It's been more than two years since Taquiza's Steve Santana got his lava rock grinder going, turning corn into the dough called masa at his South Beach taco spot while ushering in a new wave of places dishing out better versions of tortilla-wrapped meat and vegetables than the city has ever seen.
The primary innovation came in the tortilla. In the past, the city's beloved taquerias, such as Taqueria el Carnal and Andres Tovar's Viva Mexico, piled a variety of flavorful fillings — from tongue to campechano with tender strands of leg meat interspersed with crackly bits of skin — onto rubbery, mass-produced corn rounds that weighed down the end result.
And even if taquerias aren't buying the corn from farms in Oaxaca, soaking it in a lye solution, and then boiling it in a process called nixtamalization, they're at least pressing out handmade tortillas from the prepared cornmeal called maseca. Shortly after the new wave of better taco spots took hold, Viva Mexico began turning out maseca tortillas and gorditas, while Scott Linquist's Coyo Taco fills pairs of them with everything from crisp duck ($9) to charred octopus ($9).
Amid the new generation are some like Linquist's Olla in South Beach, Brickell City Centre's Tacology (701 S. Miami Ave., 786-347-5368), and Edgewater's La Pollita (2600 NE Second Ave., 310-435-7766), run by a pair of Eleven Madison Park alums, showing that the movement has at least a few reliable legs.
At Olla, there's no dedicated section for tacos. Instead, most menu items come with a set of warm, flaky tortillas that easily fill in for utensils. The nutty blue-and-white rounds are a perfect way to sop up Olla's menudo ($12), which boasts a tacky broth filled with collagen from chicken, pig, and cow feet boiled for hours and then fortified with with guajillo chilies and Mexican oregano. A bit of tortilla covered in that rich tonic and wrapped around unctuous bits of pig-feet meat, white-as-milk tripe, and a bit of yolk from a runny fried egg creates a perfect bite.
Across the bay, inside the recently opened billion-dollar Brickell City Centre, Santiago Gomez oversees the new Tacology, which is owned by the same Mexico City-based firm, Cinbersol Group S.A., that owns Cantina La Veinte on the ground floor of the Icon.
While the new place is a higher-end, pricier kind of taco joint, it's also rooted in Mexico's ubiquitous mercados, where you can grab a bite to eat and a cup of fresh-squeezed juice while shopping. The layout is similar to what you'll find at midtown's Sugarcane or Brickell Key's La Mar: An open kitchen corresponding to each section of the menu is cordoned off in its own part of the sprawling, blue-purple-lit space. Still, beyond the salads, ceviches, coffees, and sweets — such as ultra-creamy slugs of caramel flan ($9) and a bittersweet Mexican hot chocolate foam ($9.50) — nearly half the menu is dedicated to tacos.
"What we want is for people to try the real Mexican tacos. I didn't invent these," Gomez says. "People should know what is a good tortilla, a good salsa."
In that sense, Tacology dishes up traditional choices such as a barbacoa adobada ($10.50), made by rubbing lamb shoulders with chipotle and guajillo chilies, seasoning them with avocado leaves, and then covering them with the maguey leaves that in Mexico are used to cover the lamb that's buried in the ground and cooked. Because the restaurant is located on the third floor of a sprawling mall, Gomez or one of his cooks pops the shoulders in the oven for six or seven hours until the flesh ripples apart. The accompanying sauce is a salsa borracha based on pasilla chilies spiked with dark beer. A lobster taco ($14) is a traditional Baja-style affair that comes wrapped in a grill-marked flour tortilla topped with a smattering of yellow rice, black beans, a chipotle sauce, and a scattering of cabbage.
"After, they can try new creations," Santiago says, "which makes sense because Mexican food is always evolving.
Fulfilling that promise, Tacology turns out tortillas speckled with crisp black quinoa grains and filled with meaty slivers of the roasted cactus called nopales tossed with quinoa. The trendy grains, dried and fried, also serve as a crust for shrimp wrapped in flour tacos and nestled into shot glasses bearing a spicy, piney-smelling chipotle agave sauce.
At La Pollita, things turn back toward the traditional. Owners Alex Meyer and Miami native Luci Giangrandi met while working in New York City's NoMad by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of the three-Michelin-star contemporary American restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Meyer spent three years working for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's Los Angeles restaurant Animal, which opened in 2008. Giangrandi cut her teeth at Scarpetta in New York City during the church of pasta's heyday. The pair then decamped for Mexico and Japan, and returned to Los Angeles with plans to open a restaurant. Yet L.A.'s sheer size seemed too much for a first project, so they came to Miami, where Meyer says he saw "the attention drawing away from the restaurants in the big hotels to a lot of smaller, independent places that are doing work and getting good response."
One day, while biking down NE Second Avenue, he spotted a pair of trailers inside the Midtown Garden Center that seemed to be the perfect place to get a food business up and running quickly. Unfortunately, they were both claimed, but when one operator's payments fell through, the pair took over and had to figure out what to do. Around the beginning of December, as the week of Art Basel rose to a fever pitch, they opened La Pollita.
The brief list of tacos, generally around five, follows a near-ascetic formula. Meyer and Giangrandi tried to make masa themselves but eventually turned to Santana and Taquiza to make their summer corn yellow masa.
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"If you're going to do it, why not do it right?" Meyer says.
Onto the tortilla go fillings such as carne asada short rib ($4), a much choicer cut of beef rippled with delicious fat, which is marinated in blended kiwi, soy sauce, sesame oil, shallots, and garlic, resulting in a sugary crust that yields a pleasantly smoky char. The salsa changes regularly and on a recent weekday included charred scallions and roasted tomatoes, as well as a chunky Colombian ají picante.
The daily fish ($5) recently brought a fleshy, juicy hunk of lane snapper gloriously still attached to its skin, which was crisped on a flat-top. This one goes Baja-style with cabbage, crema, onion, and cilantro. The chorizo and potato blends Proper Sausages' link meat with starchy potatoes that suck up all the fat and flavor while adding some richness, heft, and cooling properties to each bite.
It's clear that Meyer and Giangrandi have bigger plans, so La Pollita's days might be numbered. However, Tacology, Olla, Taquiza, and others are still here. Given the way things are going, it's a good bet the list will grow. Let's hope a future spot like Viva Mexico will serve the off bits of pork such as buche, lengua, and the grab bag of pig parts called surtido.