Alberto Cabrera speaks pure Spanglish. He says pero instead of but. His grandmother is abuela. His landlord? Un viejo cubano -- an old Cuban man. His words drift from English to Spanish in a stream.
In his family, he's known as pan con mantequilla (bread and butter). Twenty years ago, during a trip to Cuba, his aunt coined the pet name. Cabrera hadn't eaten anything but bread and butter for days. "It was a time when food was really scarce," he recalls. The name stuck.
Now the 37-year-old has become fixated on Cuban cuisine. "I'll take mariquitas and un chicharrón over chicken wings any day," he says. And he's creative about it. At his inaugural restaurant, Bread + Butter, he's reinventing the food of his childhood and making it modern, melding ingredients such as lechón asado, black truffles, and sriracha.
See also: Bread + Butter in Coral Gables (Photos)
A Cuban-American chef with gray eyes and a chocolate-colored beard, he has a fanaticism that's rooted in his past. He reminisces about lunches he once shared with his father -- sitting at a Cuban counter and reaching for the straw in a malted milk.
So it's fitting he named his first restaurant after his family nickname. The "gastrocounter" concept -- Cuban cafeteria meets American-style gastropub -- wasn't inspired by the moniker, though. His idea, rather, came from a dusty coffee machine.
Last year, he received an unexpected call. A buddy had an empty restaurant space in Coral Gables. Cabrera, who'd just completed a stint at the Local Craft Food & Drink, a favorite in the Gables, toured the vacant place. In a backroom, he saw a dusty Pilon cafetera. An epiphany struck: Coral Gables didn't have an old-school Cuban cafeteria.
"We wanted to do something very Cuban, pero our whole thing is that we didn't want to make it in-your-face Cuban," he says, poking fun at Versailles, a boisterous Calle Ocho restaurant he loves. There, he says, the din of hundreds of people bellowing in Spanish can overwhelm wide-eyed tourists.
He isn't the first chef to rethink Cuban cuisine, though. Douglas Rodriguez opened Yuca, an upscale Cuban restaurant in Coral Gables, in 1989. Rodriguez, dubbed the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, also played with Latin American flavors.
"When I was starting this out, I said to my wife: 'I want to do a Cuban restaurant.' My wife said to me: 'Not Cuban!'" Cabrera says. "But I don't care. I didn't want it to be a Latin restaurant. Doug [Rodriguez] has already done that."
Despite his good humor, Cabrera's foray into Nuevo Cubano cuisine has been filled with hardships. Soon after he developed the restaurant's concept, he invited his 66-year-old father to see the space. "My dad was an outrageous cook," he says. "I was like, how cool would it be to make a potaje [legume stew] and just listen to my dad, the best storyteller ever. Sometimes his stories were so good you didn't know whether to believe him or not."
Two weeks later, his father was diagnosed with lymphoma. He passed away shortly before the restaurant's debut. A month later, still distraught over his father's passing, the chef welcomed his third child, a girl named Leila.
Though Cabrera has faced many personal trials, Bread + Butter has garnered a loyal following. The restaurant is hip and small -- its dining room adorned with coiled light bulbs, subway tiles, vintage photos, mason jars, and an L-shaped wooden counter. José Martí's famed poem "Cultivo una Rosa Blanca" is written on a wall. It's Brooklyn chic meets Havana tropical -- a unique mishmash that's distinctively Miami.
Cabrera's approach is different. It's contemporary, reflecting current epicurean trends.
For example, visit Bread + Butter during lunch and you can watch suits sip craft suds such as Cigar City Jai Alai. These men munch on pan con minutas -- delectable fish sandwiches stuffed with deep-fried snapper fillets, coleslaw, and a creamy Creole rémoulade with preserved lemon. Hear noisy families, with abuelos in tow, gnaw on mariquitas -- wavy slivers of fried golden plantain sprinkled with salt.
Order the special platter of the day, which includes white rice, fried sweet plantains, some sort of potaje, and protein -- fish, chicken, or meat. Try Cabrera's pan con lechón, a fluffy Chinese bao bun crammed with roast pork shoulder, sourced from Florida's Palmetto Creek Farms. Mojo-seasoned onions, scallions, and sriracha top the innovative purse-shaped bread. The dish conveys not only Cabrera's innate skill but also his charm.
Also sample Cabrera's plátano en tentación -- fried sweet plantains wrapped in house-cured bacon. The teeny bits are smothered in five-spice syrup crowned with a dollop of sour cream and chives. Sure, the syrup is overwhelming, and each bite borders on excess. But that's why Cabrera calls it a "temptation."
Lighter stomachs should opt for the baby beet salad. A blend of roasted red beets, pistachios, orange segments, julienned celery, and goat cheese, the salad is a celebration of textures. Cabrera's ingredient-driven cooking shifts from traditional to playful and fun.
At times, though, ambition can mar his judgment -- and his dishes. Pickled shell-on shrimp are crammed into a tight mason jar and then topped with chopped tomato and sliced celery. Three tostones, piled neatly alongside the cup, are plopped next to a tub of hot sauce. The Humboldt Fog goat cheese flan dessert, which is crested by Florida citrus segments, arrives in a nettlesome tin can.
Jamming food into tight quarters does not equal reinvention.
The chef's troubles extend beyond the kitchen. On a recent evening, a flustered waitress confused our drink order twice, forgot our table for extended periods of time, and claimed the kitchen lost our ticket. The roast lamb arrived before the mixed salad with bone-marrow vinaigrette. The fufú -- mashed fried savory plantains with rendered pork belly -- came as dessert.
Cabrera admits his faults. The 42-seat restaurant lacks a manager. And until recently, Bread + Butter had no chef de cuisine.
"From day one, we should have had a great manager," he says. "When there are backers behind you, it's easy to say that, but I'm not a millionaire."
The chef is without big pockets or investors. "Two weeks ago, the fan broke in our hood, and if we were a different restaurant group, we'd get it fixed right away -- no matter the cost," he says. "Unfortunately, we had to close for three days."
Six months after the restaurant debuted, he hired a consultant to solve service issues. Bread + Butter has evolved the old-fashioned way: open, make money, expand.
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Some problems aren't easily solved, though. When I spoke to Cabrera on the phone a few days ago, his car had just been burglarized. He was pacing outside an AT&T store, mumbling about a dysfunctional line. Screeching cars and honking horns strewed the conversation. He said he's planning to launch a Coral Gables frita spot -- 1950s shake shop meets Cuban hamburger -- in three months. The starry-eyed cook reflected on past mistakes.
"I didn't open a restaurant to be average. I want this to be one of the better restaurants of Miami. The first few months were tough, pero once you open the doors, you gotta do what you gotta do to make things great."
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.