Ortelio Cárdenas — better known to Miami, the world, and President Barack Obama as El Mago de las Fritas — returned to his Flagami cafeteria for work last week after undergoing double bypass surgery two months ago.
It seems the elder statesman is also transitioning into a role as a frita ambassador after years as a scorched, hard-nosed cook.
In fact, his family over the past two years has slowly tried to extract the obsessive 78-year-old from the more labor-intensive tasks of the cafeteria as he's grown older.
"I try to explain is that really what he needs to worry about is when these people from China and Japan and Sweden and Switzerland and Iowa and California come in is to be that personality and interact with them," Cárdenas' son-in-law and the restaurant's marketing director, Barry Hennessey, says.
For more than three decades, Cárdenas flipped the bright-red beef-and-chorizo fritas without anyone, even his family members, knowing his secret recipes. Among the highlights are the sweet-tangy sauce that's squirted onto each patty as it browns, as well as his light and crisp papitas that were always freshly fried and can only be compared to cumulonimbus clouds encased in crisp shells.
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Still, no one is immune to the hazards of a Cuban greasy spoon.
"He just needs to watch what he’s doing, how he spends his time, and he needs to cut back on his drinking and all that good stuff," Hennessey says. "Still, at 78, [the double bypass] isn't such a horrible thing when he's out eating chicharrones and drinking wine all day."
You can still find El Mago at his shop a couple of hours every other day and even Saturday, when there's still a big pot of bubbling oil slowly frying pink strips of pork belly into golden crackles of heaven.
El Mago de las Fritas. 5828 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-266-8486; elmagodelasfritas.com. Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.