Part of the appeal of dining out on foods we grew up with comes from being able to proclaim, with head-shaking disapproval, "This isn't the way my mother used to make it." Gives us that exhilarating feeling of expertise. Unfortunately, for me anyway, there isn't exactly a glut of Jewish restaurants in Miami, so except for affording me the occasional insight into, say, a brisket sandwich at the Rascal House, my heritage rarely comes into play when evaluating an eatery. My wife was brought up in a Puerto Rican household, another ethnicity poorly represented by local dining spots, so we were gratified to learn that Casa Salsa, a self-proclaimed "Puerto Rican Themed Restaurant," had opened in the Mare Grande Hotel on Ocean Drive. At least she would know if the place was getting it right.
A location on this most famed Beach boulevard usually provides enough foot traffic to sustain even the most mediocre restaurant (and as a result, more than a few mediocre restaurants do business along this stretch), though the throng of tourists thins considerably on the block between Fifth and Sixth streets, where the Mare Grande sits. Two former businesses in this space, an upscale pizzeria and an Argentine steak house, folded faster than a WAMI talk show, but Casa Salsa has gotten off to a promising start. During our first visit, on a Friday night, the place was packed.
Too packed. Although the three levels of outdoor seating can comfortably accommodate 50 people, the indoor tables, which seat twice that many, have been pushed so close together there's barely enough room to slide a tortilla between two of them. This meant that we could make out every word that the two couples -- one seated to our left, the other to our right -- were saying. It was almost as if we were sharing the same table, and no doubt I would have picked up some relevant comments concerning the food if they weren't speaking in Spanish: The clientele here is largely Latino.
To its credit Casa Salsa has refrained from hanging on its walls black-and-white photos of old San Juan, movie stills from West Side Story, and autographed glossies of baseball great Roberto Clemente. In fact I detected no discernible Puerto Rican motif in the minimalist decor. The dining room's mustard-yellow walls are bedecked only with red, corkscrew-stemmed plastic light fixtures. But in a corridor wall toward the rear of the restaurant you can eyeball several gold records and other Ricky Martin-related memorabilia. Martin, a former member of the Puerto Rican superstar group Menudo and now a solo pop heartthrob, is one of Casa Salsa's seven proprietors. He and his partners also own Ajili Mójili, a renowned San Juan restaurant.
The Puerto Rican theme may not be visually prominent, but it is certainly evident in the sound of the place: Latin rhythms pulsate through the restaurant's audio system (a bit too loudly by the outdoor tables), and live salsa and plena music are performed on Friday and Saturday nights from 10:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. It also shows up in the bar's specialty drinks, made with Puerto Rican rum, and most significantly in the food, orchestrated by chef Linda Denizard, who hails from Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Okay, maybe there is one minor visually thematic touch: Waiters wear pleneros, the island's popular white straw hats with cloth bands.
We began our meal with the soup of the day, plantain in chicken broth, or as our amiable and talkative waiter described it, "Puerto Rican matzo ball soup." The concept is indeed similar, although the two plantain spheres that sat in the soup's broth apparently lacked the binding abilities of matzo meal: Both disintegrated when touched with a spoon, clouding the tasty chicken stock. Another soup, this one from the regular menu, is made from the yautia, which many people know by its Cuban name, malanga. (The English translation on Casa Salsa's menu is "white yam.") One of the oldest root crops in the world, it possesses a much stronger flavor than most tubers; I think of it as a love-it-or-hate-it food. The taste is often compared to walnuts, but to me it suggests chestnuts, butter, and a touch of must. I love it. When boiled it becomes soft and creamy, losing much of the mucilaginous texture that some folks find objectionable. This makes the yautia ideal for soups; the version here is a simple but delicious puree of yautia with chicken stock, celery, and carrots.
Like many other starchy root vegetables, the yautia is versatile, so I wasn't surprised to see white-yam cheese balls as one of the seven "fritters" offered as appetizers. (Technically a cheese ball isn't a fritter; for that matter neither is a turnover, though they're grouped together that way on the menu.) These one-inch yautia "bolitas" were breaded and fried on the outside, soft and delicate inside. I'm surprised our waiter didn't refer to them as "Puerto Rican Tater Tots." You can order the fritters individually, but we opted for an assortment platter of four: white yam, pumpkin (sweetened with banana and sugar), bacalao (salted codfish) in a soft pastry casing, and savory meat turnovers made with ground beef, onion, peppers, and raisins. (My wife was surprised that the turnovers contained no Spanish olives. We didn't detect them in any of the dishes here.) The fritters are served with ajili mójili sauce, traditionally a tomatoless salsa made with sweet chili peppers; Casa Salsa's version comes with a tomato base that Americans are more accustomed to.
The best appetizer we tried was an order of six thick, meaty pork ribs coated with a sweet guava glaze. The worst: tortitas de yuca, five hefty fritters topped with a dried, salty spread that the menu calls "stewed fish." They tasted like potato pancakes made with Japanese fish chips.
Main courses feature authentic island foods such as pasteles (similar to a tamale, with ground chicken or pork wrapped with yautia and yuca paste instead of corn masa, then steamed in a plantain leaf), asopaos (somewhere between a soup and a stew), and mofongos (green plantain wrapped around various fillings). You also can order Latin-accented American fare, including a grilled tuna filet in molasses and Don Q 151 Rum sauce, and a veal chop with a recao wine sauce (recao is another term for culantro, which has a similar flavor to its sister herb, cilantro).
Presentations are straightforward, with little in the way of garnishes other than the shiny plantain leaves that serve as the base for many dishes. These green leaves contrasted nicely with the bright-red interior of the Angus beef filet, two tenderloin discs cooked in a Dutch oven (a heavy cast-iron pot) and served with a delicious rum-based mushroom sauce. Also delectable was asopaos de mariscos, a spicy lobster bisque made into a seafood stew with the addition of shrimp, lobster, octopus, conch, and white rice.
Hard to believe that the same kitchen that turned out the just-mentioned splendid entrees also produced an awful roast leg of pork. I detected hints of garlic and oregano (a popular Puerto Rican herb) in its flavor, but the overall taste was bland. Usually roast pork comes moistened with some of its own cooking juices, but these chunks of meat were naked and dry. A whole red snapper, fried crisp and topped with a mojo sauce of stewed tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and recao, was considerably wetter and better.
Dinners are served a la carte, but there are plenty of side dishes from which to choose (each costs $4). By now you know I'm an unabashed member of the white-yam fan club, so it should come as no surprise that my favorite side was the yautia puree. Crunchy cassava (yuca) French fries were also terrific, but we were disappointed by arroz mamposteado (yellow rice with red beans) and arroz con gandules (white rice with pigeon peas): lukewarm, greasy, and not quite fresh.
Of the seven desserts listed on the menu, just two flans, guava and vanilla, were available on our initial trip to Casa Salsa. We passed, having had our hearts set on some of the other offerings, particularly the bread pudding with rum sauce. On a return visit the bread pudding was still missing in action, but sweet rice pudding and coconut cream pie were now available. I wish they hadn't been. Our waiter warned us that coconut cream pie was a poor translation of tembleque de coco, which is actually a coconut flan thickened with cornmeal. The jelled texture of the timbale-shape serving makes me think they must substitute cornstarch or gelatin for cornmeal here. What our waiter neglected to tell us was that the sweet rice pudding contained enough sugar to start a Pepsi plant, as well as sufficient cinnamon to give it the color of cola. It was not, my wife noted, her mother's rice pudding.
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Casa Salsa is a fun place to dine: The crowd is lively, the music energetic, and the atmosphere friendly and inviting. Service is solid, especially for Ocean Drive. The waitstaff managed to get our orders right even when the restaurant was humming, all the more impressive when you consider that Casa Salsa opened less than two months ago. The wine list is predominantly Californian, but also includes interesting selections from France, Italy, Australia, Spain, and South America. And the food -- often an overlooked aspect of "fun," "theme," and Ocean Drive restaurants -- is pretty good. That said, the overall quality could be turned up a notch or two. After all, when you get the bill, you'll see that the money they charge for this cuisine ain't chopped liver.
524 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-604-5959. Lunch daily from noon till 4:00 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 6:00 till midnight, Friday through Sunday till 2:00 a.m.
Pork ribs in guava sauce $8.95
White yam soup $4.50
Asopaos de mariscos $23.95
Beef filet $24.95
Sweet rice pudding $6.