Somewhere between foulmouthed puppet Pepe Billete's adulation, the publication of Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood, and the LeBron entourage member wearing a "Hialeah" hat in the playoffs, "La Ciudad Que Progresa" quietly became Miami's coolest hood.
The city is a Spanish-language version of Tammany Hall-style corruption emulsified with the grittiness of rapper KRS-One's South Bronx. It's an overlooked place that turns out a resilient breed of people who remain proud of their home. It also boasts one of South Florida's best delis in Stephen's Restaurant and a burgeoning arts district.
But beyond the sea of croquetas and fritas, Hialeah isn't lauded for culinary excitement. So you could almost hear the collective gasp when La Fresa Francesa Petit Café opened two months ago near a canal that slices diagonally along the city's southern edge. Inside, washed-out farm chairs seem to dance around doily-lined bistro tables to the intoxicating French crooning often reserved for tourists at Montmartre.
La Fresa Francesa Petit Caf
Bacon, potato, and raclette crepe $12
Un Cubano in Paris $9.50
A gossamer curtain separates co-owner Sandy Sanchez, a 39-year-old Hialeah native, and the 30-seat dining room from her beau, 38-year-old Benoît Rablat, who mans the kitchen. He's also the inspiration for the place's name — "The French Strawberry" — which stems from a baby picture.
He turns out precise French café fare while keeping in mind the neighborhood bustling outside. The aptly named "Un Cubano in Paris" is a case in point. A pork shoulder is soaked in milk and rubbed with garlic and paprika before a four-hour braise in white wine. Creamy, silken shreds of it are layered onto fluffy rolls from Los Angeles' La Brea Bakery. Pickled red onions strike the eye with a brilliant magenta before hitting the palate with Dijon mustard's piquant snap. The only gripe is that the accompanying potato chips be replaced by something — anything — else.
It's risky in this part of town to serve shredded pork with anything other than chopped onion, crisp skin, and mojo, but the pair at La Fresa Francesa say the opportunity to set up shop in Hialeah was too good to pass up.
"We did it for all the romantic reasons," Sanchez says, "but there's also no competition, little rent, and there was nothing else like this."
Yet such a decision was made possible by a fortuitous series of events that seem lifted from a Nora Ephron screenplay. Sanchez studied theater at Miami Dade College before embarking on a performing career that included sadomasochistic karaoke shows at Churchill's Pub in the early 2000s. "We would tie people up onstage and give them shots of booze so they would sing and wash people's hair," she says.
By the time 2002 rolled around, she had departed for Los Angeles in pursuit of a more traditional acting career. Like so many starry-eyed hopefuls, she began waiting tables to make ends meet. It wasn't long before she fell in love with wine during a stint at Neal Fraser's BLD. Soon she began training with the International Sommelier Guild but stopped before earning its highest certifications. ("You just make more money being a server," she says.) Feeling lost and unsure of a way forward, she split town in 2013 for Indonesia for a month of deep meditation. "I wanted to find the love of my life," she says. "I wanted to find my purpose."
She returned to Los Angeles later that year and began working at Osteria Mozza. The beloved Italian eatery helmed by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Nancy Silverton was also the birthplace of her relationship with Rablat. He was born and raised between Paris' outskirts and Toulouse and became a formidable home cook alongside the women in the family. "My aunt lives in the south, where we were surrounded by foie gras and cassoulet," he says. "Give me a computer, and I can barely turn it on, but give me a fridge with some food in it, and I'll make you a meal."
Still, he had never worked in a restaurant before moving to San Francisco in 2003 at the age of 26. There he started serving tables at the now-closed Cortez near Union Square and eventually worked up to wine director. All the while, he remained focused on the action in the kitchen. "I was always asking questions," he says.
In 2008, he moved to Los Angeles and bounced around as a waiter before opening a small crepe spot near Venice Beach in 2010. Rablat is a specialist with these thin pancakes. The savory varieties are called galettes, he explains, and are a smoky-gray, almost purple color thanks to buckwheat flour. His staple version is wrapped around roasted potato cubes lathered in a garlicky aioli and draped in musty raclette cheese and bacon. It was a regular at the shop he sold in 2013 before starting at Mozza alongside Sanchez. "A year and a half later, we're opening this restaurant together," she says.
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The pair recently launched a more ambitious dinner menu this past Tuesday (Bastille Day). The five-course, $48 meal included salt cod brandade alongside a very classic bœuf bourguignon. Rablat says to expect more of the same in the following weeks, including escargots, foie gras, and duck confit. It'll be the true test of his homespun kitchen skills and whether the duo can break the neighborhood's lingering stereotypes.
"There is this stigma that Hialeah is full of old people who only want to eat Cuban food," Sanchez says. "It's bullshit, and every day, people thank us for being here and offering them something new."