Since I first moved to South Florida in 1993, Ocean Drive has had a reputation as a great place to party but not a great place to eat. Not that there haven't been notable exceptions. One of the main reasons I originally decided to move from New York to South Beach, in fact, was the discovery, during a house-scouting visit, that New World-cuisine originator Norman Van Aken was cooking at a Mano, three blocks from the condo I was considering. The idea of a Van Aken-helmed eatery as my local luncheonette was irresistible.
Unfortunately by the time I closed on the place several months later, the chef had split for Coral Gables. And his fellow New World innovator Robbin Haas, who'd been cooking at the Colony Hotel's bistro, left soon after for bigger Bang, back on Washington Avenue. That left the rest of Ocean Drive's eateries, which lived up to their rep with a vengeance. I remember eggs Benedict and a salad, in a place allegedly renowned for its eggs Benedict and salads, where the hollandaise had apparently been applied with an eyedropper, and the salad dressing couldn't be located with a microscope. I also remember several incidents of involuntary bulimia brought on by food poisoning. It seemed all too clear why all those glam models were so skinny.
But now that the free lunch-seeking fashion folk have deserted the Drive for Spain and other less-expensive photo locales, it seemed somewhat safe to sample an Ocean Drive eatery again. And what better place for a foray back than Haas's old haunt at the Colony, now a Mexican restaurant called Tequila Blue on the Beach? In addition to my usual dining partner, I invited Dave and Dave, two visitors who grew up in American-Mexican food capitals. Dave knows Tex-Mex; Dave knows Cal-Mex. (Don't be confused; the Daves ended up agreeing about Ocean Drive-Mex.)
Tequila Blue on the Beach
736 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach
305-695-1974. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until midnight).
If the restaurants lining the Drive are hurting this season, it was hard to tell from a visit several Saturdays ago. During a stroll there just a month before, the sidewalks, and sidewalk cafés, had seemed eerily empty, but though we arrived at Tequila Blue extremely early by SoBe standards -- 7:30 -- my party just managed to snag the last outdoor table. (There also are tables indoors in the Colony's small stylish lobby that actually are pleasant for conversing, owing to a more subdued sound level from the music PA.)
What everyone needs to do at Tequila Blue is that tequila thang; the place's 58-brand list makes it clear that its name is serious. For the uninitiated: The "Blue" part refers to the fact that all real tequila is made from the double-distilled juice of the blue agave plant -- not any of the other 359 kinds of agave, and not containing less than 51 percent pure agave sugar to be labeled "premium" by the Mexican government. Best quality "superpremiums" contain 100 percent blue agave juice. Within both categories one finds several grades: nonaged fresh plata (silver); joven abocado (gold, which is -- sorry to destroy any fantasies -- generally just silver with added caramel coloring); reposado, aged at least two months, which makes it a bit more mellow; and rich golden anejo, aged a minimum of a year. Tequila Blue has examples of all the above. It also has fruit-flavored and frozen toy margaritas, but real margarita fans should skip even the quite good generic margarita (made with "some house brand," according to our nice but not overly informed waitperson) in favor of something superpremium. Think the quality is wasted on a mere mixed drink? So did the Daves before taste-testing their generic and Cuervo Gold margaritas against my model, made with Patrón, one of the most lauded new entries in the 100 percent agave market. The cocktail's comparative complexity and depth were absolutely amazing.
Quite frankly, the excellence of my Patrón margarita made it tempting just to drink dinner -- and from the liquid-packed looks of neighboring tables, most of our fellow diners felt the same. But the complimentary housemade tortilla chips and smooth-textured tomatillo salsa, much more heroically heated than average American-Mex mild tomato salsas, was promising enough to prompt us (after polishing off three batches) to move on to more solid sustenance.
Regretfully, though, as the Daves and I agreed, most of Tequila Blue's food was not nearly as impressive as its drinks and dip. Gulf-shrimp ceviche would have been more accurately called "salad ceviche." A very small serving of about six very small shrimp (pretty stiff for twelve bucks) came buried under a mountain of diced plum tomatoes, a little onion, and little else. Both cilantro and the hot habanero pepper promised on the menu were undetectable -- odd, considering the unexpected heat of Tequila's freebie salsa. Even odder was the virtual absence of lime, lemon, or any other citrus tang. What is ceviche but citrus- "cooked" fish? Bland is what.
Guacamole Mexicano was equally disappointing, its main impression being wateriness -- sure sign that the avocado used was not a characterful California Hass but one of Florida's own flavor-free blimps. Second impression, from an excited Dave: "Hey, I've found out where the lime juice that should've been in the ceviche went!" While the impulse to try to inject taste where none naturally exists is admirable, authentic-Mexican-food authorities like Diana Kennedy consider lime overkill in guacamole almost as much of a no-no as sour cream; a better avocado would've been a better solution.
A small serving of the same watery guacamole came with an entrée of grilled shrimp "Al Tequila," which we ordered because of its unusual Tequila/olive oil adobo marinade. The shrimp proved to be considerably larger than those in the ceviche, and the marinade was appealingly alcoholic. However, it sorely needed salt. (With all respect to those with high blood pressure, salt-free food should be available on request but not the default, since salting at the proper point in the cooking process results in far superior taste than does tabletop salting.) An accompaniment of subtly spiced "Mexican rice" would have been tasty had it not been stone cold.
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Vegetarian fajitas (also available with beef or chicken -- for the same price, strangely, considering the higher cost of meat) contained the usual mix of onions and peppers with sides of sour cream and refried beans, but the vegetables were not overcooked as they are in many eateries, and the grill flavor was pleasantly pronounced. Again, salt was needed.
Though classic tacos are on the menu (and had been quite good on a previous visit owing to the homemade corn tortillas, authentically soft rather than deep-fried à la Taco Bell), Alambre sounded like a more creative take. They came in the same homemade corn tortillas (authentically soft, not deep-fried) but with more elaborate fillings than the tacos' traditional plain grilled meat with diced onion/cilantro garnish: sautéed bell pepper, onion, and bacon plus one of four meat preparations. Well, in theory. In actuality only grilled beef or chicken was available. We chose chicken. It came as sort of a diced hash with the peppers and onions (and possibly the bacon, though none of us could taste any); it tasted fresh but was otherwise fairly flavorless. The addition of a great deal of the salsa and, again, salt, helped but not enough.
Carne de puerco a la naranja, described as "the chef's specialty," was the meal's highlight in terms of solid stuff. Most dishes involving pork chunks cooked any way other than slow stewing tend to produce very dry, tough pork, but here overnight marinating in a sour-orange potion with hints of cumin, chilis, and other Mexican spices made the big pieces both tender and full of flavor. Served in Tequila Blue's fresh corn tortillas, the onion-garnished meat made a meal that wasn't just good for Ocean Drive but good period. Our one regret was that only two of us could try the complete package: Though there was enough pork for four tacos, the dish came with only two tortillas.
Both flan and "copacabana" vanilla ice cream were anticlimactic, both garnished with whipped cream from a spray can and topped with a Tequila caramel sauce that hadn't a hint of tequila taste. So do your part to keep the Ocean Drive party progressing by skipping dessert and ODing on more Patrón margaritas.