We love it, we hate it, but it is hard to ignore it. For the 1.78 million Cuban Americans, Miami is not just any place. It’s where a majority of us lives and the one U.S. metropolitan area where, as one writer once put it, “Cubans have captured the atmosphere of the city.” For better or worse, what happens in Miami defines the Cuban presence in the United States. And it’s where many former Cuban New Yorkers now live.
I lived in Miami until I moved to New York two years ago (and for 32 of the 52 years I have lived in this country), and I am now, as many Cubans do, visiting. I am sure that in a future blog I will inflict upon the readers of CNY some oh-so-serious socio-political analysis of the changes I am seeing in la capital del exilio. But for now, the subject is fritas.
It would be too simplistic to translate fritas as Cuban hamburgers. They look like hamburgers, but the meat inside the bun has chorizo, mixed in with beef and who knows what else. Grilled onions and crispy shoestring potatoes are also inside the bun, but no lettuce and tomato, consistent with the tendency for Cuban (indeed, Caribbean) food to exclude uncooked ingredients.
Fritas are part of what we can call Cuban cafeteria fare, along with sandwiches cubanos, medianoches, croquetas (preferably made of ham), papas rellenas, pastelitos (beef, cheese, guava, coconut) and the like. Food to go, food on the run, usually accompanied by a milk shake or a tropical fruit juice, served by places that are frequently little more than drive-ups, open 24 hours, and especially popular late at night.
In the early days of Cuban Miami, El Morro Castle, on N.W. 7th Street, or Badia’s on S.W. 8th Street and in Hialeah, were popular purveyors of cafeteria fare. La Palma on S.W. 8th Street is now probably the most popular of this type of establishment. One of the reasons for the success of the Sergio’s chain in Miami is that it combines cafeteria food with a menu of “regular” Cuban food (BTW, I vote for the pan con bistec at Sergio’s as the best in Miami).
Fritas are not found in all Cuban cafeterias, perhaps because they require a more elaborate preparation than most cafeteria fare. So specialized frita places arose in Miami, such as El Rey de las Fritas and an establishment, now long gone, called El Palacio de las Fritas.
Ropa vieja, black beans, picadillo, arroz con pollo, and other Cuban restaurant items are not among the things I miss most about Miami because I can find reasonably good Cuban restaurants in New York. But I have not yet encountered any true Cuban cafeterias in New York, much less fritas, at least not in Manhattan. Admittedly, I have yet to troll New Jersey or the outer boroughs searching for them [any leads?]. This is why the Cuban food items I miss most are pastelitos, croquetas, medianoches, and, especially, fritas. They are right up there with the beach and The Beach on the Miami most-missed list (local politicians and expressway traffic did not make the cut).
When my children were small and I was not too preoccupied with my weight, some 25 years ago, I had already decided what was the best frita place in Miami: a small place on S.W. 8th street not far from my Coral Gables home, El Mago de
las Fritas, where Ortelio, el mago himself, would do his magic behind a counter with stools and with only a few tables. Back then, the fritas sold for one dollar, $1.25 with cheese.
It remained for many years one of my favorite haunts in Miami. Not only were the fritas the best, but there was something about the place. Ortelio would greet you personally and tell you how he learned to make fritas in his hometown of Placetas in central Cuba. I would run into friends at the counter. And then there
was the ambivalent nomenclature. Ortelio was Ortelio to some and El Mago to others. And the place itself is known to everyone, and appears in the menu, as El Mago de las Fritas, but the sign outside says El Mago de la Frita (singular).
I had not been to El Mago in a few years when, in October 2010, the magician’s place made the national news: on a day trip to Miami, President Obama decided he had to have one of Ortelio’s fritas. Reporters and Secret Service agents invaded the tiny place while Obama had a frita, washed down by what looks in a photo like a Materva.
As soon as I arrived in Miami this summer I headed for El Mago to see what has changed. I found that everything and nothing has changed. The most notable change is that Ortelio’s daughter has taken an active role in managing the place. She told us her name is Marta. But no, wait, everyone was calling her Belkys. She admitted she is Marta AND Belkys. The tradition of ambivalent names continues at El Mago.
Marta/Belkys tells us that El Mago now has a website and a facebook page and participated in the 2011 South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s Burger Bash, where they turned out 2,500 fritas. El Mago has been featured in eating guides, such as Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are, and there is a ZAGAT-rated sign on the front window. Pictures of the Presidential visit fill the walls, and the motto on the glossy business card reads: “Good enough for the President of the USA.”
Fortunately and not surprisingly, the only thing that has changed about the fritas is the price: regular fritas are $3.50, with cheese $3.75 (choice of Swiss or American). El Mago has added two additional options: with egg ($4.50) and a double frita for $5.50.
Even with the price increase, the fritas are worth every penny. The success of El Mago’s fritas was never in the patty itself but in three key elements: the bread (essentially a soft Cuban bread in the shape of a bun), the potatoes (homemade crunchy little shavings fried fresh everyday), and the special sauce in which Ortelio grills the fritas. Most frita places use regular hamburger buns and factory-made shoestring potatoes out of a can.
After I exchanged greetings and memories with Ortelio, Liza and I ordered two fritas each (I ordered one of my fritas with cheese). To drink, I ordered what I always ordered at El Mago: homemade fresh watermelon juice, and Liza went
for a mango milkshake. Everything was as good as I remembered. What I did not remember was that the flan, also made at El Mago, is among the best in Miami. My memory was jogged when we ordered one to share: just the right texture, caramel-y, and not too sweet.
I left my cell number with Ortelio so that he could pass it on to a couple of friends I used to see at the counter and who still, he told me, frequent the place.
On my way out I scanned the sayings and tidbits of advice that Orteli0 has placed in frames on the wall behind the counter. One of them reads (my translation): “If you like the food, tell everyone you know. If you don’t like it, tell El Mago.”
So here it is mago, I’m telling everyone I know, and then some.
El Mago de las Fritas
5828 S.W. 8th Street
West Miami, FL 33144
Monday through Saturday 8:00 am – 8:00 pm