Restaurants will save downtown Miami. Despite the efforts of the city, its boosters, and the unclear intentions of real-estate developers, whenever one talks about the blocks surrounding historic Flagler Street, it's mostly the restaurants they speak of. Recent years have brought a flurry of talent to an area that to this day is almost devoid of life when business hours give way to nighttime.
But a closer look reveals signs of activity. A few hungry souls chomp away at the smoked fried chicken inside Sparky's Roadside Barbecue. Nearby, crowds pile into Alloy Bistro Gourmet and Deme Lomas and Karina Iglesias' Arson and Niu Kitchen for some of the city's most exciting Spanish-tinged fare. On many corners, a swell of new bars with well-made and reasonably priced cocktails are keeping people in the neighborhood or drawing them back at night.
Pez (20 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-570-3440; pezmiami.com), from Mexican culinary sweetheart Javier Plascencia, opened in early December just steps from the county's historic and dilapidated courthouse. Inside, the restaurant shows all the vestiges of hipster dining. Exposed brick lines one wall of the space, and Edison bulbs dangle from a high unfinished ceiling. The centerpiece of the 140-seater is the bar, which boasts an impressive collection of smoky mezcals, as well as a glassed-in wine room with a hard-to-find array of Mexican vintages.
The place, however, falls short of the standards set by its colleagues in the neighborhood and by the growing of collection of Mexican eateries across the city.
Mexican cuisine is highly varied, with preparations and ingredients that shift as you move from north to south and east to west, but the tortilla remains constant. Recent years have brought an influx of better tortillas to Miami, mostly thanks to Taquiza's Steve Santana, who some years ago lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with great chefs from across the nation as they began importing heirloom Mexican corn and turning it into masa through the fickle process of nixtamalization.
Pez's tortillas wither in comparison. Chef de cuisine Miguel Angelo Gomez, who is 25 and came to Miami after spending three years at Plascencia's other restaurants in Tijuana, says they're made by a small supplier. Yet the crisped corn rounds that hit the table as bread service and are the foundation of tostadas that taste like they were pulled from a movie theater concession stand. The whiter, soft corn variety that forms the restaurant's tacos has the rubbery texture and cardboard-like aroma of cheap supermarket tortillas.
Of the former category, it's the vegetarian tostada called ceviche de
If the machaca's texture is too unpleasant, which it is on a trio of grilled oysters daubed with ponzu butter ($10), it will require a keen eye to keep it out of the rest of the meal. The ingredient, which is imported from Sonora — Baja and Tijuana's easterly neighbor — appears with a similar smoked tuna preparation that forces its assertive, sometimes oily flavor onto a handful of dishes.
That theme of identical flavors and ingredients is one that winds its way through the menu. Most of the tacos are crowned with too many toppings that mask the flavor of limp beer-battered fish ($5) and beer-battered shrimp ($6) and even muddle the Gobernador ($6), with Maggi sauce-marinated shrimp seared in epazote butter. The standout is the Tijuanero ($7), with an unencumbered mix of carne asada, tender octopus, and buttery shrimp.
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In a similar vein, the
That same light touch can be found in Pez's chile
Everything else on the menu at Pez should be on par with that dish. Most suffer a level of repetitiveness in ingredients and flavor that is bewildering to see from a chef with Plascencia's curriculum vitae. Perhaps it's the distance from his home base a few