Little Havana's Cozy Cardón y El Tirano Mixes South American Favorites

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From Spain to Ecuador and Mexico to Argentina, each of the world's 20 Spanish-speaking countries has its own unique cuisine. So it would seem a risky proposition to bring the food of Spain, Central America, and South America together under one banner.

But that's what 31-year-old Venezuelan chef Francisco Anton is doing at the 5-month-old Cardón y El Tirano, where far-flung bites are listed on a shifting one-page menu. The place's name translates to "giant cactus and tyranny." It springs from the tale of Lope de Aguirre, a conquistador who brutally ruled over Isla Margarita, Anton's birthplace. After revolting against the Spanish crown, Aguirre murdered countless innocents, among them his own daughter. He was later caught, killed, and dismembered. Legend says that on a beach filled with giant cacti near Anton's birthplace, you can see Aguirre's ships coming in every Easter. "A great story for kids," Anton says sarcastically.

His 36-seater is far less terrifying. Wide perforated copper lamps bathe the room in an amber glow as a flat-screen TV loops old black-and-white movies. Mismatched chairs have been culled from yard sales, and coffee-colored tables were assembled by hand. A well-worn taupe couch rests under a beehive of wooden shelves bearing cookbooks, wine bottles, and small succulents.

The restaurant is the result of a lifelong dream that began after Anton met a cruise ship chef in his hometown. He moved to the States at age 16, first to Louisiana and later to Orlando, where he earned a business degree. Then he left Florida for New York City, where he bounced around kitchens in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan, discovering the dishes that would become the foundation of Cardón's eclectic menu. Time spent under Dominican chef Maximo Tejada — who died in 2012 — taught Anton how to employ French and Latin American technique. This pairing manifests in the aioli that appears in several dishes, tinted pale green from roasted poblano peppers and avocado. The tacos, ceviches, and other snacks on the menu come from the pre-shift meals he shared with other cooks before the dinner rush.

Cardn y El Tirano

3411 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-392-1257; cardonyeltirano.com. Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight.

Salmon spread $5
Shrimp tacos $8
Lengua tacos $9
Seafood escabeche $11
Bacalaitos $7Mariscada $42
Funche negro $9

"You never eat the food you cook in a restaurant," he says. "I ate tacos every day, and eventually those flavors became mine."

Some of the dishes on Anton's menu need sharpening. A few, like the tacos, show there is potential. He usually offers at least four varieties that begin with nutty, pliable tortillas pressed from the cornflour called maseca. On one, plump shrimp marinated in a pepper-infused sofrito are fried in chorizo oil and a splash of crushed tomatoes. They're topped with a clever blend of the salty white cheese nata and a hit of sticky-sweet onion relish. For the lengua, beef tongues are braised in Negra Modelo, dusted with chorizo powder (a technique he picked up during a stint at Michael Shikany's now-closed Wynwood restaurant), and crowned with a fantastically bitter radicchio kimchee and bits of milky queso de mano.

Bacalaitos, a riff on Puerto Rican crabcakes, are just as addictive. They're umami-packed spheres of shredded salt cod braised in a hearty tomato sauce before being punched up with poblano peppers and a smear of ancho pepper aioli.

The arepas are the most habit-forming dish. Rather than heating them up on a griddle or grill, he flash-fries them. The technique yields what might be the fluffiest variety in town.

They serve as a base for mariscada, a bounty of seafood that arrives in a wide, iridescent ceramic bowl piled high with succulent langoustines and a bowl of sofrito filled with Prince Edward Island mussels and shrimp. Yet the head-on shrimp and fried squid rings that surround it all linger too long, leaving them rubbery.

Small missteps derail other dishes. There isn't enough smoked salmon in a creamy whipped spread that tastes more like cream cheese than a salty brandade. Plantain bomboloni are topped with a clever combination of Nutella and roasted pistachio but can't mask the rock-hard nuggets that bear little similarity to their Italian inspiration.

Those rich, creamy mussels in the mariscada take on a chalky, overly salty character in a seafood escabeche that's otherwise filled with tender octopus tendrils and tiger shrimp. They're cooked individually before being mixed, doused with a blend of lemon juice and olive oil, and then topped with nata and a tangy Central American crema.

The beef brisket for the funche negro is prepared like Venezuelan asado with panela — a dense, unrefined cane sugar that yields a sugary sauce with a dramatic, molasses-like depth. Yet every bit of moisture seems to be braised out of the meat, leaving it desiccated and beyond repair. Neither the sauce nor the creamy cornmeal cake that comes alongside can save it.

The mishaps are more a byproduct of technique than misconception. The variety of favorite snacks, such as supercrisp tequeños packed with stretchy queso blanco, rolls together all of Miami's favorites. If Anton can simply improve them a bit, his place could be a perfect quick stop after the mandatory cortadito down the street at Versailles.

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