With each new wave of hype and publicity heralding Ocean Drive as the world's hot spot for fun and fashion, Lincoln Road Mall becomes more appealing to residents of South Beach. It's a sanity check during the height of the season, a place whose small theaters and art galleries, neighborhood eateries and Art Deco antique shops soothe the tourist-irritated soul.
But those very things that lend charm to Lincoln Road are leading it into danger A at least from a local's point of view. The crowds are drifting over from Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue. Outdoor cafe tables are filling up. During the weekends, neighborhood joints are nearly packed with the party people.
The elevated interest in Lincoln Road as an alternative to the hyperkinetic scene a few blocks south is reflected in the elevated nature of the business enterprises. Outlets have become boutiques. Junk stores now sell antiques. A very pricey gourmet market bustles with customers. New bars and restaurants are on the way. And the local merchants association has recently selected a design and planning firm to propose "improvements" A the same firm responsible for Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami.
Of course, this isn't the first time Lincoln Road enjoyed popularity. But the days when Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany's reigned won't even compare to the mall's future should the really big names start moving in. The paradox is that Lincoln Road needs its own hype to survive, but at what cost? What will happen to the neighborhood? What will become of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are partly responsible for the resurgence of interest among entrepreneurs and developers?
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue, just off Lincoln Road, Cielito Lindo Mexican restaurant is easily overlooked by visitors, though not impossible to find. And the more people who discover this "pretty little heaven," the more I fear its situation will become precarious. I picture three scenarios. 1) The margaritas and the food become block-party favorites and the mobs descend. 2) In competition with the nearby Lazy Lizard for customers who crave Mexican/Southwestern fare, and not being particularly strong on service or consistency, Cielito Lindo stagnates A always open, but never full. 3) The restaurant is knocked out of business by someone's bright idea of an El Torito, a chain for which Lincoln Road may at times seem destined.
The third option, naturally, is beyond the restaurant's control. Real estate agents will sell, sell, sell, and only time (and perhaps a merchants review committee) will tell if the buyers end up being hacks on the chain gang who would treat their own mothers to birthday dinner at Denny's.
Should Cielito Lindo (not to be confused with the Fort Lauderdale chain of that name) wish to engage the second category, it need not change a thing. Despite a pleasing terra cotta/Mexican handicraft look to the interior, so much is anomaly. The lone cafe table on the sidewalk, for instance. And the woman typing away in the rear of the restaurant, a diligent worker, to be sure. Then there's the singular lack of service trays, which necessitates a waiter's two trips to deliver four drinks.
Due in a large part to the service, comfortable amusement vies with irritation at a typical Cielito Lindo meal. Conversations with staff ("Do you have Sunday brunch?" "Yeah, it's on Sunday.") are always informative; place settings arrive faster if grabbed from another table; Diet Cokes appear as iced tea. But intentions are sweet.
What's not as sweet is the price tag for a refill on that unordered iced tea. At one of our recent meals we paid an extra three dollars for the privilege of topping off our glasses. Given the low prices attached to the food itself, this may seem a petty complaint. But I'd rather spend that same three bucks on a plate of quesadillas, surprisingly thick with cheese and not in the least greasy.
The family-room coziness permits me to make concessions: this is not fine dining, nor would we want it to be. If refried beans are bland one day and salty the next, at least you know they're not canned. A large dish of guacamole actually features the pit of the fruit to prevent it from turning brown. I'm willing to eat around it, scooping the mellow mixture with homemade tortilla chips A sometimes slightly stale, other times outstandingly fresh.
As for the first category A a tiny and unpretentious restaurant ruined by the demands of marauding tourists A well, the threat exists. For starters, competition favors Cielito Lindo: although there are several within walking distance, Cielito Lindo is the best of the batch (which isn't saying much about these other cantinas). Finding a good Mexican restaurant in Miami is like finding a bagel in the Midwest. And while I'm willing to be forgiving in evaluating a place like this, I won't concede all standards of quality. And depending on what you order, you may have to relax those standards.
Most of the menu is authentic Mexican and fairly extensive. Meatball soup, a spicy, not-so-beefy mixture, is offered alongside other such standards as tortilla soup and chicken consomme. We also tasted an interesting shrimp cocktail, generous with the shellfish, in a sweet-and-sour bath. I didn't particularly appreciate this mixture, though others at my table found it agreeable.
The more traditional dishes are standouts. Bean tostadas and red enchiladas are a generous and tasty venture. Taquitos de pollo, corn tortillas rolled and fried to crispness, contain perfectly seasoned shredded chicken, a tangy contrast to the cool toppings of sour cream, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. And flautas, a similar dish, employ shredded beef much like a ropa vieja in place of the poultry. Both versions boast a toasty shell that slowly gives way under the soaking of a Mexican red sauce.
Ropa vieja is, in fact, available under the heading pa'Cuba con amor!!, a small selection of Cuban cuisine. While this may seem like the restaurant's inevitable bow to the local community, it's true that ropa vieja is also a Mexican dish, found in cookbooks without reference to origin. Commonly the meat is used to stuff burritos and tacos.
Another dish in dispute as to origin is the picadillo, written as Cuban but also known as Mexican hash. In Mexico this ground beef stew sometimes fills chilies, tamales, and enchiladas. The chopped beef is heavily flavored with onions, raisins, olives, potatoes, carrots, and peas. Some recipes call for cumin, sugar, or cinnamon, which means this dish most likely traveled from the Moorish-influenced Old World. At Cielito Lindo the addition A a charcoal bottom A became a subtraction, burnt as dark as any hash I've experienced.
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For me the true test of a Mexican eatery is the quality of the mole sauce. The typical description of a mole, which varies from cocina to cocina with dozens of variations, includes bittersweet chocolate, an ingredient some people just can't reconcile with their taste buds' expectations for an entree. (I admit my years in Southern California adapted me to it.) In truth, though, the word mole refers to a sauce cooked with chili peppers. It so happens the version that originated in the Mexican state of Puebla (southeast of Mexico City), and which is made with chocolate, is the best known. However, a mole can also be made verde with tomatillos, green chili peppers, walnuts, almonds, and cilantro; or in a completely different version, with peanut butter. The best mole I've had dressed a duck in a sleek, almost sheer layer A clingy but not thick.
Cielito Lindo offers its own version of a Puebla mole over chicken, and it's also available as enchilada sauce. The ingredients include chocolate, peanuts, and fourteen spices, though I found it initially flavorless. But it was smooth and had an intriguing sweetness that lingered on the palate.
As the Lincoln Road area continues to evolve (or devolve, depending on your view), will the sweetness of tiny establishments such as Cielito Lindo be replaced by the blandness of a chain restaurant or worse, become the domain of the trendoids? ¨Quien sabe? Now is the time to enjoy the subtler pleasures of the undiscovered eatery.