In Miami, ordering tortilla española is like playing a game of Russian roulette. In kitchens from Kendall to South Beach, the humble dish begs comparison to versions cooked by mothers, abuelitas, the great chefs of Spain, and that country's beloved tapas bars. Some argue the slices of potato should be razor-thin, stacked three to four inches high, and served at or just below room temperature. For others, the dish is best served slightly warm, with thick slices of potato encased in egg that's cooked to the point where the scrambled yolks begin to brown and lend just a touch of crunch.
At Giorgio Rapicavoli's Taperia Raca, which opened in February in the Miami Modern district, the tortilla was inspired by a brief trip to Spain, where the tortilla at Cervecería Catalana in Barcelona is thin, warm, and slightly runny on the inside, says the Eating House chef and reality TV winner.
Raca's interpretation is aggressively seasoned and cooked firmly on the outside while remaining creamy and slightly runny inside. It combines the classic tortilla with luscious French-style scrambled eggs, cooked slowly at low heat with a vast quantity of butter to yield a near-custard that outshines the rubbery, almost-burned slop American parents whip up for their children on weekends. Two wedges of the pale-yellow omelet are topped with a Christmas combination of tiny chopped chives and roasted red peppers crowned with a dollop of creamy, garlicky aioli.
It's a delightful interpretation of one of the cornerstones of Spanish cuisine, and a shock coming from a chef who's better known for stoner-friendly fare with modernist leanings. On a recent visit, it also hit the mark for a friend raised on tortilla in a Dominican home, who was instantly transported back to childhood after the first bite. Soon his portion was gone, along with half of mine. The humble tortilla represented the challenge facing Rapicavoli in his follow-up to his wildly successful Eating House, where people still line up for more than an hour on weekends to eat his Cap'n Crunch pancakes.
While Rapicavoli looks to push the envelope and explore his own creativity at Eating House, the goal at Raca, he says, is to be a solid neighborhood tapas joint.
"We're not trying to be the Bazaar," he said, referring to the modernist Spanish restaurants helmed by Ferran Adrià protégé José Andrés. "And we're not trying to be Casa Juancho with flamenco and all that shit."
The space, most recently occupied by the now-closed Metro Organic Bistro, has been left mostly unchanged from its previous identity and lacks the ostentatious air of both the Bazaar and Casa Juancho, the Little Havana Spanish-cuisine standby. The majority of the restaurant's 60 seats are outside on a hedge-wrapped patio adjacent to Biscayne Boulevard. The ever-present din of traffic zooming by is dotted with the occasional mumble of a passing bum or the chatter of drunken hipsters stumbling toward another restaurant.
Inside a high-walled room flooded by daylight through towering floor-to-ceiling windows, a trio of a corrugated cardboard bull heads is mounted on a beige brick wall overlooking U-shaped black-leather banquettes surrounding a handful of tables.
A large abstract painting of a snarling bull ready to charge hangs above four bar seats, which offer a glimpse into the restaurant's minuscule open kitchen.
The menu, created by Rapicavoli and former Preservation chef de cuisine Ryan Harrison, is simply split into hot and cold, with each section offering about a dozen options covering most of the classics. The choices were as much dictated by the tiny kitchen as they were by Rapicavoli's desire to create a lounge-like joint best suited for imbibing pitchers of ruby-red sangria and calimocho, a tart, sweet combination of red wine and Coca-Cola that's wildly popular in Spain's Basque country.
From the closet-size space emerges a torrent of small plates that can please both tapas novices and Spaniards in Miami looking for real estate investments. The generously portioned paté de hígado is a bowl of fluffy whipped chicken liver topped with a sweet, puckery fig purée and chopped almonds accompanied by crisply toasted bread rubbed with olive oil. The same slices of toast are used in pan con tomate and come crowned with a combination of sweet Roma tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and sea salt that has an almost jelly-like texture that never soddens the crisp bread.
Boquerones will delight the pickiest of fish eaters, the ones who refuse to eat even the mildest portions of salmon. White anchovies lie atop a sweet-sour segment of bright-pink grapefruit that cuts the anchovies' pleasant yet intense fishiness and creates a bright bite that still features the assertively flavored fish.
A variety of other tapas standbys proves similarly enjoyable. A cold preparation of octopus showcases tentacles slow-poached in court-bouillon until tender and then paired with ripe and raw pickled papayas dressed in an herbaceous vinaigrette. Fat, succulent shrimp are perfectly cooked and doused in a punchy garlic sauce that would satisfy even the harshest gambas al ajillo critic.
The lone miss are Raca's croquetas de manchego, which come as four thumb-size balls of greasy cheese fried in a bland crust. Yet offering a quick about-face are slow-braised pork cheeks -- fork-tender, perfectly seasoned meat laced with unctuous ribbons of fat that's put further over-the-top when drenched in warm, runny egg yolk.
The dish's near-excessive richness will shock you into remembering you're eating at a restaurant owned by a guy who across town has earned a cult following with dishes like bone marrow and candied bacon.
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Rapicavoli has tempered his creativity and produced a neighborhood spot that pleased both the Dominican native and the brisket- and mac-'n'-cheese-loving Texas boy who accompanied me to dinner. The 28-year-old chef says he hopes to one day open Italian and Argentine restaurants in a nod to his heritage.
With Taperia Raca, he's on his way to proving he's more than just a flash in the pan.