Perhaps you've noticed the large murals and conspicuous neon lights of Taquerias El Mexicano while driving through Little Havana toward downtown. Located at Fifth Avenue and Calle Ocho, that neon conspires with a thickly gated exterior to give the place a forbidding, down-and-out appearance. Lurking behind those gates, however, is a big, clean, red-white-and-green, south-of-the-border canteen. I am speaking of El Original, established in 1990 -- there is also Los Altos Del Mexicano on the second floor, but that's another story (I asked my Taquerias waitress if requesting a raise results in work at Los Altos, but she pretended to not comprehend the question). Of the 76 food items and 41 beverages on Taquerias's menu, I come for two (three if you count the coffee):
1) Chilaquiles: The word implies leftovers, which is why it's referred to as "poor man's dish." Chilaquiles are a breakfast favorite at coffee shops from Mexico to Guatemala, one constant amid the infinite variations being the presence of corn tortillas, which get simmered in some sauce with eggs, meat, vegetables, or sausage. Taquerias's version features softly chewy tortilla chips and hard-cooked eggs topped with green tomatillo sauce, crumbled queso fresco, and sour cream. Rice and beans come on the side ($4.95).
2) Horchata: A lightly refreshing beverage popular throughout Mexico and Spain, made by soaking rice, blanched almonds, cinnamon, and sugar in hot water. Its flavor is somewhat rice puddingish, but when poured over ice it serves as a real thirst quencher (99 cents).
Taquerias El Mexicano
521 SW 8th St., Miami, FL
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Monday 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Call 305-858-1160.
There are other worthwhile meals to be found here. Burritos are solid, though I'd avoid the Tepatitian variety, which is drenched in sickly sweet barbecue sauce. Soft tortilla tacos and crispy tortilla tostadas are quite tasty (especially the chicken). Roast pork is moist, chili relleños cheesy, and caldo de res, or beef soup, comes stocked with wedges of carrots, potatoes, chayote, corn on the cob, and short rib of beef -- and all that comes in the small size ($3). Prices are across-the-board inexpensive, service friendly (and efficient), ownership a Mexican family affair.
Not particularly impressive: tamales and flautas (both too dry), and most other fried foods (too greasy); enchiladas and anything labeled barbecue (don't like their red sauce capabilities); guacamole and salsa (edible, not incredible).
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On the other hand, I can unequivocally recommend coming here at breakfast time, whether for the $1.99 special of two eggs any style with toast and bottomless coffee, or huevos rancheros, or a plate of scrambled eggs with chorizo sausage, or the aforementioned chilaquiles. Which reminds me: If you do head out to Taquerias El Mexicano, and see someone sitting with a plate of chilaquiles, glass of horchata, and cup of coffee, please don't bother him.