An incredibly tiny restaurant, Café Oriental opened about a month ago, taking over the original CAO Chocolate shop near Dadeland Mall, in the same shopping center as Gaetano's Pizza and Pasta, Raw South Juice Co., and Best Sub Shop.
The restaurant is so small, a sign outside tells diners that only two people can order at a time. Once inside, the scent of tempura greets you followed by a friendly "hello" from the sole server and partners Juan Gomez and Selina Siu. Curious diners can spot Gomez cooking behind the window that opens into the kitchen.
While you wait for your food, Siu may offer you a seaweed salad sample. Once your order is up, you can repair to one of the picnic tables outside. The restaurant also offers takeout.
Don't expect sushi at Café Oriental. Instead, Gomez offers other Japanese delicacies — ramen, bento boxes, and onigiri ($3.50 to $5.50).
Found inside 7-Elevens throughout Japan, that last snack — a rice ball wrapped around a strip of dried seaweed and traditionally packed with pickled plum or fish — is hard to find in Miami.
"I use the same style of the wrapper they use in Japan to keep the onigiri crispy," Gomez tells New Times, adding that in Japan, the snack is widely used by professional runners to fuel up before an event.
The ramen, one of Cafe Oriental's most popular dishes, is made almost entirely in-house. This includes the creamy tonkotsu broth, which cooks for 18 hours before being ladled into a bowl filled with noodles, pork, and a soft-boiled egg ($13.50).
Gomez believes nothing should go to waste and incorporates what he can into the broth for extra umami from strained fish bones to mushrooms for the vegetable broth. "Why throw things away when you can do something with them, and also show people we have something different?" he says rhetorically.
Other noodle dishes include yakisoba, a fried noodle, as well as thick udon noodles. Patrons can grab a bento box — such as the grilled salmon served with gyoza dumplings, salad, vegetable or shrimp tempura, and miso soup ($14.50). A weekday lunch special is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes a special bento box ($10.50) and a spicy chicken salad ($9.50).
Gomez, who moved to the U.S. from his native Colombia in 2000, has been in the restaurant business ever since. He went to culinary school in Pennsylvania and found his love for Asian cuisine while taking prerequisite English classes.
"When I went to school, I was the only Spanish-speaking guy, and I hung out with a lot of Asian students from the international student exchange," he explains.
“When I was in Colombia, we referred to everyone as Chinese — chino — I didn't know the difference. At culinary school, I started learning about the diversity of Asia and all the cuisines."
After graduating, Gomez worked at Maido in Doral for 14 years before getting the urge to open his restaurant.
"Some of the best French restaurants are in Japan," he notes by way of explaining his inclination to mix and match Japanese food with French, Korean, and Costa Rican cuisine.
Kimchee, the funky fermented Korean condiment, can be found in the restaurant's ramen, soup, and salad. Patrons will also find a Costa Rican chayote and pineapple salad ($6) on the menu.
Gomez's goal is to maintain tradition but also to experiment. "If you have the basics, you can re-create whatever you like," he says.
Cafe Oriental. 9800 SW 77th Ave., Miami; 786-294-3101; cafe-oriental.square.site. Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 9:30 p.m., and Sunday noon to 9 p.m.