Downtown Mexican Eatery Golden Cafe Survives Despite the Odds

Paula Carmenate's Golden Cafe (226 E. Flagler St., Miami; 786-378-1875) seems more like a place to get dressed than to eat lunch.

The minuscule space opens to the street through a narrow chocolate-brown door frame. There's barely enough room in front of the chest-high counter for two people. Beyond its stacks of croissants and pastelitos, Carmenate, age 52, and her sister Amable Olvera flawlessly execute a carefully choreographed dance to turn out a flurry of sugary cortaditos and pressed ham sandwiches.

In the morning, the downtown crowd is desperate for an early jolt of caffeine. Then comes lunch. Each day, she offers an $8 special that sometimes features a swollen burrito overflowing with Mexican rice tinted red from being simmered with puréed tomatoes. On a recent day, she served a juicy grilled chicken breast stuffed with ham and mozzarella cloaked in tomato cream sauce.

Carmenate moved to Miami from central Mexico's Santiago de Querétaro in 1990 with a now-ex-husband whose memory still makes her grimace. "I never want to know him again," she says. In the years that followed, she supported herself by working two jobs. One was in sales at the Limited. The second was at Coconut Grove's Daily Bread Marketplace. It was there she fell in love with feeding people. "I'll never forget the smile on someone's face when they get a plate of lamb kofteh," she says.

Then, in 2003, she received a call from a friend who owned the building where her café stands today. "She said, 'I have a little space and wanted to see if you want to take it,' " Carmenate remembers. She jumped at the narrow, $1,800-per-month slot. "It's hard, but it's something I love," she adds.

Recent years haven't been easy. Carmenate says rising rents in the neighborhood have forced many businesses to shutter, taking a bite out of her customer base. As many of the clothing and electronics stores have disappeared, so too have the tourists who frequented them. "Look at the street yourself," she says on a recent weekday afternoon. "There's no one."

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