The croqueta has become synonymous with Miami. No other city in the United States relies on it as much. It is the younger sibling of the European croquette — a larger version of the fried paste treat with potato filling. Miami's croqueta, with its Caribbean roots, has transformed the once-listless delicacy into a versatile cultural staple.
The South Beach Wine and Food Festival is taking the croqueta to the next level by pairing it with bubbly. "Croquetas and Champagne," hosted by superchef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and curated by resident Burger Beast Sef Gonzalez, will see Miami's favorite chefs gather at the Design District's Paradise Plaza to serve their reinterpreted versions of the traditional finger food. This is a far cry from your primo's birthday party — instead of Coca-Cola and cafecito, free-flowing Champagne Henriot will accompany the croquetas.
"We're bringing the classiness back to a croquette," says Eileen Andrade, chef-owner at Finka Table & Tap. "Cubans like to eat it as a morning snack, but back then, it was more of a fine appetizer. Today, it's an oxymoron."
Gonzalez, who hosts Miami's annual Croquetapalooza, is no stranger to the best Miami has to offer. Growing up, his mom would fry up ham croquetas, layering them on toasted white bread with American cheese and mustard. Basically, a DIY pan con croqueta. Gonzalez recalls his first experience with the snack at the now-defunct Latin American Cafeteria on SW 97th Avenue and Coral Way. "I bit into it, and my mind couldn't comprehend it; I loved it," says Gonzalez. "I don't remember how many I ate, but I remember being obsessed." Today, Gonzalez is hesitant to declare his favorite Miami croqueta. But most foodies agree Islas Canarias doesn't disappoint.
"Islas Canarias consistently puts out the best croqueta in Miami," says Gonzalez. "I think there's a creaminess to them, and I like that they look deformed; they don't look perfect. It's like, 'What happened to these?' They look like they got beat up; maybe that's what attracts me to them. No two are alike."
Eileen Andrade and brother Jonathan Andrade, chef-owners of Finka Table & Tap, have croqueta in their blood. Born to Islas Canarias owners (heirs to the croqueta kingdom), they've been eating them since birth. "My grandma and mom came up with the recipe, and it's evolved and only gotten better," says Eileen Andrade. "My grandfather passed away this year, and we make sure everything he passed on to us is made with the same passion and orgullo. The recipe is very delicate."
The siblings serve the traditional ham croquetas at their Cuban-Korean fusion restaurant in Kendall; along with a croqueta pizza and other modern interpretations. Jonathan, who has the "insured croqueta-making fingers," will be frying the beloved croquetas in addition to a crab mac 'n' cheese or a brisket version at the SOBEWFF event.
For Gilberto Arriaza, owner of Gilbert's Bakery, it's also a family affair. The Miami bakery chain opened in 1976 and has been serving traditional and original croqueta flavors ever since. "The thrill is in coming up with new croquetas that keep us wanting more," says Arriaza. For the event, they will serve an experimental dessert croqueta, sweetening the béchamel custard mix, and the Brazilian staple "salgadinhos." "Miami is such a mix of cultures, so we're bringing some Brazil into the event," says Arriaza. "My sister describes it as marriage between a papa rellena and a croqueta. Very silky and rich."
Gilbert's Bakery boasts a wide range of croqueta flavors for a traditional Cuban bakery: chicken, ham, vegetable, potato, bacalao, among others, but it has not been easy integrating new takes on die-hard favorites. "Miami is resistant to change," says Arriaza. "I don't think it's a negative thing, but we're such a cosmopolitan city, and yet it takes a while for trends to reach us."
Gary Hennessey, operations manager at President Obama's favorite, El Mago de las Fritas, understands Arriaza's concern. Hennessey, son-in-law to El Mago himself, manages the Magic Box, a food truck that takes El Mago's beloved frita on the road. "We're trying not to just be a frita place," says Hennessey. "We play around a bit, even with our fritas. We'll have lettuce/cheese/pickles/onions, but the middle bun is a tostone. We try to take the traditional and tweak it a little."
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The restaurant has never included croquetas on the menu, but beginning this month, it will serve its SOBEWFF croqueta: a tamale style with cornmeal, roast pork, and creamy cheese. "We want you to feel at home where you're at. And we want you to feel free to try something different," says Hennessey. "Croquetas impact everybody's day-to-day here. It's ingrained in all of us regardless of what your culture is. Coffee and croquetas."
Perhaps this is the moment croquetas escape from the bottom of grease-stained paper bags and emerge into daylight. There might not be coffee, but there will definitely be Champagne. Buen provecho.