You're driving south on SW 27th Avenue toward Coral Gables, you're hungry, and, frankly, you're beginning to feel desperate. There's a gas station, a church, even a bait shop on this four-lane stretch that's not quite Little Havana and not yet the Gables, but no decent place to eat. Then, like a sudden invitation amid the string of insurance agencies and health clinics, you see it: a Spanish flag flying proudly over the corner of SW 12th Street.
Impossibly juicy, the six grilled head-on shrimp make for a conversation piece that's easily shared.
The flag belongs to Asador 5 Jotas, a culinary oasis in a dining desert between Calle Ocho and Coral Way. "This restaurant is in the middle of nothing and in the middle of everything," says Javier Eseverri, the restaurant's 54-year-old owner, who hails from northern Spain.
Eseverri, who has made a living in Miami since 1990 consulting on restaurant openings, had spent years looking for the right space to open a place of his own. Finding the ideal location wasn't as important as finding the right location.
"After many years of looking, I found the place menos malo," he says. "None of the others, for contracts or whatever other reason, offered great conditions. This place, I knew, wasn't great, but it was the least bad of all."
From the outside, dark wood accents and heavy siding hint at Asador 5 Jotas' Basque influences. Inside, cement floors and long architectural lines offer subtle touches of modernity, with just enough decoration to make the space feel cozy. At the center of the dining room, racks of wine surround a chalkboard that lists daily lunch and tapas specials.
Eseverri's goal, he says, is to carve out a niche in Miami's crowded Spanish dining scene. "I want to open the restaurant to the masses," he says.
In a city that's saturated in tapas, cheap tempranillos, and croquetas, Asador 5 Jotas sticks to Spanish tradition while remaining abreast of modern dining trends across the United States.
A solid selection of tapas and tablas, paired with an exceptional Spanish wine list, is the star of any meal at this Basque-focused eatery, but entrée portions are offered for those looking for a proper fill. And though grilled meats are a staple of the cuisine of northern Spain, the chefs at Asador have quite a way with shellfish and other delights from the sea.
The extensive tapas menu offers 21 options (including three types of croquetas), ranging in price from $6 for dishes like tortilla española to $16 for grilled head-on shrimp. Items vary from squid to eggs and even oxtail.
Gulas con gambas ($11) — eel with shrimp — is more approachable than it sounds. Sautéed in olive oil with red chili flakes and served in a small clay pot, the seafood is coated evenly in fat but isn't greasy. The small shrimp that accompany the toothsome eel seem to have been tossed into the pan at just the last minute, leaving them juicy and tender, a nod to the kitchen's deftness.
Garbanzos fritos get an umami-laden kick of Iberian ham and chorizo that have been crisped in the rendering process. A heavy dose of parsley balances the dish, which borders on being overly fatty.
A breadbasket of sliced baguette that's warmed to order is great for sopping up leftover sauces, fat, and juicy proteins. Don't overload on carbohydrates, though — plenty of the smaller portions offer a doughy counterbalance to the luscious, sautéed plates.
Made with a combination of potatoes mashed with salted cod that's then breaded and deep-fried, croquetas de bacalao provide a perfect bite of the hearty, earthy menu. So delicate they crack open at the slightest pressure from a fork, these light, savory pockets will entice even seafood skeptics.
Lest it be forgotten, the Spanish love eggs. A typical Spanish tortilla with roasted potato is the obvious choice for ovo-lovers, though the huevos rotos will satisfy a wide variety of palates. Runny soft-boiled eggs are cracked over slices of baguette and garnished with crisp flakes of serrano ham and manchego cheese. Easily at home on a brunch menu, the crusty bread, rich yolks, and spicy ham are an ideal segue for more small plates or even something a tad bigger.
On the larger end of the tapas portions, the langostinos a la plancha could be enjoyed as an entrée for one. Impossibly juicy, the six grilled head-on shrimp make for a conversation piece that's easily shared. Another 30 seconds on the griddle wouldn't hurt to add a little char and barely tighten up what's inside the head. Suck out its juices before diving into the crustacean's flesh, which pops with the gentlest bite.
Meat-eaters will enjoy the massive, two-pound chuletón de buey ($24 per person), an aged rib eye served tableside on a hot rock. However, following in the tapas-style menu, the chuletas de cordero platter offers a smattering of perfectly grilled lamb rib chops, each small enough to give a shot of earthy meatiness to the seafood-heavy tapas menu. All items from the grill come with a choice of side — roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, rice, or a house salad.
As the name implies, Asador 5 Jotas does its best work on the grill, either with land-based proteins or seafood done simply in tapas format, doused with Spanish olive oil. The mero koskera — a grouper fillet bathed in an herb-and-garlic sauce with mussels, a hard-boiled egg, white asparagus, and roasted potatoes — feels overworked and cluttered. Concentrating more on Spanish seafood like the seared bacalao in garlic sauce, or a mixed grill of fish, shellfish, and meats, would play to the kitchen's strengths and provide new highlights on the "Mar Adentro," or offshore, menu.
On the small dessert menu, crema catalana can satisfy just about any sweet tooth. The chocolate-and-orange mousse follows the decadent flavors of the savory menu well. Bitter dark chocolate pairs with the subtle acidity of oranges, ubiquitous in Spanish cooking, to act not only as a palate-cleanser but also a light digestif for those who'd rather not have a glass of sherry to wash everything down.
With attentive, knowledgeable service and subtle decor that allows the food to speak for itself, this quaint Spanish grill may not have a neighborhood to call its own, but it's certainly beginning to feel right at home.