Restaurant Reviews

Miami's Fritas: El Mago and Beyond

Ortelio Cárdenas is a wizard. His short, straight hair, apron, and shirt are all white. Shortly after dawn each morning, the 74-year-old arrives at his Flagami cafeteria, El Mago de las Fritas. Working alone, he seasons his meat and makes his signature sauce. No one knows his recipes — not his staff, not even his kids.

It's almost like magic.

Amid the pinguid aroma of fried chicharrones, the swirling sound of freshly blended batidos, and the purring sizzle of beef patties, Cárdenas, AKA "El Mago," flips burgers nearly 12 hours a day. For more than 29 years, he has prepared the Cuban hamburger known as the frita.

See also: "Closer Look: El Mago de las Fritas in Little Havana."

An original frita pairs Cuban bread with a beef patty seasoned with cumin, pepper, and paprika. Some add chorizo to the ground meat. Onions, fried shoestring potatoes, and a spicy sauce complete the toppings. Fritas are inexpensive. Most are priced less than $5. Some are even less than $4.

The Cuban hamburger rarely escapes the confines of South Florida. But within the Magic City, its swath is wide. Frita shops and cafeterias spill from Calle Ocho's La Palma and the locally owned chain El Rey de las Fritas to Hialeah mainstay Morro Castle and El Mago's flagship on SW Eighth Street at 58th Avenue.

Now, 80 years after the first friteros popped up on Havana's streets, and a half-century after the first Miami frita shop, Fritas Domino, debuted on Calle Ocho, the burger's recent tear shows no signs of slowing.

In 2009, in the pages of Food Network Magazine, celebrity chef Bobby Flay listed El Rey de las Fritas as the Sunshine State's best burger. Then, on the Travel Channel show The Layover, Anthony Bourdain munched on a frita. Just last week, George Motz's Travel Channel series, Burger Land, featured lengthy segments at both El Rey and El Mago. Even President Barack Obama has entered the frita fray. In 2010, at the end of a fundraising trip, Obama, alongside Congressman Joe Garcia, visited El Mago. The president ordered a few fritas with cheese. (He asked reporters not to tell his wife.)

Bolstered by the burger's surging popularity, classic frita shops have sprouted and variegated. Chefs such as Alberto Cabrera, owner of the Coral Gables Cuban gastropub Bread + Butter, and José Mendín, chef of South Beach's PB Steak, have reinterpreted Miami's local hamburger. Using the original as inspiration, these chefs are experimenting with what has become a long-standing linchpin of the city's cuisine.

At Morro Castle in Hialeah, though, owner Leo Villalobos hasn't changed his recipe in years. He pairs pure beef patties, which are seasoned with minced peppers, onions, and spices, with American-style hamburger buns. What some purists call sacrilege, Villalobos calls tradition. The restaurant, which opened nearly 50 years ago, has never used Cuban rolls. "We have used hamburger bread all our lives. It's the traditional bread for us at Morro Castle," Villalobos says. "We've always liked the softness of the bread."

At $2.49, Morro Castle's frita is among the best deals in town. Even better: It's tasty. The hamburger bun overflows with an abundance of thinly julienned potatoes — oily, fine, and slightly curled. Thick slivers of onions, which are cooked atop the beef, poke out beneath the plush roll. Hamburger bread, typically made with milk and eggs, is richer than the Cuban variety, which employs water and lard. This makes for a more filling frita. (Little is wrong with that.)

El Rey de las Fritas, the chain that launched in 1982 and has since expanded with several locations across Miami, forgoes the American bun. The restaurant, however, gets playful with its toppings. At the Calle Ocho store, the B.S. frita — a traditional beef patty infused with herbs and spices — comes crowned with bacon and melted Swiss cheese. There's also a frita dulce. A combination of fried slices of sweet plantain, El Rey's straight shoestring fries, and spicy meat makes this version a delectable play on all fried things, both savory and sweet.

At times, an excess of sliced onions overpowers El Rey's plantains, bacon, and Swiss. But the word around town is that tourists mostly flock to El Rey.

Locals, on the other hand, head in droves to El Mago. Cárdenas' family says the Calle Ocho fritero treats his flan better than his daughter Martha, who co-owns the restaurant with her father. They assure they're joking — even if there's a bit of truth to the jest.

"He won't prepare meat or sauces in front of people," says El Mago staffer Barry Hennessey. "He gets in at 7 a.m. and leaves at 10 p.m., so no one can see."

Cárdenas guards the sauce recipe like other people hide their pin numbers. His patties are prepared with all beef. Then, while the meat sizzles on the griddle, he adds the secret sauce. Credited as the first person to put cheese on a frita, Cárdenas uses only Cuban bread. He says it is less dense than a classic hamburger bun — bread should never overpower the meat. A dollop of ketchup squishes onto the bun, and the shop's fries are of Idaho potato stock. El Mago's combo of greaseless golden fries and spicy red patties provides Miami's best classic frita.

El Mago's rendition is what inspired Alberto Cabrera, owner of the Cuban gastropub Bread + Butter, to deviate from the classic. "I love El Mago's fritas. I grew up eating his fritas," Cabrera says. "I wanted to do a different version of it."

Cabrera makes a frita china — a chorizo-based patty stuffed into a potato roll and piled high with napa-cabbage kimchee, cilantro, and sriracha ketchup. He sources pork from Palmetto Creek, a Florida farm, and uses fresh herbs in his meat mix. The chef already has big plans for his fritas. He recently invested in a second property in Coral Gables and plans to launch a modern frita shop within a year.

Other Miami chefs, too, are toying with the frita. At PB Steak, chef José Mendín boosts his steak tartare sliders, prepared with chopped tenderloin and sirloin, by capping the raw meat with a potato roll and pommes frites.

More cooks, Cabrera says, will soon follow the frita fixation.

"In Miami, there's a huge Cuban community, and the frita is a big part of the city's identity," Cabrera says. "Whenever someone visits me from out of town, I take them to eat a frita and I say, 'You gotta try this because you don't have it where you're coming from.'

"If it becomes trendy here, that just means I can have a frita anywhere I go... And, well, that'd really just be great."

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Emily Codik