Jorge Castillo: You know what I like best about La Carreta Restaurant?
Glenn Lindgren: The tres leches cake?
Jorge Castillo: I love it, but that's not what I had in mind.
Raúl Musibay: How about the fufú? They make some great fufú.
Jorge Castillo: I won't argue with you about that. But what I like best about La Carreta is the fact that no matter how many people we show up with, they always manage to find us a table.
Glenn Lindgren: We've had as many as 15.
Jorge Castillo: They're not like some restaurants who give you that "YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING" look! And best of all you can bring the kids.
Raúl Musibay: It's a very kid-friendly place.
Jorge Castillo: So when we want to take the whole family out for some great Cuban food, there's only one choice...
Glenn Lindgren: ...Don't tell me -- La Carreta.
Jorge Castillo: You got it. The Valls family -- owners of both the Versailles Restaurant and Casa Juancho -- serve up all the classics of Cuban cuisine at eight different Miami locations. Vaca frita Con Cebolla (fried beef with onions), Arroz Imperial (Imperial Rice), Tasajo Criollo and boliche (Cuban potroast) are just a few of our favorites.
Glenn Lindgren: How does La Carreta differ from the Versailles Restaurant?
Jorge Castillo: The style of cooking at La Carreta is more country style, while the style at Versailles is more like Havana or big city cooking. It's a lot like the difference between Cajun and Creole cooking. Although both restaurants serve many of the same dishes, the food at La Carreta is closer to what the guajiros would eat in the countryside.
Raúl Musibay: It's the kind of food I ate in Cuba.
Glenn Lindgren: I love their Churrasco Carretero a la Brasa. A delicious thin-cut steak with a great garlic-citrus flavor. Another great steak is the Bistec Criollo a la Parrilla.
Jorge Castillo: They have two great sampler plates for people who want to try a little bit of several Cuban foods. El Clasico (the Classic) includes Arroz Blanco y frijoles negros (black beans and white rice), picadillo, lechón asado, Platanos maduros (fried sweet plantains), croquetas de Jamon (ham croquettes), yuca (in olive oil and garlic, yum!) and Tamal (one Cuban tamal).
Glenn Lindgren: El Criollo (The Country Style) has everything on El Clasico except you get yellow rice, ropa vieja (shredded beef), and Masas de Puerco (fried pork chunks). They also have some very good fish dishes. I recommend the Filete de Pargo al Ajillo.
Raúl Musibay: Hey, don't forget the fufú.
Glenn Lindgren: Fufú is mashed plantain. It comes with several dishes, or order it ala carte: Fufú de Platanos Verdes.
Raúl Musibay: You'll never find fufú on the menu at your local McDonalds.
La Carreta is part of a chain, but only in the sense that there are seven other versions of this popular restaurant all owned by the same family. Although the menus are the same at each location, each has developed its own personality.
Cuban exile Felipe Vals created the very first La Carreta in 1972, practically across the street from his family's own Versailles restaurant, opened just a year earlier. The building originally was an old dining trailer called the "Wagon Wheel," and in typical Cuban fashion, Vals kept much of the existing décor including the large wooden wheel that graced the building's façade. By adding many Cuban touches, he transformed the "Wheel" into La Carreta with its emblematic logo of a horse-drawn cart, similar to those used by campesinos and cane cutters in Cuba. Located on Calle Ocho, this first restaurant made its reputation by serving authentic Cuban fare in a criollo or "country style" that features large portions and affordable prices.
When the sun goes down and fresh ocean breezes temper the Miami heat, people flock to La Carreta's outside café window. On a normal night, there is always a lively crowd engaged in the favorite pastime of all Cubans, talking! Discover a microcosm of Miami culture: older people discussing politics, police officers on break, younger men and women on their way to an evening of dancing or returning from the same, middle-aged bikers on Harleys, and the full spectrum of Miami characters: Cuban, Latin American, and Anglo alike.
When something big happens, such as the Florida Marlins winning the World Series, or when the universally detested Fidel gave up power to his brother Raúl, La Carreta is the gathering spot for the local community. As in Little Havana, where everyone congregates at the Versailles Restaurant, La Carreta has become the rallying point for Cubans who have settled in the city's west side, in and around the city of Westchester.
La Carreta is a place where romances begin and end, where deals are made, where old friends find one other after many years of separation. It is the last stop on the way home or the first stop on the way to work in the morning. It is the perfect place for a bite to eat before the movies or theater or a late night snack after a party or dancing.
Walk in past La Carreta's coffee window on a busy Saturday night and you enter a cavernous space filled with large tables and the buzz of a hundred conversations, punctuated by the clinking of glassware as huge Cuban country-style meals are delivered by oh-so-polite and flirtatious older waitresses. Men should not be surprised if the saucy waitress serving their table refers to them as "my love" or calls them handsome. It is all part of a ritual as traditional here as it was in Havana.
Whether you come to the restaurant with two people or twenty, they always manage to find a table for you. The restaurant has a Spanish feel, with tile floors and dark wood accents. Backlighted photos from the glory days of Cuba in the 1950s line the walls, a constant reminder to the community of the country they left behind, and a place that today lives on only in memory.
ATMOSPHERE: Very Casual, Come as You Are.
PRICES: Entrees priced less than $15, several sandwiches and appetizers priced less than $6.
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