Denise Paredes rules her restaurant with an iron fist. Waitresses scurry about sporting hot-pink tank tops that match Paredes' flowing blouse. She handles the register with ease while making chitchat and directing mammoth platters of beef and pork ribs across the tight orange space.
"I can't talk to you right now — it's my busiest day of the week," she says as the Friday lunch rush ebbs. But when I ask about the racks sizzling on the eight-foot grill just beyond the front door, her eyes light up.
The succulent, fat-rippled slabs served Thursday through Saturday at Las Mercedes Restaurant speak for themselves. At most, there's a dusting of salt and pepper, perhaps accompanied by a splash of mojo. Her husband, 55-year-old Manuel Lopez, who presides over the smoking vessel, prods and flips racks of beef ($17) and pork ($12.50) that are then cleaved and served with two sides.
The pair bought this place, nestled among Doral's rows of beige warehouses, more than a decade ago, and it hasn't changed much. At the time, the weekend barbecue had been a tradition for nearly 30 years. "When we started, we used to do a whole pig, but it's gotten too expensive," Paredes says.
They've also added some of their own flair to the mostly working-class menu, including a piquant, savory goat stew called chilindrón de chivo ($13.99). First, the meat is boiled in vinegar for at least an hour to dispense any gaminess. Later, it's plunged into a roasting pan with white wine, pepper, and cumin and braised until the red-purple meat slips off the bone.
Paredes' Nicaraguan heritage is revealed in the favorites she prepares in bulk for customers who place orders well in advance. Among them is baho ($10), a Central American cousin of Italy's timpano that layers yuca, plantains, and shredded beef brisket onto a banana leaf wrap.
It's a dish she turns out only once a month, and regulars are always on the lookout. A growing list of requests unspools off an ice machine. For many customers, it's a taste of home. But Paredes says it will remain a rare treat because of the herculean effort the classic requires.
Despite her stern demeanor, she knows that some things, such as the baho, are best left in their pure, original form. Her philosophy is reflected in the statues of Jesus and Buddha that guard the cash register. "The lady who had the place before us left them," she says. "Who am I to throw them out?"