Restaurant Reviews

Mexico Formulaico

In introductory writing classes, students are taught to take their finished story and shake it like a tree so the weak words fall off like dead leaves. When they're certain all unnecessary verbiage has been removed, they are to shake the story again, until only the very strongest wording remains. It would be apt advice for restaurateurs to do likewise with their menus, as a means of weeding out the weaker items -- especially in places with expansive selections. Mexico Magico, an eminently likable ten-month-old restaurant in the Normandy section of Miami Beach, is just such a place.

Ellie Martinez was the original cook and co-owner of South Beach's Ranchos Grande until handing the reins over to her brother in 1997. Now she and her family run Mexico Magico, and do so with the best intentions. The 60-seat dining room is playfully decorated in colorful south-of-the-border manner, the waitstaff is affable, the food mostly authentic, the prices appealingly low. I also found that the brassy, accordionish, mariachi-like music piped over the speakers greatly enhanced the feeling of being in a real Mexican restaurant, though this observation was admittedly made after sampling a few margaritas from the full bar. Regular and frozen are both a deal at five dollars, though I'd stick with the first -- the frozen is overly slushy, like a tequila-laden 7-Eleven Slurpee. Magico also serves up a wide selection of Mexican beers, and should be applauded for offering numerous nonalcoholic specialty beverages, like Mexican sodas and juices, fruit shakes, milkshakes, and the delicious cinnamon-almond-and-rice drink horchata.

The six-paneled menu is filled with soups, salads, appetizers, and main courses, the last split into numerous categories: Most Popular, Tex Mex Favorites, Authentic Mexican, Vegetarian, Ellie's Recipes, and, finally, If You Haven't Decided Yet, which includes grilled chicken, fish, flank steak, and other purely gringo attractions. (Salsa: not a fresh tomato, lime juice, and cilantro version, but the dark, saucy type with piquant kick. Guacamole: "Famous because it is made from scratch when you order," the bright green dip is indeed freshly made with ripe avocado, diced onion, tomato, and cilantro, but sorely needs a squirt of lime juice. Chips: yellow corn tortillas served warm and obviously fried to order, though on one occasion fried in old oil, a slightly rancid aftertaste contaminating each crackly bite.)

Quesadillas, more rewardingly cheesed than most with Monterey Jack, cheddar, asadero, and mozzarella melted within, could withstand any shakedown of appetizers. Same holds true for corn chip-based mini taquitos and nachos, as well as chimichanguitas, crisply fried, bite-sized flour tortillas filled with chicken or beef.

Shrimp cocktail, on the other hand, could be dropped from this menu with few tears shed by diners. The small, watery crustaceans tasted more defrosted than poached, the bland, watery sauce they sat in a puddly mimicry of real cocktail sauce. Skimpy tamales would not be missed either. And with all the potentially alluring Mexican foods available as starters, why even bother concocting Mexican pizza? The thick, cornmeal dough was intriguing enough, but the tomato sauce-and-cheese topping, available with chorizo or other additions, is just a redundant rehash of other menu offerings.

Cochinita pibil, an achiote-and-bitter-orange-marinated, banana leaf-wrapped, pickled red onion-topped pork dish traditionally cooked in a pibe, or "pit," is one of the most fragrantly alluring Yucatecan offerings. Restaurant grills can't quite capture the taste of the fire, but Mexico Magico's softly stewed cubes of pork effectively emit the tart, herby tastes of the real deal. Not so with our chicken mole poblano, the strips of chicken breast tenderly cooked, but the sauce tasting too similar to the prepared, heavy-handedly spiced, bottled mole you can buy at markets.

The "most popular" selections include enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, and five types of tacos. The enchilada and flauta team with a burrito in a combo platter, all acceptable versions of Tex-Mex fare; same goes for the black beans, and rice flecked with carrots and peas. A standout among the tacos featured flour tortillas rolled around grilled cactus leaves (nopales), fresh cilantro, and onions. Nopales possess an earthy, sorrel-and-green-pepper flavor and an okra-ish texture that is not for everyone. It's a unique offering, but the rest of the "vegetarian" items all contained cheese, and none featured anything resembling a distinctive, or even green, vegetable.

Ellie's Recipes are far more adventuresome. Pork steak "Sam" gets topped with grilled onions, green peppers, and bacon; poblano peppers are stuffed with a piccadillo of ground beef with carrots, peas, pears, apples, raisins, potatoes, and almonds; and bistec relleno brings grilled onions and fresh jalapeño strips spilling from the inside of a New York strip -- very tasty, but the grilled steak was toughly overcooked.

Fillet of red snapper was too adventurous, overburdened with a filling of shrimp, crabmeat, conch, octopus, raisins, almonds, tomatoes, and onions -- then topped with sour cream and melted cheese. This item should fall from the menu by its own sheer heaviness.

Magico's densely rich flan is better than average, but "pastel azteca," a slice of terrine layered with flan, chocolate flan, and cajeta (caramelized milk) cake, provides a far more compelling combination. Crepas de cajeta will appeal only to enthusiasts of gooey sweetness, the four thin crepes buried beneath a weighty topping of caramel and pecan pieces. As Austin Powers would say: Shake, baby, shake.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein

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