The Song Remains the Same

As long as I've lived in this town, I've felt guilty for not being Latin.
Don't get me wrong.
It may have taken my entire adolescence, but I did learn to love my identity -- my Jewishness, my femaleness, my Eastern European ancestry, my northeastern upbringing. All of those components combined have given me plenty of writing material. A rich culinary history and a host of eccentric relatives haven't hurt me either. So that's not the problem.

My difficulties arise when I review Latin restaurants. Depending on the color of my hair on any given day, I can look Hispanic; depending on my demeanor of choice, I can act it, too. But once I open my mouth, all is lost. I am the ultimate gringa. Consequent troubles range from the making of reservations to the interviewing of restaurateurs to the attracting of a waiter's attention. And true to form, rather than learning the language (I have a terrible ear for accents), I just worry about it instead.

I was fortunate in that my predecessors at this paper reviewed many of Miami's countless Cuban, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Argentine, and Mexican restaurants; on arrival here, I got to cut my teeth on rice and beans of varying hues at my leisure. But while revising the New Times restaurant capsules this past summer, I realized how long it's been since I've eaten in some of these places. This week I decided to close out the project by taking my gringa self to a bunch of different eateries that share several major characteristics: (1) They all serve a cuisine that's descended in some way from the Spanish; (2) they have two or more locations (well, La Casona doesn't, but so what?); and (3) most of them hire musicians with a relentless passion for "Guantanamera."

Here's how I fared:

La Casona
6355 SW Eighth St., Miami; 262-2828. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 1:00 a.m.)

I was really looking forward to dining in this airy, tiled restaurant, one of the most venerated Cuban cafes in the city. But so much went wrong with my meal here that I kept looking around for the candid camera.

For starters: A little late for our reservation, we wound up listening to live, synthesized Spanish tunes for an hour in the bar while waiting for our table, despite several reassurances that "we're just clearing it now." The reason for the stall became apparent as we were finally seated -- singer Maggie Carles was belting out Latin and American favorites to a highly appreciative crowd. I think I was the only one who didn't know the words to "Guantanamera."

La Casona's waiters could use some of Carles's orchestration. A busboy serving rolls dropped one on the table and chased it with tongs like a dog after his tail, never quite snapping it up. When he finally seized the errant bread, he placed it on my bread plate. I was hungry enough to eat it anyway; we were actually served four rounds of rolls before our food appeared, 45 minutes after we'd been seated.

Unfortunately, it was our entrees that arrived, completely bypassing the ham-and-chicken croquetas and fried plantains with caviar we'd ordered as starters. Realizing his mistake, the server took the dishes back to the kitchen, promising a quick return with our appetizers. But another waiter came by with a menu, claiming the restaurant had run out of the black grouper and herb-marinated shrimp wrapped in pastry that I'd wanted for dinner, and which I had just seen come and go. By this time I was both exasperated and exhausted -- it was after midnight -- but hunger made me stay. I ordered grilled swordfish instead and was finally happily munching away on four crisp and delicious croquetas and three meaty tostones garnished with mild sour cream and slightly salty black caviar when the waiter made another announcement. "We found one," he said.

He was referring to the seafood-stuffed pastry. Where did he "find" it, I wondered? In the oven, logic told me as I viewed the very brown specimen. To the restaurant's credit, this would have been delicate and flavorful had the grouper not been dry enough to splinter and the shrimp a mushy mess. Though overdone, the dough was rich and flaky, the creamy garlic salsa verde in which it was sitting a mellow complement. Buttered white rice and beautifully candied plantains rounded out the meal nicely.

Pork in malt sauce was a vast improvement. A plenitude of tender boneless pork cutlets was bathed in a dark, sweet sauce and accompanied by an accomplished version of rice and beans and those tasty plantains. And, by way of apology, our waiter bought us a round of drinks, the kind of gesture that won't make me stay for dessert but just might bring me back for a shorter, less stressful dinner someday.

Taquerias el Mexicano
1961 SW Eighth St., Miami; 649-9150. (Also 521 SW Eighth St., Miami; 858-1160.) Open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

This no-frills cafeteria serves three honest Mexican meals a day, and as a result is one of the few resources in the city for huevos rancheros (two fried eggs doused with ranchero sauce) and chilaquiles (tortilla chips simmered in green sauce and served with scrambled eggs). But knowledge of Spanish is a must for proper communication -- the restaurant doesn't have white wine but it does have vino blanco, and a request for a tamale appetizer led to our being served three full meals for only two people.

Not that any food went to waste. The tamales, stuffed with pork, were a welcome appetizer. Covered with a tangy salsa verde and presented with Mexican rice and a salad of iceberg lettuce and chopped tomato, they were at once moist and firm. Homemade chips and a spicy onion-based salsa were a nice little starter, as was a bowl of pozole, piquant chili-based broth afloat with hominy.

Actually, main plates are big enough to make starters seem unnecessary. Guisado de pollo, a chicken stew that tasted like ropa vieja made with poultry, was served not only with rice, refried pinto beans, and salad, but with warmed corn tortillas as well. Likewise, simmered in tomato, onions, and parsley, a generous portion of bistec Oaxaca was wonderfully flavored if slightly tough. Located on Eighth Street, this joint may be surrounded by Cuban restaurants, but there's no doubt it holds its own against 'em -- if only because it didn't play "Guantanamera."

Los Ranchos
125 SW 107th Ave.; 221-9367. (Also 401 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 375-0666; 2728 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, 446-0050; 8505 Mills Dr., 596-5353; 8888 SW 136th St., 238-6867.) Call for hours.

With fifteen years in the business, five locations in Miami, and plans to expand nationally, this Nicaraguan steak house has become somewhat formulaic but no less satisfying.

Team-player waiters drop off everything from garlic bread to a trio of fiery salsas to the wine special of the evening (in hopes that you'll buy it). Order more than one appetizer and they're likely to come on the same plate; "grazing sampler platters" are even-numbered bargains (served for two, four, six, or eight). We loved a pair of chorizos: Crisp-skinned, these pork sausages were bursting with spiced, aromatic meat. Vuelve a la vida, a cool stew of sea bass, clams, and shrimp marinated in lime juice, was also excellent. We especially liked coupling the cured fish and shellfish with the crisp mariquitas (long, curled plantain chips) that were served as a garnish.

House salads (iceberg lettuce, tomato slice, and onions in an Italian vinaigrette), meant to be brought before the meal, were forgotten until we requested them; a drastically undercooked steak presidente was another minor annoyance, as we had to send it back twice for more fire. (Not a good sign, considering that steak is this place's business.) But the end result was a (medium) rare treat, flavorful beef with a strong, creamy mustard sauce on the side. The house churrasco, a huge center-cut tenderloin steak, was unequivocally great. Tender and juicy, it was complemented by the three tongue-tingling sauces: chimichurri, onion-jalapeno, and tomato-red pepper.

Seafood lovers fare just as well as carnivores, judging from the quality of the grilled shrimp. A dozen succulent shellfish were arranged on a bed of lettuce and partnered -- as were all the entrees -- by gallo pinto (beans mixed with rice), sweet plantains, and more mariquitas.

But be warned: Insistent guitarists play tableside unless you firmly instruct them not to.

I don't think I have to mention their favorite song.

El Viajante Segundo
1676 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 534-2101. Open 24 hours.
A mostly outdoor cafe, this particular restaurant sees a lot of tourists -- all of them heading to Ocean Drive from the big hotels on Collins Avenue. That means that you'll be treated like an out-of-towner even if you're a local; we actually witnessed a waiter yelling at his customers, then stomping off to get their food.

Food is your basic Cuban fare and, if you avoid items like the surf and turf (34 bucks) and the Argentine mixed grill ($27.95), pretty good for the money. Ham croquetas were a little salty but had a satisfyingly solid crunch, and a pork tamale was rich and sweet. White bean soup was also a bit on the salty side, but it was a nice hearty alternative to the typical black bean bit.

Proximity to the ocean doesn't necessarily mean fresh fish; a fillet of grouper was fishy -- and stinky -- though the sticky-sweet plantains, buttered white rice, and bay leaf-accented black beans were more than enough to make the meal filling. Palomilla steak was a better bet. Grilled medium, it was slathered in onions and partnered with the rice, plantains, and beans. Ropa vieja was also finely prepared, chunks of shredded beef stewed in a not-too-soupy tomato sauce.

Car horns, screaming waitstaff, and an in-your-face guitarist (you guessed it) who simply wouldn't go away until we paid him didn't make for a restful meal. So a colada to share for dessert seemed perfectly appropriate -- might as well make the insides as chaotic as the outside.

El Inka
11049 Bird Rd.; 553-4074. Open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 10:00 p.m., Sunday till 9:00 p.m.

I'm enjoying my affair with Latin cuisine, but let's face it, this isn't the lightest stuff in the world. So when I heard that this ultracasual Peruvian restaurant, decorated like a kitchenette complete with linoleum and upright chairs, had recently updated its menu to include a low-fat dish, I was sniffing around the door like a Jenny Craig graduate at a salad bar.

Too bad that entree, corvina al vapor, wasn't as light as the air for which it was named. Weighed down by a pile of sliced red peppers, onions, and tomatoes, the steamed fish was dressed in a beef bouillon broth that tasted like denatured chemicals. We were also disappointed in tallarin verde con steak, a sirloin sided by linguine in basil-and-garlic sauce. The thickness of a paper napkin, this was the skinniest piece of meat I've ever seen, hardly deserving of the appellation "steak" and making a question like "How would you like this cooked?" completely irrelevant. The linguine it was paired with was better, coated in a light green, Parmesan-accented pesto sauce.

Fortunately, appetizers had been not only delicious but plentiful. Papa a la huancaina was excellent, a whole boiled potato covered in creamy yellow cheese sauce. Hard-boiled eggs and a black olive garnished this favorite Peruvian dish. Another starter, fried calamari, was composed of succulent squid under crisp, flaky batter. Served over a small mountain of iceberg lettuce, the squid was interspersed with huge tasty chunks of fried potatoes. A squeeze of lime and a dip in tartar sauce finished off each bite perfectly.

A large-screen TV plays here instead of a band, and piped-in pan flute music overrides that. But even this noisy double bill wasn't enough to wipe that damn song out of my mind.


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