Nedal Ahmad has no culinary training. His only restaurant experience prior to opening his own place was a short-lived partnership in a fried fish and chicken store.
But at age 29, Ahmad is gathering accolades for his burgers, fries and hot dogs. His Pincho Factory has even been featured on Travel Channel's "Burger Land."
Three years ago, the first Pincho Factory opened in the west Miami-Dade County neighborhood of Westchester. Somehow, foodies found it, and this past August, Ahmad and his partners — brother Nizar, 23, and cousin Otto Othman, 28 — opened a second location in Coral Gables. More locations are planned, and Ahmad says he'd like to be open in Broward by 2015.
Foodies come for his signature pinchos, grilled skewers of chicken, steak or shrimp ($4.99-$6.50) that can be had in a pita wrap, rice bowl or salad bowl ($7.49-$9.49). They seemed vaguely Middle Eastern to me, but it wasn't until later that I found out Ahmad is Palestinian-American.
Much more than Ahmad's ethnic background, however, the menu more closely reflects his growing up in Cuban-centric Hialeah. "I speak Spanish better than I speak Arabic," he says.
So it follows that his best-selling menu item is something called the Toston Burger ($7.99 single/$9.49 double), where two fried plantains act as the "buns" for a burger that's topped with Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and house-made cilantro sauce. Tostones are a staple of Cuban and many other Caribbean cuisines.
Yes, it's gimmicky. But behind the flash is one of the most incredible hamburgers I've had in years.
They use a combination of ground chuck, brisket and short rib. The cooked patties are never anything but moist. They're griddle-cooked so that the outside edges have a nice char. But they're big enough that the inside doesn't get overcooked. We had the classic Pincho burger ($5.99 single/$7.49 double), which is topped with potato sticks and a secret pink sauce. They also do burgers topped with egg, bacon and blue cheese or fried cheese, cabbage slaw and crema.
The hot dogs are kosher and available on a brioche bun ($3.99), with chipotle mayo ($5.99) or with chopped bacon, melted cheese, mango sauce, potato sticks and pink sauce ($5.99).
On the advice of the friendly fellow who took our order — you order from a counter and wait for your name to be called — I had the Buffalo chicken sandwich ($5.99 single/$7.49 double). It's a riff on Buffalo chicken wings with a chicken breast topped with Gorgonzola cheese, bacon, Buffalo sauce and caramelized onions. Like the burgers, the chicken is tender and moist. The ratio of sauce to bun to protein is perfectly calibrated. Most of the chicken sandwiches can be ordered with the same toppings as the burgers — the toston chicken sandwich ($7.99 single/$9.49 double), for instance.
Only on Sunday, during Pincho Factory's popular brunch, do they offer the pastelito burger, where the popular Cuban pastries replace hamburger buns. The brunch menu also includes such items as red velvet pancakes ($10), and a bacon-wrapped omelet ($11.99), where 12 strips of bacon are wrapped around a four-egg omelet with cheese sauce, lettuce and tomatoes. Don't come here if you're watching your caloric intake.
You'll also want to eat the sweet-potato tater tots ($2.99/$4.50). They're served hot out of the oil, but somehow aren't greasy. Be sure to ask for apple butter (75 cents) for dipping. Like the tots, Pincho Factory's fries are crisp, hot and greaseless.
There's draft ($3.50-$8) and bottled ($3.50-$8) beers, as well as craft sodas ($1.50-$3). But because there are just 27 seats in the Westchester location and 50 in the Coral Gables restaurant, folks don't tend to linger.
Ahmad says he only serves what he calls his "favorite foods," to which he adds a personal stamp. Sometimes, good taste and passion are all a restaurant needs.
9860 Bird Road, Miami, 305-631-2038 and 30 Giralda Ave., Coral Gables
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot in Miami; meters and garages in Coral Gables