Hialeah is about the last place you'd expect to find exquisite French fare. But veer off the 112 for just a few minutes and you'll be pleasantly surprised by La Fresa Francesa Petit Café at 59 W. Third St. This French strawberry instantly transports you to Provence. It has an even a more charming backstory than its setting.
Sandy Sanchez and Benoit Rablat met while working at the Michelin-starred Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Hialeah and of Cuban descent, Sanchez left the Magic City for the Hollywood Hills to pursue her acting career 12 years ago. She's a natural performer; you might even recognize her from her heyday at Churchill's Pub, where she performed as Viva in the Karaoke Horror Show, which New Times named Best Karaoke in 2001.
Though she gave up her stage name long ago and subsequently fell in love with the hospitality industry while waiting tables, Sanchez became certified by the International Sommelier Guild and Court of Master Sommeliers. "I started working at higher-quality establishments and realized that these two worlds of food and wine are intertwined," she says. "One cannot exist without the other."
Even working as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza, however, didn't fully do it for her. "I kept thinking there was more to this whole thing — life. What was I put on this Earth to do, and what is my meaning?" To try to answer those questions, she packed her bags for Bali in true Eat, Pray, Love fashion and went on a somewhat spiritual retreat. "I wanted to fall in love with someone and build something together, so I put it out into the universe." After three months in Bali and upon her return to Osteria Mozza, she found Rablat, who had held down the fort while she was gone.
"I get back and here's this guy who instantly caught my attention." The sentiment was returned, and he went to the ends of the Earth for her — or, in this case, Hialeah.
"What I asked the universe for manifested," she says of falling madly in love, traveling to his native France (among other places), and dreaming that one day they would open a place together. "Never did we think it would be in Hialeah." But family circumstances brought Sanchez back home. It's a good thing, though, because otherwise, Rablat would've never found himself in La Ciudad Que Progresa.
A self-trained cook from childhood, Rablat was born just outside Paris but always had a fascination with traveling to the States, so he moved to San Francisco and worked his way up in the restaurant biz. "I was a server, sommelier. You name it, I did it," he says. Eventually, he wound up in Los Angeles, where he opened his own place, La Petite Crepery, and fate led him to Sanchez.
Here, the adoring couple run a restaurant themselves. Sanchez takes orders and works the front of house while Rablat cooks and visits tables to explain what patrons are eating. On a recent weekday, both of them sat with a wine vendor (after the 20-person dining room calmed down) to swirl, taste, and find the perfect pairing for the dinner menu they're working on. "We want to do a pairing with small plates." During their conversation with the wine purveyor, Sanchez explained they want to educate the surrounding community in French food and wines — a bold and admirable move.
Receipts are handwritten. No machine sends orders to the kitchen. Only a curtain separates Sanchez's and Rablat's respective domains. Washed-out chairs look almost surreal, and the stripped ceiling is festooned with strung bulbs hanging from exposed wooden beams. Sanchez, who energetically darts around the dining room while wearing a polka-dotted shirt, full red lips, and a scarf around her head, fearlessly fills wine glasses and takes orders. Amorous French music is the soundtrack to the entire experience. It'll make you feel like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris when he mysteriously finds himself in a bygone era and has no idea what's happening yet wants to know more.
La Fresa Francesa is indeed a petite café. In other words, the kitchen (like the dining room) is quaint. Their offerings right now are limited to lunch, which means salads, sandwiches, and sweet or savory crepes.
"A Cubano in Paris" ($9.50) packs braised pork (that's been marinated overnight) with Gruyère cheese, pickled onion, and grilled caramelized onion between freshly baked slices of bread smeared with Dijon mustard. "Everything is homemade," Rablat says — except the bread. That comes from La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, which was started by James Beard Award-winning chef Nancy Silverton, whom the pair worked with at Osteria Mozza.
A recent daily special (check the blackboard for these) included a red-wine-braised oxtail sandwich with arugula ($15). This will make oxtail lovers extremely happy.
What's a French café without a proper croque? In this case, it's the croque-madame, which gets a decadent topping of a sunny-side-up egg ($9.50). The béchamel on this baby is the craftsmanship of a true Frenchman. Other sandwiches include El Pollo Eiffel (chicken, aioli, arugula, and roasted red bell pepper) and Fishing With Gainsbourg Melt (smoked whitefish, homemade mayo, capers, and red onion).
There's also a Brie-and-pear sandwich with homemade pear jam and arugula for $9. "This is my version of Brie and peach," Rablat says. "And it's actually more of a compote 'cause it's not as sweet as jam and packs a crunch."
After all of that bread, you'll want some green. Order the "Spring Time in Paris" ($8.50), which shaves Brussels sprouts and tosses them with a decent amount of Parmesan, dates, lemon juice, and hazelnuts. "I'm a big fan of that crunchy element in dishes." At first bite, you might just think, What is it about my salad that reminds me of Nutella?
It's a tossup between the Spring Time in Paris and the Kale Napoleon ($8.50), which packs a ton of pecorino cheese and pine nuts with baby kale, lime juice, and a nice kick of heat.
The Brigitte Bardot pommes de terre get their name because they're "so damn sexy," Sanchez says. Served with house-made aioli and chock full of rosemary, they're everything you want in a potato dish.
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For dessert, indulge in one of the sweet crepes. Try the Orgullo de Hialeah, which fuses a bit of Miami and Paris by way of dulce de leche, fresh local mango, and a glaze of condensed milk ($6.50).
Expect amazing flavors during La Fresa Francesa's dinner service when it begins in about a month. In a city saturated with restaurants backed by deep-pocketed groups, this mom-and-pop eatery is proof that it doesn't take millions of dollars to open a restaurant that offers tasty food and oozes soul.