Not far from Little Havana, in a neighborhood of beige concrete apartments, faded storefronts, and former Cuban cigar factories, sits Yambo Restaurant. It’s hard to miss: Out front, bright-red letters on a white sign shout its name. Beneath the sign stand two life-size horse statues chained to white posts as if they might escape.
That’s just the beginning. This fritanga is an oasis of stuff. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered in something. There are Nicaraguan masks, license plates, images of the Virgin Mary, and portraits of parrots. An elephant covered in papier-mâché dollar bills even watches over customers seated on horse-butt barstools.
And earlier this month, among the trinkets, tchotchkes, and knickknacks, an inspector found a dead rat.
“The inspector, he actually passed by [the cook line]. He looked under; there wasn’t anything,” says Rey Perez, who took over the restaurant from his father a year ago. “Then we went back again, and there was a little Mickey Mouse.”
Perez squinted his eyes and squeezed his thumb and forefinger together — the rat was, apparently, small.
The inspector also found seven live roaches by the food-service window, where a bumper sticker reads, “Putnam for Governor."
Yet on a Monday afternoon, three days after the restaurant was ordered to close June 11, nearly 20 people were happily eating in the patio area. “It’s not like a five-star restaurant,” says Paclo Caballero, who has been lunching at Yambo since 1991. “And there are rats all over the place in this city.”
Miami-Dade and Broward restaurants are routinely cited for roaches, rodents, and the stuff they leave behind. The Miami Herald's "Rodent Report" ratted out ten restaurants, from fast-food chains to locally run businesses, that have been cited for the critters since early June. Last year, the Palm Beach Post found that on average, two restaurants a week were cited for rodents and temporarily closed in Palm Beach County.
Yambo opened in 1983 as a neighborhood tavern. Though it's owned by Cuban immigrants, it might be the platonic ideal of a fritanga, which is the generic term for a Nicaraguan cafeteria. Nowhere else can you get as much carne asada, nacatamal, or gallo pinto for less than $12 — one meal generally produces enough leftovers for dinner that night and lunch the next day.
Perez says Yambo became popular with Nicaraguans because his father organized buses to Washington, D.C., for Nicaraguan immigrants seeking asylum in 1997. “He was very well known in the community,” Rey says. The city named the street outside the eatery Armando Perez "Yambo" Boulevard in his honor.
The Yambo owner says the rat had snuck in through the back door, which an employee liked to keep open. (That employee was fired.) “It’s very hard to keep the outside clean,” he says, "but I think we’ve done a great job. It’s the first time we’ve had that problem.”
Yambo has been cited for roach activity before, though, in April 2016.
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Albert Abdullah has been a regular at Yambo since the early '90s. He says that he used to work in pest control and that the “allure of the environment” at Yambo is how the rat might have gotten in. “It’s an open space,” he says between bites. “Any restaurant has the potential to have vermin or rodents. But I’ve never seen anything other than fresh ingredients or food. They pack it in your face.”
Paul Ackerman, who is Cuban, was introduced to Yambo by his Nicaraguan wife five years ago. He wasn't surprised to hear the restaurant had been cited for the dead rat. "It's a representation of what happens in Nicaragua," he says, "from the rural areas where there are no streets, all the way to the nice restaurants in the capital of Managua. I don’t believe that they would see the hygiene standards here being the same as that in their country.”
But the sentiment is not unanimous. Inside, members of a Nicaraguan family waiting for their food decline to give their names. Though they eat at Yambo because it captures Nicaragua in its “craftsmanship,” they aren't too pleased about "Mickey Mouse."
“Rats shouldn’t be accepted in any place or in any restaurant,” the dad says.