Olive Garden commercials promise that when we visit one of their restaurants, we'll be treated like family. Of course, we all know that isn't necessarily true. There is at least one restaurant in Miami, however, that treats clients like family--El Bajareque in Wynwood. On any given day, you might meet el primo (otherwise known as Nardo, not an actual cousin) and you will probably be waited on by Melissa (one half of the husband-wife team that runs the place), one of Melissa's kids, or Ana (an actual cousin).
I was recently next door getting a tattoo and in desperate need of some sustenance, when I headed to El Bajareque on the recommendation of a tattoo artist. "It's delicious and cheap." That was good enough.
One of the members of our party was Puerto Rican, so she was asked upon delivery of each item about whether it tasted authentic. Everything did. There were the homemade alcapurrias ($1.50), which consist of a mass made from a mixture of starchy tubers and ground beef, deep fried. Try them with ketchup and hot sauce, the way they are eaten on the island. There were also pasteles ($2) which are conceptually similar to Cuban tamales or Nicaraguan nacatamles, but offer a completely different gastronomical experience. The mass is made primarily out of plantains loaded with chunks of pork. They are also available frozen, so you can take home a bagful. Both of these items are handmade by los abuelos of Mariano, Melissa's husband.
Mariano's mom Amarilis Fernandez helms the kitchen, creating all the food that is made to order as well as the daily specials. She also creates the fillings for El Bajareque's four different types of empanadas ($1.00): pork, beef, chicken, and shrimp. Do not leave El Bajareque without trying a shrimp empanada. Although the four offerings are delicious, we cannot imagine visiting El Bajareque in the future without eating at least two of the shrimp-filled pastries.
Most entreés are priced at $6.50. This includes daily specials such as carne con papas (beef stew) or rabo encendido (stewed ox tail), as well as everyday menu items like bistec encebollado (steak with onions) and masas de puerco (fried pork chunks). All include two sides (rice & beans count as one) and include typical Latin fare such as rice, beans, fried sweet plantains, and the best tostones (fried green plantains) we have tasted in a long while. They are so good, you won't even want to dip them in the accompanying mojo. One of El Bajareque's most popular dishes is one that can be ordered anywhere -- pollo a la plancha, a flattened chicken breast steak, but no where will it be as savory as it is at El Bajareque. You can taste the marinade in every bite, and it is so good and so plentiful, that you will want to eat half and take the rest home. It makes for a great sandwich the next day.
Desserts options are also plentiful and include homemade desserts as well as options procured from nearby Gran Paris Bakery. The homemade choices include Latin rice pudding, arroz con leche ($1.50) and flan ($2). We tried the chocolate cake and carrot cake ($2 each). They were both above average, but the in-house arroz con leche was fantastic.
Aside from the Puerto Rican dishes, El Bajareque also offers traditional Cuban sandwiches and an assortment of sports bar food such as chicken strips and burgers, as well as vegetarian menu options. Also, the produce is so fresh that we thought los abuelos grew the stuff themselves. The grilled chicken salad is delectable and made with an assortment of vegetables.
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Owned by Mariano's grandparents for more than 40 years, the space was leased out for a few years to someone outside the family until June. Mariano and Melissa took over and revamped the menu and the décor, and even though it has only been under their stewardship for three months, the place already has a steady stream of regulars, including a local baseball team and people who work at the courthouse.
If you live in the neighborhood you are lucky enough to have your order delivered, but if you don't, take out is always available.
El Bajareque is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. It is closed on Sundays.
278 NW 36 Street, Miami