When the Mi Viejo San Juan, formerly known as Old San Juan Puerto Rican Restaurant, on Red Road just north of Coral Way reopened in August with a new name and under a new owner I wanted to try it, and I wanted to like it.
The chef, Mr. Tutty, remains from the previous owners, but that's all. The menu is filled with Puerto Rican classics while Hispanic standbys are available at a significant markup compared to most other restaurants. As we sit our waitress stands across the room blankly watching a telenovela. In an empty dining room, I have to stick my hand in the air to get her attention. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to our $40 bill.
There must be a variety of Puerto Rican eateries across Miami that are well-kept secrets no one will share. I am no expert on Puerto Rican cuisine, and my standby is a mofongo -- a small mountain of mashed fried green plantains studded with garlic and crispy pork skin -- from Jimmy'z Kitchen. Yet Jimmy'z as the only option for Puerto Rican food would be like having Casa Larios as the only option for Cuban. I wanted something a little less polished.
Three tostones rellenos come with a mixture of shrimp and crab, yet the seafood is shredded to the point of being unrecognizable. It tastes like the krab in Publix California Roll. A Chicken a la Milanese comes as a large breast pounded somewhat thin and over fried. It's covered in a fresh, flavorful creole sauce with big, garlicky chunks of tomato and onion. All of that is ruined, however, by a thick coating of processed tasting cheese that needs to be stripped away.
New owner Israel Gomez is quick to point out this is a brand new restaurant. The interior has been repainted from its former sunflower yellow to mostly grey with a half-finished Caribbean mural on the far wall. He's loath to hear you say Old San Juan, in reference to his Mi Viejo, even though the sign out front still bears the former name. There is no website, yet Gomez describes this latest incarnation of Old San Juan as his "biggest dream that has just become truth."
Mofongo here is indeed good, with big crispy pieces of pork cracklings. However the chicken alongside is dry and flavorless, floating in a pool of oil and raw garlic.
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By the end of the meal Gomez is standing alongside his server, staring at the television with his mouth partially ajar as a Spanish version of Celine Dion "My Heart Will Go On" blares.
Mi Viejo seems, from the outside looking in, to be a case of someone who wants to run a restaurant yet has little experience in doing so. Gomez probably has a lot on the line, as so many owners do, and we wish him well...
For more follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.