At Esther's Restaurant, a decades-old takeout joint in Liberty City, the line snakes around the room as women with thick eyeliner holler out orders that are then packed in Styrofoam containers. People count fistfuls of crinkled bills, or hold their chins and furrow their brows, trying to decide what to order off a mashup menu of soul food and Cuban favorites.
Meanwhile, food flies from behind a stainless steel counter where Maria, the manager, collects the cash and runs the show. One container bears a mustard-yellow curried chicken leg with candied yams and collard greens. In another, a palomilla steak with deliciously sweet tostones and congri, another name for black beans and rice.
Esther and Clemente Palmarola opened their first of several spots here in 1961, not as a restaurant, but as a kind of catering service that delivered dinner for newly arrived immigrants who worked around the clock. Pablo Suarez Sr., who arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1965, bought what was then called Esther's Cantina in 1971 and continued the delivery business.
Things chugged along until 1980, when the riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie.
"No one came into work the morning after," said Pablo Suarez Jr., who today owns this and two Esther's in Miami Gardens and North Miami with his brother and sister. "He called us in to give him a hand and a few days turned into a few weeks turned into a few months turned into 30 years."
The neighborhood was slow to recover after the riots and few if any businesses reopened in short order. Esther's pressed on, making up to 700 deliveries a day. With nowhere else nearby to eat, people started showing up at the door asking what "smelled so good," Suarez said.
"We noticed we were losing potential business," he added.
Now, the business is all take away, and it's about hearty, economical portions of turkey wings and Cuban oxtail. A $3.97 breakfast comes with grits, scrambled eggs, a biscuit and either sausage or bacon. At lunch, it's a quarter-baked chicken with two picks from more than a dozen sides for $4.99. Five fried chicken wings are $5.98 and a whole fried red snapper comes in just under $12.
One hulking fried catfish filet ($5.99) comes with a brittle crust encasing soft, juicy flesh. Douse it with a squeeze of homemade hot sauce from the dimpled bottle on the counter, and be sure to hit the side of okra and tomato stew with it too. It's cooked just right, with the little wheels of sliced pods cooked until tender, but not at all slimy as is often the risk.
What Esther's does best, however, is remain reliably unchanged and affordable no matter the times. The business and its customers took a massive hit during the Great Recession, and the lines that used to stretch out the door are slowly returning. The neighborhood still hurts though, and you can see it. All around Esther's sit sagging, crumbling buildings, but Suarez says he's got a responsibility to keep going.
"We don't expect much from the government except tax collection," he said. "These are our neighborhoods, and we'll make it on our own."
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