Film & TV

Mika Leon and Her Caja Caliente Clan Give Andrew Zimmern a Taste of Miami

Mika Leon shares her family history with Andrew Zimmern.
Mika Leon shares her family history with Andrew Zimmern. Photo courtesy of Caja Caliente
Miami’s Cuban roots are at the center of an episode of Family Dinner, Andrew Zimmern's show on the Magnolia Network. Known for immersing himself in the culture of the places he showcases, the host of Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern and What’s Eating America joins Caja Caliente chef/owner Monica “Mika” Leon and her family for a traditional Cuban meal.

The 31-year-old Cuban-American chef, who has appeared on Beat Bobby Flay, Guy's Grocery Games, and Chopped, tells New Times that Zimmern’s new series allowed her to dive deeper into her family roots and history, the inspiration behind her restaurant.

“It is so special for me to have this air. It was a great way to honor what my family has been through to get to this country and where we are now,” Leon says. “It's a coincidence this episode is airing this week as Cubans are going to the streets to protest for basic human rights, but every Cuban American has a story and I hope that ours will help bring awareness nationwide as to how severe the situation there really is."

Family Dinner, which debuted in March on Discovery+, follows Zimmern around the United States as he visits innovative chefs and restaurateurs in their homes to experience their cultures and traditions through food. Past episodes have featured families in Louisiana, Vermont, and New York.
click to enlarge Caja Caliente's food truck in the Design District. - CAJA CALIENTE
Caja Caliente's food truck in the Design District.
Caja Caliente
Zimmern and his crew spent two days with Leon’s family shooting footage for the Miami episode. The chef walks Zimmern through her reinvented Cuban recipes, teaches him how to make empanadas and her signature mojo at Caja Caliente in Coral Gables, and has him experience firsthand the dynamics of a family-run Cuban restaurant kitchen.

From there, they head to the Hialeah home of Leon's mother, Lupita, for salsa dancing, domino playing, and the preparation of an authentic Caja China — a Cuban-style pig roast.

About 30 of Leon’s family members gathered for the cookout.

“After watching the previous episodes, I was almost concerned because the other families were so quiet,” Leon says. “Nothing was scripted and we are a rather loud Cuban bunch, but the meal evolved organically and the one-on-one interviews allowed us to get our stories on how we got to America out there. I’m glad that there are platforms like this, that showcase our culture and treasure our experiences.”

Leon started Caja Caliente as a small food truck in April 2016, serving up tacos on a two-foot grill. Three years later, the family-run restaurant opened its brick-and-mortar location (808 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 786-431-1947). Since September of last year, Leon has hawked her modern version of Cuban cuisine from a food truck stationed at 95 NE 40th St. in Miami's Design District. Future plans, she says, include more mobile eateries and a line of organic spices.

Family Dinner. Streams on demand via Discovery+.
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Juliana Accioly
Contact: Juliana Accioly