When chef Nuno Grullon signed a lease for a spot on the corner of 66th Street and Biscayne Boulevard this past September, he and his business partner Akira Van Egmond saw great potential for the tiny former coffee stand in the MiMo District.
Grullon was the executive chef who opened Cafe Roval a few blocks south in 2016, so he was well aware of the neighborhood's promise. "From 54th Street to 79th Street, everyone is remodeling the old motels," he tells New Times. "When I saw the old cafetería available, I kinda liked that it was one of the few undeveloped places on the boulevard."
He and Van Egmond had met when they both worked at the since-shuttered Metro Organic Bistro five blocks north on Biscayne and spent many hours playing basketball at nearby Legion Park. Envisioning a quick-serve restaurant where people could pick up affordable, high-quality food after a day at the park, they considered burgers but decided that tacos were what the neighborhood needed.
The partners set to work renovating the small space and transforming it into Uptown 66 Taqueria. "We also painted the market next door to make sure this corner looks vibrant and alive," the chef says. The partners also commissioned a local artist, Golden Boy, to install a floral mosaic with cobalt tones to match the bright awning outside.
Grullon planned a concise menu of tacos filled with braised meats that feign simplicity when in fact they require hours to prepare. To make the tacos authentic, the New York native studied Mexican cooking techniques. "There's a lot of technique in braising. It was a challenge, and that was exciting to me," he says.
Just as the restaurant was set to open, the pandemic hit. After holding out for two months longer than they'd planned, paying rent with no income, they opened for business.
A veteran of many kitchens, the chef confesses he was nervous the night before he served Uptown 66's first tacos. "I couldn't sleep, I kept worrying all night about the short ribs I was slow-cooking."
For the time being, Grullon says, Uptown 66 is operating as a "pop-up," with limited hours and a truncated menu of tacos, quesadillas, burritos, salad, and guacamole. Taco fillings include pollo asado with pickled carrots, radish, and crema ($3.75); barbacoa with slow-braised oxtail, beef cheek, and short rib ($4.75); and suckling-pig carnitas with cabbage and onion ($4.25).
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Even with a soft opening, the partners shut off the burners early yesterday after running out of food. "Today, we're going to put some extra in the oven," Grullon promises.
Grullon and Van Egmond will set up tables and chairs out front for now. In the future, they plan to install a communal table on the side of the building. A 3,000 square-foot garden on the back patio is also in the works.
But for now, the duo wants to take small steps. "We're planning to get through coronavirus and the summer season coming up and get a feel for the neighborhood," Grullon says.
Uptown 66 Taqueria. 6600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-960-7117; uptown66taqueria.com. Noon to 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (hours subject to change).