The phrase "90 miles" needs no explanation in Miami. Anyone from Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boat/poster boy, to Toni Takarada, the infamous restaurateur who was recently fined thousands of dollars for discrimination against an African-American diner, knows what it means.
But if you toss around those words in any other part of the country, including the rest of South Florida where Cuban populations might not be as thick, you may just have some 'splaining to do, Lucy. See, 90 miles is the distance between Cuba and Key West. Cuban rafters risk their lives to cross the Florida Straits because of that relatively modest distance. John F. Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion for the same reason: Cuba isn't that far away.
In fact, "90 miles" has become enough of a catch phrase that I'm surprised there is no Cuban restaurant by that name in Miami. Curiously enough, the one that is called 90 Miles is in Palm Beach County -- Boca Raton, to be specific, on Glades Road about 90 yards from the Turnpike exit. It seems odder still that the 150-seat eatery, which offers an extensive list of Cuban specialties, sells at least as many, if not more, Mexican dishes. The colorful décor, combining geometric-painted walls and pseudo-Aztec straw-bottomed chairs, looks neither Cuban nor Mexican.
Lunch Monday through Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Friday from 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.
Miguel Oduardo, who opened the two-tiered restaurant two years ago, added Mexican food to the menu because "it is very popular," says his wife and co-proprietor, Elena. Neither menu has anything out of the ordinary on it, with the single exception of borscht on the Cuban side of things. Yes, Jewish-delicatessen borscht: cabbage, carrots, onions, beets, and potatoes in broth, an homage to the homeland of Elena Oduardo, who is Russian. Frankly this soup wasn't a compliment to Russian cuisine -- it had quarter-inch-thick dollops of oil floating on top, like (forgive me) rafters in the Straits. Even given the influx of fat, which can add flavor to just about anything, the soup was terrible, watery and rank. It arrived without the billed garnish of sour cream, but I doubt that a touch of Breakstone's would have rescued it.
But it probably goes without saying that, in a place with a name like 90 Miles, the Cuban fare far outstrips the Mexican. Aside from the borscht, the Cuban food has the flair of authenticity, while the Mexican dishes seem like stale alternatives. For instance a Cuban appetizer of chicharritas -- fried green plantain slices topped with garlic and aromatic grilled onions -- was crisp and good. But a Mexican starter, a flat tostada, was soggy, with too many wet ingredients piled on top: cheese, shredded chicken, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and peppers. Granted, Mexican food does tend to use a few more condiments and garnishes than Cuban. But these add-ons are supposed to enhance, not bury, the main ingredient.
So unless you're in the mood for a simple guacamole dip, chunky with buttery avocado, check out the Cuban "supper sample." This platter of assorted starters could have served as an appetizer for ten. Along with a moist, tasty tamale with pork, the plate featured chunks of chicken fried in mojo, or garlic-lime sauce, which were flavorful but too dry. An empanada, with a flaky crust and sautéed ground beef inside, was also savory, though the meat had just a bit too much texture and gristle. The best item on the sampler was easily the shredded pork. Wreathed in garlic and grilled onions, the pork had been roasted to pure succulence, like perfectly braised beef that needs no distracting sauce.
If service had been more knowledgeable, though, we wouldn't have run into problems with the Cuban main courses. We had ordered the pork roast, which is described on the menu as a "pig thigh marinated then oven roasted & shredded & grilled with onions and mojo." In other words it was the same pork that appeared on the sampler platter, though there it was supposed to be pork chunks, rather than the shredded version. The second time we saw it, it tasted just as good, but the charm had worn off.
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The "churrasco 90 miles" entrée was also initially off, served still mooing rather than the medium we'd requested. After it received more fire, however, the steak proved delicious, tangy from its marinade of lime, pepper, and garlic. A garnish of chimichurri sauce, comprising among other ingredients parsley, vinegar, and onions, added even more zest.
90 Miles likes its garlic, and you will, too, if you order the garlic chicken and shrimp main course. The strips of chicken and medium-size shrimp, pan-fried in oil with onions, pepper, and garlic, were juicy and tender. This dish went particularly well with buttered white rice, one of the two side dishes served with all the Cuban meals. You can choose some really good black beans, which maintained their individual integrity; rice and beans mixed together, which was a little on the arid side; or pleasingly sweet fried plantains, all caramel color and candied texture.
The kitchen also likes its pepper, which I agree can be an underrated spice -- like salt, a bit of black pepper brings out the flavor of a dish. But the salmon fajitas we'd ordered looked as if someone had played an old prank, dumping the entire contents of a peppershaker on top. Perhaps the pepper was meant to disguise the fact that the fish tasted a day past freshness. Even so, the flour tortillas were soft and warm, the garnishes of guacamole and sour cream plentiful, and more of those ubiquitous grilled white onions were scattered over the top, so we ate it after all.
When the sole choices for dessert are as common as Cuban flan or Mexican fried ice cream, I'm not particularly thrilled with either option. I was even less enchanted after I tried the fried ice cream, which was a scoop of store-bought-tasting vanilla rolled in stale, deep-fried corn flakes. It's definitely wiser to fill up on black beans and rice instead. When you come down to it, the Cuban side of the menu may be the only side worth investigating here. It's the Mexican food that needs the services of Brothers to the Rescue.