Neighborhood Joints

Rio Cristal: Where Everything Is Served Under a Heap of Fries

Paula Niño
Bistec Rio Cristal
A friend recently chose to celebrate his birthday at Rio Cristal, a Cuban place on Bird Road west of Tropical Park, because he grew up eating there and had fond memories.

Located in a strip mall next to a salsa dance school, the place has been serving Cuban comfort food for 40 years. It seems to be stuck in time, with formica booths and longtime servers, who have been there as far back as my (slowly aging) friend can remember.

As we waited for other guests to arrive, we sipped sweet sangria and munched on thin, somewhat limp fries that would become the common thread of our meal.

Rio Cristal's menu has the dishes you'd find at most Cuban restaurants. My husband ordered the house specialty -- bistec Rio Cristal -- and I chose the lechón special. There was also a plate of croquetas, which arrived buried under a pile of the same fries we tasted earlier.

A small salad, standard with all entrées, followed. Then the bistec arrived -- under yet another pile of fries. How do you even begin eating the dish? To make digging the palomilla from underneath a little easier, our server brought an extra plate for the fries. My lechón, bathed in mojo and topped with onions, came with rice, beans, and -- thankfully -- no fries. I ordered plantains instead because, really, four giant plates of fries seemed like enough for a party of six. And our table had little room for more extra plates.

While the bistec was tasty, nostalgia probably has a lot to do with its appeal. Better options were the lechón and the flan that my friend's family insisted I taste. Rich, creamy, and not too sweet, the flan is one of the best I've eaten. It provided an extra dose of comfort to the already soulful meal.

Rio Cristal
9872 Bird Rd., Miami

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Paula Niño
Contact: Paula Niño