I was giddy heading to the west side of Miami to El Mago de las Fritas, a small restaurant that specializes in one of my favorite Cuban creations: the frita Cubana. You’ll hear it called the “Cuban hamburger” since at it’s essence it’s a spiced meat patty served on Cuban bread (and lard is among the main ingredients of Cuban bread). But the frita Cubana is distinguished by its liberal use of crunchy shoestring potatoes that give the sandwich its amazing texture.
Ortelio Cárdenas is the fritas wizard (the English translation of Mago de las Fritas) and is a venerable personality in the neighborhood. Cárdenas is now pushing 80 years old and has ceded daily operations of the restaurant to his daughter Martha. Still, the greasy-spoon vibe and friendly atmosphere of the restaurant endure, highlighted by the excellent food and friendly clientele.
I had what was maybe my favorite customer interaction during the course of Dining on a Dime — with a young girl and her father. He had been coming to the restaurant since the 1980s and was passing along the tradition to his daughter. And between some greasy, spicy, crunchy fritas and a pounded steak sandwich, I also had an enlightening conversation with Martha about what it means to be Cuban in the United States.