Monday, November 17, 2008

Miami: South Beach

Am I Crockett or Am I Tubbs?

With the bag of lamb safely tucked away and the top rolled down on my Chrysler Sebring Convertible, I'm flying down I-395 and Route 41 into Miami Beach. It's a lovely and cool night here but I'm warm in my optimism, plus I've got the heater cranked to Full Blast.

I don't get to Miami very often and haven't been here since the early 1990s. In fact, I don't have too good an impression of Miami with it's status-conscious denizens and ostentatious pretentiousness. It's just not a place that has appealed to me. Ever. I'd much rather be in Honolulu than Miami.

But I'm game and open to see what the city has to offer. So far, the food has been good but now I'm driving into the Belly of the Beast to see what's what on a Monday night.

Exceeding the national speedlimit on the MacArthur Causeway, I realize that I saw Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett causing carnage and mayhem here in Bad Boys II.

I hope I'm not Agador.

Since it was nearly 10pm and a Monday night, I didn't get the full experience of Miami Beach. No bikini clad girls roller skating down Ocean Drive, no Lamborghinis blasting Arabic music and no nightclub called The Birdcage. What I did find was a large hip-hop party in celebration of some famous hip-hop DJ on Washington Avenue. There I found lots of the requisite SUVs, Chrysler 300s and more vehicles with very large chrome wheel, lots of bling and lots of cops.

Seems that no matter where you go in the world, crowds of black people scare white people.

Not really interested in the club scene, I found an open cigar shop and bought myself a stogie. Maybe I could look like The Pimp with my cigar and rental sebring convertible...

Or not.

Instead, I took a walk along the beach, chatted with a few girls and then took a tour of the retail architecture and design of the area. From there, it was another hair-raising ride at triple digit speeds along the highway back to my airport hotel.

Miami: Molina's Ranch Restaurant

The Bread.

After the not too long flight from Managua, I find myself in Miami for the night. I figured it would be a great way to cap off my Nicaragua trip with a night being fashionable in Florida.

Of course, I'm just not in the mood for a fancy place. I could go to Cielo or Azul but I can get pretty small plates of food or fusion just about anywhere in America. What I can't get at home is good Cuban food. So, after some consultations with friends across the country and the Internet, I decided to head to Molina's Ranch Restaurant in Hialeah - not too far from my hotel near the airport.

Watermelon Batida

I don't know what to expect while driving to Molina's. Is it going to be a fancy joint, a hole in the wall? I don't know. I just heard it was the place for Cuban and I'm going there. When I arrive, I find that it's neither. It's a nicely done stand-alone building with lots of seating outside for what must be long waiting times during their peak hours.

Inside, Molina's reminds me of Zippy's in Hawaii. It's nice, it's welcoming but it's functional. It's designed to serve lots of people en masse. It's kind of like Denny's. Luckily, the crowds are gone and I'm seated right away and the ballet begins.

In a moment, a basket of Pan Cubano lands on my table. Such interesting bread cooked in such an interesting way. It's white and baked in a manner that forms a crusty shell without it turning brown. I'm fascinated by the bread.

In a flash, they're ready for my order. I'll have a watermelon batida (which I have no idea what a "batida" is), an order of the conch fritters and the leg of lamb. I had been thinking about trying other stuff but the lamb sounded so good that I just couldn't pass it up - even though I knew there were two pieces.

Frituras de Cobo

The batida was like most Mexican agua frescas I've had in the past. Watermelon mixed with sugar, water and ice. This version is heavy on the sweet. Perhaps too heavy for me since I was tempted to water it down a bit.

Soon, the frituras de cobo arrived. Conch fritters. When I ordered, I had no idea what it would taste like. I'm not even sure if I've had conch before, but it was different so I ordered it and was rewarded. At first, the angry dark brown, nearly black fried exterior is off-putting. I wondered if they might have overcooked and burned the fritters? Maybe the oil was too hot.

Whatever the case, the fritters were tasty and had no aroma or flavor of being burnt. Crispy, crunchy exterior with a nearly creamy and chunky interior. Dip it in a little sauce and you were good to go.

Laconcito de Cordero

I suspect it's partly because the Cordero is braised and partly because Molina's is ready to handle the volume, but sooner rather than later, I found my Laconcito sitting in front of me - looking very meaty and massive. Crap.

With barely enough time to break into my appetizer, I've got these tasty and delicious-looking lamb shanks sitting in front of me. I'm in trouble. Oh, but look at those meaty bones filled with marrow. I guess there is a God.

Laconcito de Cordero, arroz blanco, frijoles negros y maduros.

One bite and it's just beauty. Soft, supple, fragrant - I'm transported to a happy place. A place where meat is flavorful and tender and filled with pretty lilac blossoms. Stewed in a rich, red sauce and served with peas and sliced red bell peppers, the flavor is delicate and delicious. I want to tear into it - hard.

But I savor it. Right away, I realize that it's just too much for one man to finish. I will have leftovers and I have no dining companions whose forks I have to parry. As I savor the rich, meaty and silky texture of the marrow, I'm happy knowing that tomorrow morning, I will enjoy a breakfast fit for a king.

The lamb comes with black beans, rice and plantains. They're all delicious accompaniments but all the lamb really needs is the rice. A bed of rice to pop the flavor of the meat. Like stretched muslin, proper rice is a flavor canvas upon which one can paint a masterpiece.

As I fall out into the night with a bag of leftovers, I'm left with beautiful visions of a Cuba filled with beautiful women and tasty lamb.

Molina's Ranch Restaurant
4090 E 8th Ave
Hialeah, FL 33013

Nicaragua: Leaving Town with the FSLN

Pork tamal wrapped in banana leaf.

It's our last day here in Managua and my last chance to enjoy the tasty tamales they have at the breakfast buffet.  The only problem is that there are no tamales out this morning.  Crap.

During our morning breakfasts, I've discovered that the one item they do here brilliantly at the Hilton is the pork tamal.  It's perfect and I must have more.  Luckily, they have some in the back and, in a few minutes, out comes some fresh, hot tamales.  Add a house baked pretzel to the mix, some orange juice and all is well.

Last breakfast together

All week long, the staff here has been asking us if we would like coffee with our breakfasts. At a table full of international coffee judges, one would expect coffee to be a central component of our meal. Unfortunately, the coffee here is utterly atrocious and everyone in our group has uniformly declined a cup all week long.

To be fair, I did give the coffee a try during my first morning here in Managua and it was truly horrid. I can stomach quite a bit of coffees but this was too much. Unlike the watery brew I find across America, the coffee here was just - oh, I really can't describe how bad it was. Sludge, maybe?

Our crew is rapidly dwindling. Cleofas took off on the first flight out at 6am. Evidently, if he left on that flight and flew to Atlanta, he would be home in Tijuana by 4pm. If he took a Latin America based flight through Mexico City, he would be home sometime tomorrow. Rouki and Brent are on a flight to Guatemala City at 1pm and Alirio and myself will be on afternoon flights back to Colombia and the United States, respectively.

Don Roberto and Martha pick us up at the hotel around 1pm. Our flights aren't until 3:45pm so we've got some time to go touring around and visit Frank and Cela Rogers at El Coche Cafe.

Sandinista Protest

Even though it's been quiet and there have been no scheduled disturbances/riots all weekend over the mayoral election, now that it's Monday, the Sandinistas have taken to the streets once again in protest. Rumor has it that tomorrow it's going to get worse. This past week, I've heard a bit of disgruntlement over the election and even some people who sound as though civil war haven't been ruled out if the election process isn't vindicated. Coming from Suburban America where we let our government run rampant over us while pretending to still live in a free country, I'm kinda shocked. I can't imagine my fellow Americans rising and taking arms to restore a free society.

FSLN in the car

To be honest, I don't have a predisposition for the Sandinistas or the PLC (the opposing party). I'm just a visitor here. I don't know Nicaraguan politics nor do I care to get involved. But, as we pull up to a traffic light, there's a lady selling Sandinista flags amidst a demonstration and I think it's a great opportunity to score Nicaraguan memorabilia.

It's not perhaps a chunk of the Berlin Wall, but I wasn't there for the fall.

For a moment, I think about waving my little flag around but then think better of it. I can do all the waving of my flag at home, behind pulled curtains without concern for being labeled. Then again, it would probably be a good idea to hide the flag in my luggage to avoid questioning by authorities while passing through immigration.

Pollo Estrella Airport

Managua boasts Latin America's most modern airport. I certainly can see that it is quite modern. But it is rather small. There's not even a long driveway to access the terminal. Just drive on up, get out and go to your plane. Checking in is rather painless and soon I'm off in search of a quick bite to eat.

There's a food court in the airport and I give Pollo Estrella a try. The chicken is lightly seasoned and the skin is thin and crispy. It's pretty decent and the price is cheap (at least when you're spending dollars).

Barista Carmen Suarez makes me a cappuccino.

Once past security, I've got some shopping to do. My friends have been telling me that it's cheaper to buy Flor de Cana rum at the airport than at the local markets. I go for the 18 year old rum for $30 each.

Next is a stop at the Padron Cigar booth where they're selling 1964 Anniverary Padron Torpedo Maduro cigars for $300 a box. While I really enjoy this particular cigar, I don't know the price. So, after a quick call to my local tobacconist in Baltimore, I decide to pick up a box (the price at home is $416). A twenty percent savings? Not bad at all.

Cappuccino by

There's a coffeeshop by my gate and I notice that it's a Cafe Flores location and that two of the competitors work for the company. I go in and find one of them working the bar. Time for a cappuccino.

Readers of this blog know that I'm pretty cautious about trying coffee at coffee shops. This time, I throw caution to the wind - mainly because she knows me. The cappuccino is pleasantly tasty. A nice balance of sweet milk and dark chocolate-y espresso. I like it.

By now, I'm late for boarding and I'm off to Miami.

Cafe Las Flores at the Aeropuerto Internacional de Managua.