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Finka Table & Tap Takes Bold Flavors to Miami's Hinterland

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Far beyond Miami International Airport and that tangle of Dolphin Expressway construction traffic, a rising stretch of asphalt threatens to launch you into the sawgrass abyss. Only it doesn't. The road narrows and curves south, spitting you onto SW 137th Avenue and into a maze of low-slung auburn stucco houses and jam-packed strip malls.

Head west on Coral Way and you'll arrive at a bank and a pharmacy. There, in the corner of the parking lot, stands a rust-colored brick-and-wrought-iron building with the faint twinkle of Edison light bulbs crisscrossing a glassed-in patio.

Finka Table & Tap owner Eileen Andrade didn't want to open a restaurant way out here. But her parents (who are also investors and own two West Kendall places) had the good sense to force her into this space once occupied by a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Long John Silver's. Andrade, age 25, who owns Finka along with her brother Jonathan, age 27, wanted to be on the east side of town -- Wynwood, downtown, or Miami Beach. "[But] after thinking about it business-wise, it made perfect sense," she says. "There are people who just won't go out because there's nothing to do here."

The western reaches of Miami-Dade County, where civilization ends and the Everglades begin, has a booming population in search of affordable eats. Yet, so far, the area hasn't become a magnet for creative chefs and restaurateurs.

So Finka -- a funky spelling of the Spanish word for "farm" -- made a splash when it opened in early July as a stylish gastropub with an Asian and South American flair. There's a ten-drink cocktail list created by Bar Lab, the duo behind hipster hideaway Broken Shaker, alongside a barrage of eclectic-sounding dishes pulled from a pantry filled with homemade kimchee, ají amarillo, and vaca frita. Now the place buzzes at all hours. During a recent Saturday afternoon, as sunset approached, people sat on wrought-iron benches outside waiting for a table to open. Inside, nearly all of Finka's 230 seats were filled.

Waiters wearing canvas aprons and carrying cast-iron dishes squeezed through the crowd. Older couples sporting guayaberas and colorful sweatsuits sat quietly munching ham and codfish croquetas. Young families gathered at light-beige banquettes while screaming children downed bowls of macaroni and cheese peppered with juicy shredded carne asada.

Finka's roots grow from the hallowed ground of Cuban Miami restaurant royalty. Eileen Andrade's grandparents, Raul and Amelia Garcia, opened the Little Havana landmark restaurant Islas Canarias in 1977 after emigrating from Cuba. Raul and Amelia's daughter, Nancy, Eileen's mother, opened two other Islas Canarias locations in West Dade in 1987 and 2007. Santiago, Eileen's uncle, still oversees the Little Havana spot that started it all.

Eileen was 10 when she began working in her parents' restaurants, but she avoided them as a teenager. After a short stint in fashion school, she returned, working almost every job -- from manager to line cook -- at the family's restaurant at SW 137th Avenue and Coral Way. Inspired by one of Islas' Peruvian chefs and a two-month stint in Korea, she and her brother started the Cubancube food truck, which launched in 2011 and shuttered early this year.

At Finka, cocktails are poured under the guidance of Eddie Fuentes, a former Broken Shaker bartender. They are on the sweeter side and sometimes overpower more delicate elements. The milky, sugary notes of café con leche float in a Cuban old-fashioned made with Café Bustelo syrup that approaches cloying. In another rocks glass, Saged by the Bell blends tequila, peach bitters, spicy hibiscus syrup, sage, and lime; it should have held back on the sugar and let the floral and herbal notes flow through.

When it comes to eats, a shortlist of cold dishes offers kimchee to causas -- a Peruvian staple of chilled, whipped mashed potatoes tinted yellow with ají amarillo and topped with quail eggs and pulled chicken. The tiradito rocoto is a standout, with thin slices of corvina fanned out and doused in a tart blend of lime juice, ají limo, and ají rocoto with ginger, garlic, and basil. Sweet, toothsome kernels of choclo -- giant, opaque pale-yellow Peruvian corn -- balance the sour wash while small nibs of crisped pig skin add a distinctly Cuban texture to each delicate bite.

A cast-iron cazuela of cornmeal simmered in rich pork stock and butter until wonderfully thick is topped with shards of tender pulled lamb shank piled at its center. The unwrapped tamale is a clever, Cuban-Mexican take on Italy's osso buco. The child-quelling mac and cheese is less interesting but still better than the norm. Pasta elbows are slathered in melted Parmesan, Asiago, and sharp cheddar topped with ribbons of shredded beef and flecks of crisp bacon.

Salads under the heading "Lean & Green" provide a chance to dodge bacon-and-cheese-induced lethargy. The nutty, tart ponzu-lime dressing glossed onto inch-wide sheets of torn kale are a nice match for the fibrous, trendy greens. But for $9, it's a small portion. It needs more of the sugary-sweet Asian pear slices and briny Peruvian olives that make a couple of bites a tease of what could be.

Then there's the pizza. More than a half-dozen neither thin- nor thick-crust pizzas are topped with a variety of Cuban-Peruvian-Korean accoutrements. A 12-inch pie topped with shredded Manchego cheese, ground Peruvian olives, and a fried egg seems brilliant on paper but falls short on the plate. There are only a few spots of the promised chorizo, clumped up and lost amid the salty, greasy runoff of melting Spanish cheese and crushed olives. The yolk of a bull's-eye egg at the pie's center is cooked solid, as if it were hard-boiled.

Equally exciting-sounding is Cuban bibimbap, a vessel of fatty, melty oxtail, fried sweet plantains, homemade kimchee, crunchy summer squash baton, and a fried egg. If any two cultures know how to do rice and meat, it's Cubans and Koreans. However, Finka's translation gets lost: It's missing the superheated stone bowl that singes the rice to a glorious crunch and burns first-timers' wrists. Andrade said she's scouring local suppliers and the internet for the bowls but hasn't found them at an affordable price.

Crowds nevertheless flood Finka's brick-wrapped dining room. This is a fine restaurant that could get better. While Cuban specialties like bacalao croquetas and flan are excellent, the gastropub fare is welcome but predictable. Eileen and Jonathan Andrade have a first-rate restaurant pedigree, as well as both backing and guidance. In an era when few kids stay in the family business and cooks treat Miami as a stepping stone to someplace else, it's thrilling to see the next generation of a storied food family tying on the apron. With a little polish, Finka could be the savior of La Saguesera's dining scene.

Tiradito rocoto $6

Lamb tamale $9

Mac and cheese $9

Croquetas $6

Asian pear salad $8

Cuban bibimbap $12

Manchego pizza $13

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