Here we are at the tail end of 2019, and there's little time to waste. No more explaining is needed about the cultural mashup that is modern-day Miami, nor do we need to talk any further about the glut of food halls. But on the noisy strip of Bird Road that links Coral Gables and Westchester, a trio of side-by-side fast-casual restaurants has taken root, bringing together three seemingly unrelated styles of eating.
At the eastern end of a shopping center at 6420 Bird Rd. stands Al-Amir, a quaint Lebanese flatbread spot that plies stretchy, pockmarked homemade breads topped with za'atar and olive oil, paired with a funky hard cheese flecked with the fragrant beef sausage sujuk, or wrapped around roast lamb. On the other side is La Placita Taco Grill, whose owners hail from Mexico City and deal in Homestead-made tortillas filled with carnitas, barbacoa, and alambre — grilled beef topped with bacon, onion, peppers, and melted cheese. Sandwiched between the two spots is Fierro Argentine Grill, a fast-casual spinoff from the owners of Coral Gables' long-standing Rincón Argentino and a kind of comeback project for 42-year-old Michael Dimarziani, who nearly died in a motorcycle accident several years ago and is miraculously able to walk and cook. He produces delights such as blood sausage, red onions, and blue cheese smeared across crusty bread and the puffy, grassy spinach pastry called pascualina.
Though Al-Amir's owners were reticent to talk, there's nothing hiding the addictive flatbreads churned out daily. Flatbreads are among the world's oldest produced food. Archaeological evidence shows people living in the Indus Valley 3,000 to 4,000 years ago baking flatbreads similar to India's roti, according to Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food. Generally speaking, flatbreads include everything from fluffy Israeli-style pita to Aztec corn tortillas to Armenian lavash. This bread, however, doesn't fit neatly into any one category. It's a ubiquitous snack eaten in Lebanon by children on the way home from school or women as they shop at the market. At Al-Amir, the move to make when ordering is one of balance. Start with a flatbread topped with za'atar, the piquant strained yogurt called labneh, and a scattering of herbs and vegetables ($7.50). The other hand is your place to go to town. Do the cheese and sujuk pie ($5.50) or the lamb with hunks of spice-perfumed meat wrapped up in a tender flatbread with mint.
The attraction to the tacos at Dominique Pauzat and Daniel Aguilera's La Placita at the other side of the complex seems natural. The towering "trompo" of pork al pastor is a direct descendant of the vertical spits the people who inhabited modern-day Lebanon used to roast lamb taken to Mexico in a wave of immigration during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. La Placita's version ($10 for three) features pork meat with slightly charred edges rife with the aroma of cumin, garlic, and vinegar, all rounded off with a sliver of pineapple. The taco trio ($9.95) is another viable avenue, offering a sampling of carnitas, barbacoa, and achiote-stained cochinita pibil with a punchy curve of pickled red onion.
Aguilera had long driven by the place that at one point was a buffet in the style of El Palacio de los Jugos and been reminded of the taquerias back in Mexico City. Last year, the pair decided to wind down their Coconut Grove catering business and make the food that sustained them before they moved to Miami about a decade ago. The first order of business was the tortilla. "We had a lot of big companies, big suppliers come up to us and tell us to use their tortilla, but it was never the same," Pauzat says. "Those tortillas are stored in a dry space for I don't know how long — something like three months — and they lose all flavor and texture."
They opted for a small tortilla-maker in Homestead and have since been on a tear, expanding their once limited menu to include campechano, with puffed skin, chorizo, steak, onion, and cilantro ($12), and rib-eye with caramelized onion and fresh pico de gallo ($13).
But the most compelling of the three restaurants is Fierro Argentine Grill. Owner Michael Dimarziani's father Miguel grew up in La Plata near Buenos Aires and played professional soccer in his home country and in Colombia. Yet the money was never enough, and when a friend told him about regular construction work in New Jersey, he uprooted his life and moved to the States. Michael was born in Patterson, about 45 minutes outside New York City. An injury on the job ended his father's construction career but also netted the family enough money to move to South Florida. In 1986, Miguel and his brothers opened Rincón Argentino on SW 37th Avenue just south of Miracle Mile. Michael grew up in the restaurant and opened his own spot in Kendall in the early 2000s. But all of that came to a screeching halt when a car cut off his motorcycle as he was trying to exit the Palmetto Expressway. The crash sent his bike smashing into a barrier at nearly 70 mph.
"I didn't remember anything when I woke up from the coma three months later," Dimarziani says. "It was another two months until I was able to start putting words together and talking, and I still had traumatic brain injury, a broken femur, and six broken ribs."
Ultimately, the family had to sell the Kendall restaurant after an uncle retired from the business. As he regained his strength and confidence, Dimarziani rejoined his father at the original location to get back in the swing of things. Fierro is his first project alone and is a kind of rebirth.
"Fierro means 'steal' in Italian, and in Argentina, it's used to mean a sandwich with everything on it," he explains. "I just loved that idea for both a sandwich, because I love that sandwich, and it's kind of what I'm getting with a second chance at life."
Indeed, Dimarziani's sandwiches are celebration-worthy. If you want more, order the short ribs ($15.90 for ten ounces, $22.90 for 14) or a milanesa de carne ($10.25). But the sandwiches will likely sate you: The one called Exhibit A pairs blood sausage bruschetta ($10.75) with onion and blue cheese to dial back the richness, while Exhibit B ($14.90) packs a flap steak, fried egg, bacon, lettuce, and roasted red peppers into puffy ciabatta.
Sure, they sound like a lot, but at a table under the covered seating along Bird Road, you need only look right and left, and suddenly you'll find your stomach has a little space left for a taco or a Lebanese flatbread dressed up with salty cheese and a few squiggles of honey.