Ten years ago, if you tried to adhere to a vegan diet in Miami, your best option was probably just eating at home. The few vegan places that did exist varied widely in quality and often couldn't find enough of a customer base to remain open.
That's changed in the past few years. Seemingly overnight, Miami became a vegan-friendly city with even James Beard-nominated chef Matthew Kenney taking notice and opening Plant Food + Wine (now Plant Miami and no longer affiliated with Kenney). But the peak of the city's vegan renaissance came when Planta opened in South Beach and proved to be not just a great vegan restaurant — it's a great restaurant, period.
Charly's Vegan Tacos (172 NW 24th St., Miami) might continue what places like Planta have demonstrated: that plant-based dining done right can appeal to a broader audience than just vegans.
Since New Year's Eve 2016, Charly's Vegan Tacos has been slinging meatless versions of Mexican classics to hungry vacationers in Tulum, Mexico. Chef Charly Garcia's plant-based ethos is a perfect fit for the typical Tulum visitor: the stylish boho traveler who wouldn't be caught dead among the unwashed spring-break masses in nearby Cancun.
An excellent vegetarian taco isn't hard to find in Miami: Taquiza's rajas taco with charred peppers and onions, Coyo's quinoa and queso falafel, and anything on 222 Taco's Jardín section (which can be made vegan on request) are great selections for anyone looking to go meatless. But Charly's is Miami's first taqueria to lean in completely to the plant-based diet.
Charly's also sets itself apart from Miami's other trendy taquerias by eschewing fast-casual ambiance, instead offering a more refined dinner service. The dining room is filled with touches that point to the restaurant's Tulum roots, such as brightly colored napkins hand-woven by Mexican artisans, with an indoor mural to remind diners they're still in Wynwood.
New Times was invited for a complimentary meal, and there were plenty of highlights. For instance: Start your meal with one of the six signature cocktails ($12 each). No, Charly's doesn't have a full liquor license, so these cocktails are spiked with sake instead of tequila or mezcal — but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sake's flavor is so light that it lets juices and herbs shine through. The Carambola mixes starfruit, Meyer lemon, and orange, while the house-recommended Jardín combines pineapple, cucumber, cilantro, and serrano pepper.
The appetizers fall under the Antojitos section of the menu and include avocado fries, elote, and nachos. There's also the guaca-mango, an upgraded version of your standard guacamole mixed with not-too-sweet diced mango that adds a nice tartness. For $13, the portion can be shared by more than two people — just ask for extra chips.
Despite its name, Charly serves more than just tacos, including enmoladas poblanas ($20), corn tortillas stuffed with mashed potatoes, adobo, and corn and drenched in mole and topped with sesame seeds; and the tostadas de tinga ($18) with crispy corn shells topped with refried beans, jackfruit, vegan crema, queso fresco, avocado, and cured red radish. There are also well-sized kale ($18) and cobb ($16) salads.
However, as you'd expect, tacos are the star here. Charly's makes its corn tortillas in-house, as evidenced by their jagged edges and thickness. That thickness comes in handy in helping prevent a filling's juices from overflowing onto your hands. (Other taquerias try to mitigate this issue by doubling up on the tortillas, but it never works.)
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There are eight taco options ranging from $11 to $14 for two. But the best value might be the $18 taco trio, which lets diners choose any three of the eight taco options. The chorizo y queso subs out the pork for crumbled soy marinated in guajillo pepper, ancho pepper, cumin, and oregano. Except for the lack of grease, the chorizo flavors were spot on. The yuba carnitas takes tofu skin and stews it in chipotle garlic adobo. However, not everything is meant to "replace" meat. The rajas poblano, smoked mushrooms, and al pastor all let the vegetables shine.
Closing out the meal are the dessert options, priced at $12 each. The passionfruit guava flan substitutes the egg custard for an agar base that is admittedly missing the eggy flavor that makes flan, well, flan. However, the passionfruit and guava flavors are so strong you'll soon forget the lack of egg. Also on the menu are a chocolate-ginger mousse, coconut rice pudding, and a banana flambe crepe.
With a full list of options, you definitely won't leave Charly's hungry, even if it costs a bit more than your standard taqueria. And thanks to its Wynwood location, conveniently right next door to Gramps, Charly's ought to attract more than just hardcore vegans. The recognizable Mexican flavors mean even the vegan-curious can enjoy a meal here and not wonder where's the meat.
Charly's Vegan Tacos. 172 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-456-8202; charlysvegantacos.com.