One Of The Best Kept Culinary Secrets In Miami

For decades Miami has been known for vibrant nightlife and world class dining featuring cuisine from around the world. Being third-generation Miamians, we were anxious to return and explore South Florida's latest dining options. We were aware of some of the big names now in Miami, but when we hit the road we also explore unique local restaurants. Our first call was to local wine expert and consultant Barry Alberts who has been "in the know" about the food and wine scene in Miami for more than 30 years. He suggested we join him at El Carajo International Tapas & Wines. We jumped at the opportunity to sample dishes from NBC Miami's Gold award winning restaurant.

The directions to El Carajo were startling. Barry told us to go to 17th and US1 and pull into a gas station. The restaurant that he was so anxious to show us was inside! Yes, walk past the gas pumps, chips, beer, candy, and soft drinks, and at the rear of the store is El Carajo. If anyone else had suggested eating in a gas station on our first night in Miami we would have graciously declined. However, knowing Barry and trusting his passion for wine and food we went. After all, it was his reputation on the line.

Walking into El Carajo with its lovely aromas — spices, meat sizzling on the grill — and its attentive host, we forgot we were inside a working gas station. Rack after rack of fine wines at affordable prices called out for us to make a selection. El Carajo also features a "high end" wine room where Caymus and many Champagnes are available for the most discriminating of tastes. Thanks to Barry's expert guidance we enjoyed a palate-pleasing bottle of Señorio De Sarria Navarra Reserva 1998, the perfect selection for what was to come.

The menu's many selections didn't make choosing easy. Ensalada de camarones (mixed greens and shrimp) and potage de colorados (Red Bean Soup) stood out for starters. Cold tapas like the combinación mesón (ham, sausage, and Manchego), and boquerones Españoles en vinagreta (Spanish anchovies in vinaigrette) caught our attention as well. More than 20 hot tapas, from chorizos de cangrejos (crabmeat crêpe) to chistorras al vino (Spanish mini sausages in red wine) were sure to please.

We settled on one of the larger entrées, tabla de carne. This assorted meat plank featured chuletilla de cordero, chuleta de cerdo, carne de res, morcillas, pollo, chorizo criollo, and papas y tostones — a Spanish carnivore's delight that was one of the best meat dishes we have had in a while. Being in Miami we couldn't finish a meal without flan and café con leche. El Carajo (not far from Little Havana) is as authentic as it gets.

We feel lucky to have dined in some of the world's best venues. After our experience at El Carajo, we can see why is a big hit. Our advice? Get there early. And spend more time exploring gas stations. You never know what hidden secrets they may reveal.