When it Comes to Fritas (Cuban hamburgers) El Mago is Best
Back in the day, when I would spend my nights in South Beach partying until the wee hours of the morning, I would often make a stop at my neighborhood Cuban joint before coming home.
La Palma on Southwest Eight Street has always been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s cheap, greasy and filling. Not to mention culturally enlightening. This place is about as Cuban as Miami will get. Even more so than Versailles because you’ll never see tourists here.
I would usually order two fritas along with four croquetas and maybe even a beer. I would stuff one of the croquetas inside the frita, dash a little hot sauce on it and indulge, oblivious to the heartburn (and hangover) I would be sure to wake up with.
La Palma became an institution to my friends and I. But I never knew how special it was until I left Miami after college to travel the world, living in various places throughout Europe and the Southwest United States.
Being unable to find any fritas anywhere outside Miami, I was forced to move back home after ten years of living away. And just to tell you how often I would go there, the ladies behind the counter recognized me ten years later. And they remembered my order!
So What Is A Frita, You Ask Me?
It is essentially a Cuban hamburger that is prepared with ground beef and/or chorizo and spiced with paprika and onion. It is cooked on a grill and placed on a Cuban roll. Then it’s topped with onions, ketchup and piled high with julienne cut potatoes or potato sticks.
Now that I’ve moved back to Miami, I don’t even eat them as much anymore because I no longer live in the same neighborhood and the ones my local Cuban joint makes are not nearly as good. They used canned potato sticks instead of homemade julienne potatoes and they use American hamburger buns instead of a Cuban bun. A big no-no.
So when Miami blogger Burger Beast told me he was taking a local journalist to a couple of frita joints, I jumped onboard. And I suggested we add La Palma to the mix. Just for old times sake.
The Burger Beast (pictured above) and I have had our differences.
For example, he doesn’t like the Caribbean Burger at Flanigan’s. I love the Caribbean Burger at Flanigan’s.
He doesn’t like barbecue ribs. I love barbecue ribs.
He doesn’t like the frita at La Palma. I love the frita at La Palma.
But other than that, we get along fine.
The Mission: Find The Best Frita (Silence Bobby Flay)
The plan was to try La Palma, El Mago de la Frita and El Rey de las Fritas, all which are on Calle Ocho (Southwest Eight Street).
It was the Burger Beast, his childhood friend Nelson, Jake Katel from the Miami New Times Short Order blog and myself. A motley crew of carnivores on a mission.
Burger Beast is telling me that El Mago has the best fritas. Even though it’s right down the street from La Palma, I don’t have much experience going there because they close at 7 p.m. and my frita experience growing up was usually after hours.
His mission it to convince Katel from Short Order that El Mago de las Fritas is much better than El Rey de las Fritas, which is getting all the recognition since Bobby Flay of the Food Network named it the best hamburger in Florida.
Above: El Mago adds his secret sauce which he says keeps it moist. The sauce also replaces grease.
And The Winner Is…
It turns out, the Burger Beast was right. El Mago de las Fritas is better than La Palma and El Rey de las Fritas. The latter obviously does a better job of marketing itself than the other two, which is how it got Flay’s attention.
Unlike the other two, El Mago is the only place where the owner stands behind the counter and cooks your fritas on the grill. For as Cuban as the place is, there is a true American diner sentiment to it.
El Mago, which translates to magician, really does work magic with the fritas, including adding a secret sauce that keeps it from being greasy, he says. At least by Cuban standards.
El Mago, who came from Cuba in 1979, tells us he used to work with El Rey, who was his brother-in-law. But then they had a falling out and El Mago set out on his own. That was 25 years ago.
El Rey has since passed away but not before building several restaurants throughout Miami and leaving them to his family.
Above: A good frita place will make their own julienne cut potatoes. A lousy frita place will use shoestring potatoes from a can.
¿Con Queso, Chico?
One of the things we learned is that although the original recipe for fritas does not call for cheese, it has become Americanized in Miami with young people who choose to add cheese to it. This has caused some friction between the old-timers and the younger generations. It’s almost as bad as the young Cuban-Americans who vote democrat.
El Mago tells us that now 50 percent of his customers order it with cheese, the majority of them young people.
I personally would never order it with cheese but all the guys I was with that day ordered at least one with cheese. What can I say, I’m a purist.
The fritas in all three locations are good. You won’t go wrong with either one. If you want to take the advice of Bobby Flay - who is not a local - then go to El Rey.
If you want to take our advice - and yes, me and the guys are all locals - then check out El Mago.
And if you’re out after midnight and the frita craving hits you, then definitely check out La Palma. And tell them I sent you.
El Mago De Las Fritas
Check out Burger Beast’s account of our frita crawl. He also included a frita recipe.
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"When it Comes to Fritas (Cuban hamburgers) El Mago is Best"