American mall food court fare leaves some -- er, many -- things to be desired. But venture across the border or overseas, and as cultures change, so does the fast food game, usually for the better.
So when we first heard that young entrepreneurs and husband-wife pair Cesar Olivo and Adriana Perez Benatar were taking Benatar's family business stateside from its Venezuelan courtesan roots, we were mostly curious. We were also somewhat hopeful that Salsa Fiesta's foreign cache might distinguish it from somewhat bland local competitors Lime Fresh Mexican Grill and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
While the restaurant's full name, Salsa Fiesta Urban Mexican Grill, doesn't offer much in the area of differentiation, things quickly change when it comes to the menu design. We were pleasantly surprised with our first dip.
"We have lots of product combinations to create a different experience," explains Benatar. "Customers can try at the same time a bunch of different things."
Taking the "Tostada Fiesta" for a whirl, you'll certainly encounter a variety of different items. We had a ball waltzing from the interminably crunchy chicken tostada to a cheesy, fried chicken and bell pepper taquito, a garnish salad topped with oniony (in a good way) pico de gallo sitting pretty in a tortilla cup, and a cluster of crisp, thin tostones -- squashed and fried green plantain chips that are not at all too thick or cakey (which tends to happen sometimes with the effect of a pail of sawdust in the mouth.) The star is definitely the tostada, piled high with layers of black bean, grilled chicken, shaved iceberg
lettuce, pico de gallo, homemade Hass avocado guacamole, and crema and jack and cheddar shreds to top. Bruno Tonioli would not have a cause for complaint about this number except for maybe the taquito, which was a little too greasy and dense for our liking.
Grab a partner and dive in, because the portion sizes at Salsa Fiesta are generous for a fast casual restaurant and could be shared for a light lunch. And, at nearly $12 dollars with a bottle of water for our particular party on a plate, they better be.
For a restaurant with salsa in its name, options are limited in the condiment section, but do not disappoint. On the red side, the fire-roasted tomato salsa imparts a subtle heat on finish and is impeccably fresh -- house-made and with charred skins left to our delight. Go green, and enjoy a cooling tomatillo blend without the fire. It's also nice to see creative salads on the menu that aren't only regular menu items with the tortilla removed, like the Fresca 29th Street Salad of cabbage, carrot, mango relish, tortilla strips and special salsa on a bed of lettuce with a choice of meat for $7-9.
"We wanted to create a menu with a healthy balance, like using yogurt instead of mayo. Our salads are really popular in Venezuela," adds Benatar. "We're making everything fresh and are getting the best quality ingredients."
Benatar's family has been in the restuarant business for 15 years in Venezuela, six of which have been with Salsa Fiesta. The company is fully corporate-owned, with no franchisees, and has grown to be the leader in the Mexican fast food category, with six stores in Venezuelan malls which Benatar's brother Samuel is overseeing. The idea to expand to Miami was hatched two years ago.
"We have relatives here and we have always traveled back and forth," explains Benatar. "We were looking for a place that mixes a lot of kinds of people." The lease was signed in January, and the couple made the move to Aventura with their twin 6 year-olds, a boy and a girl. But why Mexican, and not Venezuelan food? "We love it. Mexican is more world-wide and people know it. But we have incorporated things from Venezuela, like the rice and beans, meat, pork, and chicken."
The chicken, Olivo says, is marinated in lemon juice, orange juice, and chipotle in adobo for at least 12 hours. "The tortillas are not Venezuelan of course," he adds.
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Some more points for Salsa Fiesta are in friendly, fast service -- even on their first day, which was steadily busy -- great take out containters the likes of what you find at Whole Foods Market (not yucky styrofoam or plastic,) a beer license, and a free parking lot (the one adjacent to Starbucks) of 11 spaces to stave off the towing and ticket Quick Step! Take out and eat in are currently on offer, but look for delivery coming soon. The website should be click-able next week, but visit www.salsafiestagrill.com for an informational landing page or Facebook.
2929 Biscayne Blvd
Miami (Biscayne Corridor)