Tag Archives: El Mago de las Fritas

Cuban New Yorker Returns (Temporarily) to Miami

downtown-miami

Back in 1985, when I arrived in Miami from Louisiana State University to accept a faculty position at Florida International University, I was talking with a friend, a Cuban and resident of the city, about the ethnic makeup of Miami at the time. When I touched on the topic of americanos in Miami, he said: “What americanos? There are no americanos left in Miami!” I laughed at his observation since it was obviously an oversimplification of the changing demographics of Miami-Dade. In 1985, there were certainly americanos in Miami.

That was then.

After spending the past seven years in New York City, as a professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York, I have returned to Miami, on a sabbatical leave from CUNY. I will be returning to New York and to my faculty position after the leave.
Coming back to Miami after a seven-year absence has given me an appreciation of how things have changed, and not changed, in the city I once called home. I share here my observations, seasoned somewhat by the four months I have already spent in South Florida. Now is the time to jot down my reactions, before they become commonplace and lose their freshness in my mind.

My most overarching reaction is that during the first month back in Miami I was not able to empirically verify, through personal observation, that my friend’s 1985 comment continues to be an oversimplification. That is, during my first few weeks here I did not run into a “bona fide” americano in Miami-Dade. [Yes, I know, all of us from the Western Hemisphere are Americans, but you all know what I mean when I say an americano, in Spanish and in italics].

It’s not like we are living in Hialeah or in Little Havana. Liza and I have rented an apartment in the Gables, which in my early years in Miami was a bastion of americanos. And in our initial weeks we trolled throughout most of the county, shopping for what we need to set up living quarters, eating out constantly (especially until the movers came with our pots and pans), visiting CVS, COSTCO, and IKEA more times than I would have liked, contacting utilities and maintenance people, the sales agents at the gym, dealing with realtors and a property management company, etc., and not an americano in sight. Even the staff of a Japanese restaurant I frequent is all Latino, except for the head sushi chef, who is, of course, not americano, but Japanese.

The presence of the more recent wave of arrivals from Cuba is especially evident. The cable guy has a degree in ciencias informáticas from a Cuban polytechnic. The customer representative at the cable company was born in the 10 de octubre neighborhood in Havana. The handyman the management company sent to fix the garbage disposal is from Morón, where he was a bongocero. I have also been surprised that Spanish is the language in which strangers greet me, even though now, with my grey hair, I could credibly “pass” as an americano.

Of course, in time some americanos have surfaced here and there. But my initial reaction is that the trends that I and other sociologists have been talking about for a long time, the “Latinization” of Miami, the institutional completeness of the Cuban community, and Spanish as the lingua franca, are all evidently proceeding apace and show no signs of abating, fueled by the largest ever sustained migration wave from Cuba.

A few more observations.

I must be bringing with me a New York mindset with respect to the provision of public services. After any heavy overnight snowstorm, I could peer out of the window of my Manhattan apartment at 6:00 a.m. and see the street plowed clear of snow, as were virtually all streets in the city. And if they weren’t plowed (as happened in the infamous December 2010 storm), the mayor had hell to pay. Here’s another example: crowded-subwaythe deterioration over the past two years in the reliability of subway service. Once the outcry went up, the Governor went down from Albany and showed his face, appointed a new director of the MTA, investments were made in the infrastructure, and scheduled maintenance work stepped up noticeably. I have every expectation than when I return to New York service will have noticeably improved. New Yorkers demand good service. They may not always get it, but there is an expected level of performance that pushes the institutions that serve the public to do better, to remedy the situation, to set a higher bar. Maybe that’s because New Yorkers pay for it, in the form of both state and city income taxes, as well as in higher prices for just about everything else. It’s a New York mantra: you pay more, but you expect more. That applies to everything from municipal services, restaurants, cultural events, and even to seats at Yankee Stadium. Admittedly, the downside of that is that the city is pricing out all but its more affluent residents, as the gentrification of working class and ethnic neighborhoods continues apace.

hurricane debrisWhen I arrived in Miami I saw piles of debris lining the streets from a hurricane that came through nearly a month before, with no sign that anyone was coming around to pick them up. And as far as I could tell, there was a deafening silence in the media (from mainstream to social) about it, as if that is the expected level of performance from those responsible for providing public services. I also hear horror stories from relatives about waiting more than an hour or two in a doctor’s office. At a department store where I went to return an item, I took a number at the customer service desk only to find that there was just one taciturn clerk on duty and sixteen people ahead of me, all of them with a look of resignation on their faces. New Yorkers don’t put up with that and those providing services, from doctors to retail outlets, know it. The transformation of the Marlins into a AAA team by a management interested in only the bottom line is the most evident example of the lack of respect for consumers that seems to pervade down here.

traffic

I’ll admit don’t drive much in New York, so I can’t really have much of a basis for comparison, but I have been surprised by the uptick in both the density and unpredictability of the traffic and the brazen disregard for traffic norms so many drivers exhibit here. And I don’t have an option as I do in New York: here I have to drive.

Some of the stuff I hear on some Spanish-language radio programs and, especially, what I have seen on the evening variety  programs on America TeVé is beyond embarrassing, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of sexism, racism, and homophobia.

 

happy hour

A skit on “El Happy Hour” on América TeVé

 

Let me balance the criticism with a list of things that I love about Miami and that I have joyfully rediscovered upon my return:

• First and foremost: spending more time with my younger son and other family members, and reconnecting with so many dear friends.

• Cuisines that abound in Miami and that are poorly represented in New York: Argentinian, Spanish, and Nicaraguan. New York has some restaurants that represent these national cuisines, but nothing like the number of establishments and variety (in terms of price range) that exist in Miami. Places like El Gallego, Graziano’s, and El Novillo have the authentic feel of the home country, including a lack of both pretentiousness and pricy menus. Of course, Cuban eating establishments are in a class by themselves here in terms of number and range of prices, with the most unique ones at the lower end. I have found nothing in New York – or anywhere, not even Cuba — that comes close to El Palacio de los Jugos or El Mago de las Fritas.

• Publix, Navarro, and Vicky’s Bakery.

• No schlepping. It is the one advantage of an automobile-based city. You drive a car, you buy stuff like groceries or clothes, you put the stuff in the trunk, and you take it out when you get home. No carrying of heavy loads over long distances, no bags in movie theaters or restaurants.

schlepping

A New Yorker cartoon on “schlepping”

 

• Bookstores such as Books & Books and Barnes & Noble with large Spanish-language sections.

• The greater ease of travel to Cuba is a big plus. A 45-minute flight. I could not get used to spending nearly four hours on a plane to get to Cuba, which is what it takes to get from JFK to Havana. I have always thought of Cuba as being close, if only in distance.

• And there is the comfort that one derives from the most laudable of Cuban national traits, so evident in the public spaces of Miami (as in Cuba): the value placed on interacting, especially with strangers, in a warm, familiar, and even humorous, manner. Cubans typically strive to instantly eliminate interpersonal distance, to be considered buena gente. No one wants to be a gruffy arrogant pesado. The quintessential example is the waitress or female clerk who in an instant refers to a complete male stranger as mi vida or mi amor with not even a hint of irony or sarcasm, as if it were heartfelt.

Do I miss New York already? Yes, and here’s that list:

• I miss my Brooklyn guys: my oldest son, his wife, and my granddaughter.

• The subway, believe it or not, even with delays. It’s the most liberating feeling not to be tied to an automobile (except, of course, when you have to schlepp stuff). With a monthly pass and your own two feet you can go anywhere in that fabulous city. To me, the subway is New York City.

• My college, department, and students. A sabbatical is always welcomed, but with only a handful of exceptions during other sabbatical leaves in my career, when the Fall semester comes around I have always been in front of a classroom, going back to that

IMG_0368

Faculty and graduating seniors, LLS Department, John Jay College, Spring 2017

September forty-six years ago when I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Florida. It’s hard to break a habit, especially one that is enjoyable and rewarding.

 

• The chill in the air, the fall colors, and the magnificent landscapes of the Hudson Valley. Of course, I was glad not to be there when the chill turned into a deep freeze.gas

• Something that may seem trivial, but it’s kind of basic: I miss cooking with gas. Unlike New York, home gas seems to be the exception in Miami.

So that’s an initial pass on my thoughts upon returning to Miami. I expect to post more about the dynamics of Miami as viewed from what (I realize) has become (with apologies) my New York eye. I’ll mix those in with postings from my research about the history of the Cuban presence in New York. Hope you will find them interesting.

 

 

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The Fritas Magician: Cuban New Yorker Visits Miami

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

Ortelio (El Mago)

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.

The President leaving El Mago with a Materva in hand. The framed picture hangs on the wall of the establishment.

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.

Ortelio’s daughter Marta . . . or Belkys . . .

 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.”

Another framed picture on the wall: the President, cash in hand, ordering his frita. With or without cheese? The Secret Service guy stationed in the kitchen making sure the papitas are just right . . .

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.

The flan, café, and cortadito

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

tel:305-266-8486

elmago@elmagodelasfritas.com

Monday through Saturday 8:00 am – 8:00 pm