Richard Hales knew locals would be heartbroken if his downtown eatery didn't serve a steak taco. But the versions he tasted during a culinary exploration of Mexico City were merely passable. There, the pork taco reigns supreme.
So Hales concocted something worthy of the Magic City. The steak is cut from the flank, marinated, and placed on the plancha. For extra flavor, the kitchen throws in ground pork shoulder, along with Proper Sausages chorizo that's been seasoned with ajito peppers, poblano chilies, onions, and oregano. Then Oaxaca cheese is tossed in, and the entire mixture is placed atop a freshly made flour tortilla.
Here's a taco that requires no editing, just complete focus to ensure the incredibly juicy meat doesn't fall off the tortilla, where it rightfully belongs. It's a labor-intensive dish, Hales explains, that begins with the tortillas. Indeed, any time during your meal at the two-month-old Centro Taco, you can press your face right up against the glass and watch a skilled tortilla-maker in action.
"I want to have a Mexican place... where you have Haitian elements, Jewish items, and Southern dishes."
You know Hales. He's the chef/owner of the popular modern Chinese spot in midtown, Blackbrick, as well as the Asian-fusion eatery across the street, Sakaya Kitchen.
In fact, Centro Taco occupies the space that once belonged to Sakaya's second location. And though it's easy to assume Centro is a result of Hales' seeking a piece of Miami's taco mania, the chef says he wanted to open a taqueria long before he developed the concept for Sakaya. His first job after graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York City was at a Mexican restaurant.
With Centro, Hales' goal is to use the flavors of Mexico to create a restaurant that's in line with local preferences and product availability. He says that while interviewing his current chef de cuisine, James Seyba, he told him: "I want to have a Mexican place but to make it the sort of Miami restaurant where you have Haitian elements, Jewish items, and Southern dishes." Luckily for Hales, Seyba's previous post involved writing the ethnically diverse and creative menu for 27 Restaurant, the acclaimed eatery in Miami Beach.
On a recent rainy weeknight, our Centro experience kicked off with an order of fried green tomatoes. They arrived on a wooden board containing two tomatoes coated in stone-ground grits. A lovely peach salsa surrounded the gently fried orbs and balanced out their acidity. The Southern-inspired dish is what nabbed Seyba the gig, Hales says, and it's commendable for being equally light and comforting.
Speaking of light, the half-Filipino, half-American chef/owner is adamant about omitting butter and using very little oil at Centro. There are also copious vegan options that reflect Hales' personal dietary choices. Take, for example, the raja con crema taco. The crema, in this case a blend of tofu and spices, lines a corn tortilla fortified with grilled corn, radishes, and roasted poblano peppers. The vegetable pairings are on point, and you would never think the crema is made with anything other than cream, but there's a problem. The tortilla is too bland and doesn't hold its shape well. Hales knows the corn tortillas aren't on par with their flour counterparts, so let's hope it's only a matter of time before they improve.
The same delicious vegan crema also accompanies the fish taco, which features the day's catch in a Holy Mackerel beer batter. If you're lucky, you'll come on a day when the fish is spear-caught local black grouper. It's combined with a tasty flour tortilla and Haitian-style pikliz slaw, resulting in a straightforward dish that's utterly irresistible.
Also great is the green chorizo queso fundido. It's a dish consisting of hot and gooey Oaxaca and Jack cheeses, as well as a spicy green chili chorizo that Proper Sausages developed specifically for Centro. The item arrives in a simmering skillet with a side of flour tortillas. It tastes as good as it sounds, especially when you can peel the melted cheese off the sides of the plate.
Desserts are the domain of Hales' wife, Jenny. Her egg-and-dairy-free chocolate-chip cookies are a vegan's dream. And the proverbial icing on the cake: The treats are proffered with a glass of icy horchata. Conversely, a chocolate brownie was too stale to enjoy.
If you head to Centro during the day, you'll find the colorful and airy eatery brimming with office workers. Arrive in the evening, and only a handful of tables will be occupied. True, downtown isn't a happening area at night, but Centro is worth the detour. After all, how often does a restaurant come along that offers free valet parking, friendly service, dinner for about $20 per person (sans alcohol), and food that tastes much more expensive than it costs? Not often enough.
125 SE Third Ave., Miami; 305-371-2518; centrotaco.com. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; brunch Saturday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.
- Steak alambre taco $5
- Fried green tomatoes $10
- Vegan rajas con crema taco $3
- Baja fish taco $6
- Green chorizo queso fundido $10
- Vegan chocolate chip cookies $6
- Chocolate brownie $7