South Florida is home to a feast of fritas.
An import from Cuba, fritas cubanas are a greasier twist on the hamburger, a seasoned ground-beef patty sometimes blended with chorizo and pork, then topped with grilled onions, ketchup and a tumbleweed of fried shoestring potatoes.
The whole mess, with some exceptions — frita eaters often top their burgers with cheese and fried eggs — is piled on a Cuban roll.
"Depending on where you're from, you'll find different spins on burgers," says Sef Gonzalez, better known as comfort-food blogger and frita czar the Burger Beast. "In New Jersey, you find the slider style. You'll find pimento cheeseburgers in the South. The frita is Miami's version of that."
The frita has been so alluring to nonlocals that the spiced patty has found fans in celebrity chefs and the president. During a fundraising stop in 2010, President Barack Obama detoured to West Miami frita joint El Mago de Las Fritas and ordered a half-dozen burgers. Travel Channel burger expert George Motz profiled Little Havana stop El Rey de las Fritas, El Mago de las Fritas in West Miami and Pincho Factory in Coral Gables on a 2013 episode of "Burger Land." The Food Network's Bobby Flay dubbed El Rey's frita "the Sunshine State's best burger."
And every August, the Burger Beast stages the Frita Showdown, a contest pitting Miami's best frita joints against one another, which are found mostly in Little Havana and West Miami along Calle Ocho.
Now, Gonzalez says, fritas are having a moment more than 80 years after the burgers debuted on Havana's sidewalks in pushcarts called puestos de fritas. Gonzalez bit into his first frita at age 10 at Morro Castle in Hialeah. Morro's frita, sitting on a hamburger bun with oily julienned potatoes, made the Burger Beast an early convert.
"When fritas came to the United States in the early 1960s, you couldn't get Cuban bread on street corners. So you used American buns," Gonzalez says. "It has this nostalgia factor for me. You never forget your first."
For Cari Garcia, aka Miami food blogger Fatgirl Hedonist, the taste of fritas conjures memories of her late father, a Cuban cook who made burgers from scratch in their Hialeah home.
"For the longest time, I thought my dad's fritas were real hamburgers. Then, I had McDonald's when I was 12, and I was like, 'Whoa, these burgers are totally different,'" recalls Garcia, 31, who says El Rey's frita most resembles her dad's burger.
Fritas are a rarity if you trek north of Miami-Dade County. But plenty of seasoned patties sizzle at multiple Cuban joints along or within burger-chucking distance of Southwest Eighth Street. This makes Calle Ocho perfect for a frita crawl, a daylong (or, depending on your stomach, afternoon-long) quest to chow down on fresh, cheap Cuban originals.
We do mean cheap: Fritas rarely cost more than $5. The least expensive we found? $2.50.
How to frita crawl
Here's the best way to do the Miami crawl: Starting with El Rey and ending with Fritas Domino La Original in the west, travel east along Calle Ocho. The crawl is seven miles long, and the restaurants are bound between I-95 and the Florida Turnpike and between Southwest Eighth and the Dolphin Expressway.
El Rey De Las Fritas, 1821 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-644-6054 or ElReyDeLasFritas.com
Founded in 1976 by late owner Victoriano Benito Gonzalez, El Rey dishes paprika-spiced patties on Cuban rolls, a frita inspired by the ones from his youth working from his brother's puesto stand in Placetas, Cuba.
Mercedes Gonzalez, his daughter, guards her father's frita recipe like people conceal their pin numbers.
"Our recipe is pretty special, pretty tight. But that's my father's genius," says Gonzalez, of Miami, who runs El Rey with her husband, mother and brother. "We make ours without chorizo, 100 percent beef. It makes our customers happy because it doesn't give you indigestion or make you burp all day long."
Visit El Rey's tourist-friendly fixture on Eighth Street, its walls painted bright yellow and navy blue, and visitors are greeted with the aroma of croquetas and the whirr of fruit shakes called batidos. Fritas, more inventive here than at similar restaurants, can be crowned with bacon and cheese (B.S. frita), fried eggs (a caballo) and even sweet plantains (frita dulce).
"It's the quintessential Miami burger," Gonzalez says. "It goes with anything, like shakes, sodas and beer."
Morro Castle, 2500 NW Seventh St., Miami; 305-642-4747
Morro's frita ($2.49), one of the best deals in town, is seasoned with minced onions, peppers and spices. Every sandwich is stuffed with potatoes. A cobweb of golden-brown papitas poke out from the hamburger bun. More form a bed underneath the burger. Morro, owned by Leo Villalobos, has been a Miami staple since the 1960s.
El Mago de Las Fritas, 5828 SW Eighth St., West Miami; 305-266-8486 or MagosABE.com
El Mago's spot in West Miami builds its spicy red patty from a recipe concocted by Ortelio Cárdenas, the 76-year-old cook and brother-in-law of El Rey's Victoriano Gonzalez.
The all-beef burger is topped with curly julienned potatoes, a squish of ketchup and a smattering of cooked and raw onions on Cuban bread.
"Whenever I do a frita crawl, El Mago is the best one to eat right off the grill." Sef Gonzalez says. "It has the best taste."
La Palma Restaurant, 6091 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-261-1113
Also a cafeteria worth visiting for its churros and hot chocolate, La Palma, open 24 hours, offers a deep-fried version of the frita with or without cheese.
Fritas Domino La Original, 936 SW 67th Ave., West Miami; 305-266-8477
The restaurant that introduced Miami to the frita in 1961, Fritas Domino opened as a place where homesick Cuban exiles could find authentic food. Made with a spicy blend of chorizo and beef, this frita is topped with a forest of julienned potatoes, diced onions and ketchup.
El Mago's and El Rey's traditional burgers have inspired other Miami chefs to tinker with the frita. At Alberto Cabrera's Cuban gastropub Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Company (541 SW 12th Ave., Miami), find frita sliders built with julienned potatoes, onions and special sauce, Their morning McFruffin is topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Farther out, the fast-casual Cuban Guys chain (various locations in Hialeah Gardens, Kendall and North Miami Beach) has also entered the fray with a more traditional frita: a thin patty topped with a mound of shoestring potatoes, its bun cattle-branded with the letters "CG."
Gonzalez says fritas are difficult to come by in Broward.
"Broward has fritas?" Gonzalez jokes. "Every time I see a frita out of Miami-Dade, it's usually a patty with canned potato sticks or a lot of chorizo. People kind of do what they think it should be instead of finding out what a frita really is. Fritamaking is a labor of love. There's a lot of work that has to be done to make these, from the grinding of the beef to the seasonings, to the julienned potatoes to frying them."
Still, eaters with extra room in their stomachs may seek the Cuban hamburger in a smattering of Broward spots. They are:
A Touch of Cuba, 117 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., Hallandale Beach; 954-399-9181 or 'like' A Touch of Cuba on Facebook
Unlike fritas in Miami, A Touch of Cuba's version uses potato snack sticks instead of shoestring potatoes, and its spiced-beef patty can be ordered with a fried egg, with cheese or without.
Sergio's, 13620 Pines Blvd, Pembroke Pines; 954-381-7711 or sergios.com/Pembroke_Pines
While this Cuban kitchen with eight locations (including Kendall, Doral and Coral Gables) is better known for shredded beef and empanadas, Sergio's does a mean frita. Their patty comes with fresh shoestring potatoes, diced onions and ketchup on a standard hamburger bun. For a change, try the seasonal menu of Mini Frita sliders.
925 Nuevo's Cubano's, 925 N. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-806-8375
Not one, but eight Cuban flags flap in the breeze above this café near the corner of Sunrise Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. A mermaid mural decorates the red-brick wall, and a poster collage of fictional kingpins — Tony Soprano, Scarface, Vito Corleone — decorates the kitchen. Visitors must dine at an outdoor counter or the lone picnic table. Owner Luis Valdes, whose father opened this spot in 1976, says the menu offers a frita built with Cuban bread, shoestring potatoes, an all-beef patty and onions. Not that we've seen it. On one lunchtime visit, Valdes said Fort Lauderdale mogul H. Wayne Huizenga stopped by that morning and bought all 25 fritas. On two other occasions, the owner said the restaurant was "too busy" to prepare the burgers.
Colada Cuban Coffee House and Eatery, 525 N. Federal Highway, No. 400, Fort Lauderdale; 954-368-4705 or ColadaHouse.com
The owners of Miramar Bakery in Hollywood, Ryan Campbell and Alex Recio, opened this Fort Lauderdale outpost in May with a build-your-own-frita concept. Patties can be ordered with medianoche rolls or Cuban bread, covered with Swiss or American cheese, then topped with add-ons common (a fried egg) and not (tostones, maduros, ropa vieja). Instead of julienned potatoes, Colada layers its burgers with potato sticks.