strike during the drive home, but I generally end up eating it for lunch the following day. Everyone has his limit.
Casita Tejas 27 N Krome Ave, Homestead; 305-248-8224. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
El Nicamex Restaurant 32 NW 1st St, Homestead; 305-246-8300. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
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La Quebradita Taquería 702 N Krome Ave, Homestead; 305-245-4586. Open Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Taquería La Tapatía 1226 N Krome Ave, Homestead; 305-242-5459. Open Monday and Wednesday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Closed Tuesday and Saturday.
El Toro Taco 1 S Krome Ave, Homestead: 305-245-8182. Open Tuesday through Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.