Israel "Izzy" Valdes is a single dad whose kids "could never decide where they wanted to eat. It was always either Chinese food, or McDonald's, or stuff like that. So I thought 'If they can't decide, how many other people really can't decide where to go?" So Izzy got busy planning a restaurant that would offer a choice between two of the more popular dishes in South Florida: Cuban and Thai. "Since no one ever combined them before, I did," he says with a laugh. That's how Izzy's Cubi-Thai Cuisine was born.
Izzy's has been open two and a half years on Collins Avenue between 65th and 66th Street in the Sherry Frontenac Hotel. The location has been a problem. "It's been difficult to let people know that we're here," laments Valdes. "The Sherry Frontenac has always been a private hotel, just for airline employees, so people think 'If the hotel is private, the restaurant is private." He adds, however, that "The hotel is starting to open up a little bit to the public."
In order to bring more attention to his restaurant, Izzy's in the midst of a renovation that should be completed by the beginning of 2011. There are other changes in the works as well.
"We only have a beer and wine license, but I've brought on Ty-Ku to do a Ty-Ku Sake Lounge. We'll have other brands of sake as well, and different types of saketinis. We'll also be doing comedy nights, live music, karaoke and stuff."
When asked where he's from, Izzy replies, "I was made in Cuba, but born here" -- and then immediately lets me know that his Thai food is not cooked by Cubans. "I have two separate kitchens. We've got a Cuban chef who cooks on the Cuban side, and the Thai chefs cook on the Thai side." He really seems to like to talk about his restaurant's food, which he is obviously very proud of. "This is one of the only places that I know of where everything is freshly made from scratch, to order. We bring it out as it's made, as opposed to bringing everything out at once."
The reason I was talking with Mr. Valdes is that I had stopped by in the middle of the afternoon for a snack while my wife took care of some business in the neighborhood; she was, in fact, the person who recommended the place to me. I had a Cubi-Thai sampler (seen in photo), which was really quite good -- freshly, cleanly fried renditions of spring rolls; a fluffy papa rellenos; two croquetas filled with moist meat (one chicken, one beef); and sweet/spicy Thai chicken drumsticks. Also finished off a very satisfying bowl of moderately spicy red curry with pork, peppers, and bamboo shoots in coconut-based sauce. The curry was $10.95; the sampler was a steal at $7.95.
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I was most curious about one thing: Which of the two cuisines has proved to be more popular? Izzy was quick to answer: "Oh, Thai food." I was surprised, as apparently was he. "I thought Cuban would be, based on the travelers who come here, but Thai food is a lot more popular."
Miami New Times was onto Izzy's from the start, awarding it the Best Cuban-Thai Restaurant in 2009. It is, at the moment, a diamond-in-the-rough being polished and getting ready to shine. Come the beginning of the year, it just may dazzle you.
Izzy's Cubi-Thai Cuisine
6565 Collins Ave., Miami Beach