Ten years back I wrote a book, Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story. Research required a deep dive into the library stacks and a mad dash across the country. (The book is out of print, but used copies can, I’m sad to say, be purchased online for a penny plus shipping.) To that dash, I track my obsession with an onion-entangled burger I ate in Oklahoma. The Memphis restaurant Hog & Hominy now flattop griddles its own version. In homage to my obsession, it’s called the John T. Back then, I believed that the pimento cheeseburgers of my Georgia and South Carolina youth deserved wider adoption. I’m pleased to tell you that, in the decade since then, pimento burgers have turned up everywhere from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to San Francisco.
This is not how I expected things to go. If you had asked me in 2005 what local burger I expected to really blossom nationally, I would have said the frita, a Cuban import with a great backstory, popular in Miami since the 1960s. Allow me to quote from Hamburgers & Fries: “Most exiles say fritas hearken to vieja Habana, where peddlers sold thin plugs of beef, topped with potato sticks and stuffed in tomato sauce–swabbed buns, from kerosene-fueled carts. In Cuba, fritas were street food, eaten on the go, in public. Natives of Havana now living in Miami recall the old men who rolled jerry-rigged hand trucks into place outside the city’s baseball stadiums at the top of the ninth. And they remember the young boys who trundled bicycle-burros from distiller to manufacturer, from Plaza de Armas to Plaza de la Catedral, selling quick lunches for a few pesos.”
Castro’s 1959 takeover of Cuba transformed more than that island nation. As the previous regime toppled, hundreds of thousands of natives fled for the United States. On their Miami arrival, music got syncopated, guayaberas became evening wear, and food got better. Think ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish that translates from the Spanish as “old clothes” but tastes nothing like that. Think fritas, which, despite their birth in Cuba, are arguably the ultimate American burgers. After all, what could be more American than remaking the burger and fries combo into a more portable dish by stuffing the fries under the bun crown?
Back in 2005, I fell for El Rey de las Fritas, a Little Havana lunch counter rendered in primary colors and plywood booths.
When I returned this year, I hit other vaunted Miami joints like El Mago de las Fritas, where every other diner ordered their frita with a fried egg topper. And I tried Cuban Guys, a nascent chain that serves various riffs, including a kids’ meal frita and a hot dog frita. Both were great, in their own way. But El Rey lured me back into its greasy orbit. Founded in 1976 by Victoriano Benito Gonzalez, who previously ran a frita stand in Placetas, Cuba, it’s now a four-location Miami mini-chain, operated by his daughter, Mercedes Gonzalez.
Texture is all-important, Mercedes told me after I clambered onto a chrome-spined spinner stool, as I bit into a thin patty of paprika-spiked beef and a trail of crisp potato sticks spilled from the bun and onto the linoleum slab. “You want that crunch.” She learned that lesson from her father, who passed away in 2005. When he was still in Cuba, and he couldn’t obtain potatoes, he sometimes tucked cornflakes under the crown. The sweet bun, which she sources from a Cuban bakery, is key too, she told me as I sopped dribs of ketchupy mojo sauce from my plate with a heel. “Father would say, ‘I want bread to be light. I want people to eat two fritas.’”
Little has changed during my ten-year absence. Rosie Buezo, a thirty-two-year veteran, still works the griddle. Angelina Gonzalez, mother of Mercedes, still bakes the flans. And I still order two fritas. On this trip, I ate an elaboration, capped with sweet plantains. And then, in crunchy tribute to Victoriano Benito Gonzalez, a second with tostones, which is to say hard-fried plantains, tucked inside.
Last December, President Obama ordered the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana. Soon, we all may have the chance to travel to Havana to eat Cuban burgers in situ. Until then, you can find me on one of those spinner stools at El Rey. I’ll be the guy with a frita in hand, trying to scoop and scarf the fries and tostones that are spilling onto the counter.