During lunch, dozens of cops, executives, and working stiffs line up outside the squat peach Pack Supermarket in Little Haiti. They're bathed in the overwhelming scent of frying chicken as Kreyol talk radio blares from a nearby barbershop. On Sunday mornings, crowds of churchgoers mingle with bouncers from downtown clubs and spandex-clad cyclists while awaiting fragrant Styrofoam containers filled with juicy poultry and the slightly sweet ovals of the smashed-and-fried plantains Haitians term "banane." It's a meal that could be breakfast or dinner.
Over the past three decades, Pack has become a beloved gathering place and community hub. The place adds the vinegary, spicy cabbage-and-carrot slaw called pikliz to the crackly fried chicken, and each bite becomes a scalding mouthful of ecstasy.
The affordable, filling fare is the lifeblood of the surrounding community. "We come here when my mom is too busy and doesn't have time to cook," says Anne Smith, a sixth-grader at the nearby Worshipers' House of Prayer Academy. Sometimes the 12-year-old, who wears an apple-red dress and narrow rectangular eyeglasses high on her nose, begs her mother to take a walk down the street to get poul fri for lunch or dinner.
Pack's recipe is a spinoff of the classic that calls for skin-on legs to be marinated in a spicy, acidic amalgam of vinegar, lime juice, garlic, onion, and hot peppers such as Scotch bonnets. The all-female staff begins the day by hauling huge plastic tubs of marinating chicken out of a walk-in refrigerator before lightly coating the legs in flour and setting them in hot oil. The ritual continues for 12 hours, six days a week, letting up only on Sundays, when the place closes as evening approaches.
Pack's sidewalk menu.
Photo by Kristin Bjørnsen
Such was the dream of owner Kernizan Filiasse when he left his hometown of Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti. "Everybody who comes to America from everywhere is looking for something better," the 65-year-old says. "I'm no different."
Filiasse is tall, with a thin black mustache and faint white stubble for a goatee. He always wears a white baseball cap bearing a red cross and "Jesus" in all capital letters. "That's my boss!" he exclaims. A matching white button-up shirt completes the uniform.
He taught the equivalent of elementary school mathematics in Haiti but left that behind in 1978. Once in Miami, he realized he needed money. He drove a cab for a few years but quit after he was carjacked at gunpoint in the middle of the night and left stranded on a North Dade road without a car, money, or identification. "It was too dangerous," he explains.
Cabbies, including Filiasse's friends from his taxi days, remain a staple of Pack's business. "These days, I try to hang around the Design District at lunch so I can be nearby when I'm hungry," 58-year-old Pierre Servin says. He sports a charcoal suit over a blue flannel button-up. He wears a set of earbuds and calls out his order in Kreyol while jabbering on the phone. After a minute or two, with a foil-wrapped tray of chicken and plantains in hand, he's back in his cab, searching for another fare.
In the kitchen.
Photo by Kristin Bjørnsen
In the mid-1990s, Filiasse, his two sisters, and a brother-in-law scraped together $135,000 to buy the building that today purveys some of the city's finest poultry. The name "Pack" is an acronym for their first names.
Most customers seem to pick up their food from the take-out window rather than eat in the cafeteria inside. The drop ceiling is stained yellow in some places and pockmarked by decay in others. The walls, painted who knows how long ago, are beige here, white there. On one side is a marble-patterned Formica-topped counter, and on the other are "supermarket" shelves, which look more like a warehouse than Publix. Wooden pallets are stacked with cases of Jupiña, Malta, and a sugary watermelon soda. Yellow mesh sacks are filled with peanuts, while the rest of the space is occupied by 50-pound bags of flour and jasmine rice. They can be had for $16.50 apiece.
One might correctly suspect that much of the product, like the adjacent sacks of onions and potatoes, ends up on Pack's stoves. Besides serving the fried chicken, the place offers a brief list of Haitian classics such as legume — a sweet, spicy, slightly sour vegetable stew that takes on a meaty savoriness thanks to a hefty dose of chicken bouillon cubes. The goat, called cabrit, features a mound of tender meat ribboned with slightly gamey fat that's braised in a rich tomato-based stew punched up with oregano and a dash of acidity. Any of that leftover liquid should be mixed into the accompanying white rice, or rice and beans (depending upon the day), for a satisfying meal.
Fried chicken to go.
Photo by Kristin Bjørnsen
In the mornings, stop by for a steaming container of mais. It's Haiti's answer to Jamaica's ackee and salt fish. Here, coarse cornmeal that's similar in flavor and texture to rough grits is simmered with carrots, spinach, and shredded salt cod, imparting an addictive, salty umami flavor that makes this dish an unheralded bit of genius.
Really, though, it's an example of what Pack does best: offer profound flavors in seemingly humble, inexpensive packages. And despite the inevitable creep of developers, hipsters, and gentrification into the neighborhood, Filiasse says he won't leave. It would take more than a pile of money to persuade him to sell the place that has become his legacy.
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"Not for a million dollars," he says, shaking his head at the suggestion. "We just want to do our business."
8235 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-757-4777. Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Three fried chicken legs $2.25