There's nothing quite like an old school burger joint. Those words somehow conjure up images of Americana incarnate, of rip roaring youth sucking back suds and snarling in wait as they romp and wile, hungry for meat and grease and goodness. A cook slaps patties to steel as the air is filled with the sounds of searing beef and the tinny voice of Charlie Feathers wailing through the jukebox.
But this is Miami, papa. And if you want an old school Miami burger joint, you're going to have shift some of that imagery - the angus patties become a mixture of chorizo, pork, and beef, the voices in the air belong to Willie Chirino and Hector Lavoe, and the ineffably gringo "burger" transforms into the perpetually Cubano "frita."
And as far as fritas, nobody does them quite like the King. El Rey de Las Fritas, with it's flagship restaurant in the heart of Calle Ocho, has been a fixture for Magic City natives for generations. In the interview below, Mercedes Gonzalez, current owner of El Rey de las Fritas and daughter of the original founder, discusses her commitment to quality and tradition, finding new ways to explore frita tastiness, and the importance of preserving a legacy.
So just how long has El Rey de Las Fritas been open?
Mercedes Gonzalez: A long time. Our Calle Ocho restaurant changed location and moved to 18th avenue, we've been open for around 40 years. Then we opened up our Hialeah location that's been open about 25 years, then our Bird Road and our 107th locations.
What made you choose to open up El Rey on Calle Ocho?
MG: Originally, it was Frita Domino and when they were going to shut down, the owners contacted my father and said 'Would you like to buy the property? It's already a restaurant, and even though your product is different from our's -- it's already a frita joint.' So he liked it and we bought it in the '70s.
What's your favorite aspect of being a real legacy within Miami culture?
MG: It's an honor, you know. It's an honor to still be around, to be in the game and to be known as the best Cuban frita in town even though fritas are becoming really popular right now. Everybody's trying to do a Cuban frita, but we're still original and I love our product. I always have. It was my part time job during high school and then I became a waitress and then I became a manager. I really love our product and I love people. I'm very proud that we can still be here and we can take it to the next level.
How do you feel about being a business that's been family owned for so long?
MG: We're very small, it's only me, my brother, my mom, and my husband and I'm very sure of what we do and I put my face out there with pride. We still make everything homemade, home based at the store. Nothing's frozen...The food is the same kind of quality and taste you would get if you were eat a real meal from your mother's kitchen or your grandmother's kitchen.
Apart from the traditional fritas, what are some of the popular items on your menu that people get excited about when they come to eat at El Rey?
MG: There's a bunch of different options. You know how people nowadays are trying different cheeses on burgers or trying different toppings on burgers, so we've tried to bring in a little incorporate some new things. We still make the original fritas, but we're also making things like the B&S frita, which has bacon and swiss - because bacon is good on everything. We've got the frita caballo, which is a frita with a fried egg on it...We also do the frita dulce, which has sweet plantains on it and the flavor is amazing. The combination of the savory frita with the sweetness of the maduros is amazing. Whoever tries it is definitely hooked.
How about beyond fritas?
MG: Well, we also make a great steak sandwich and there are a bunch of options with that. You can get the regular pan con bistec, you can also get it with a fried egg, the gallego steak sandwich, a steak sandwich with hawaiian tostones -- if you've never had Hawaiian tostones, their a different flavor from your regular tostones, which are a little smaller, but the've got this incredible flavor and their a little bit lighter. We put them in a steak sandwich and it's the bomb, it's awesome.
Do you ever eat fritas from anywhere else or do you strictly stick with the fritas from El Rey de Las Fritas?
MG: Never! That would be an insult! Not even when I was a kid.
Have you ever had any characters who come in and make for a funny story?
MG: Oh yeah. On Calle Ocho, you've got people coming with their backpacks and their luggage straight from the airport looking to get their fritas.
How about strange requests?
MG: Just the other day, this man who'd just come from Argentina order a frita caballo, which is the frita with a fried egg, with the papitas, cheese, and a slice of ham. I said, "Ham?' and it was funny to me. He said, 'You guys make Cuban sandwiches, right?' I said yes and he said, 'So you;ve got that sweet Cubano ham everybody uses...' and I said 'Yeah, we have that.' So he said' Ok I want you to fry a slice of ham and put it on my frita, too.' And I had to try it after he'd left, to make sure it wasn't gross or anything, and it was delicious. We get lots of interesting requests. We have one customer who's been coming in for the last 20 years and always gets a steak sandwich with two frita patties on top. We let him name it, it's called el Kiki sandwich and it's another option we offer now.
What are you looking forward to for the future of El Rey de Las Fritas?
MG: One thing is that at some point I would like to move the Calle Ocho location again, because I want to own my own property. I would someday like to have a drive-thru...It was one of my dad's dreams and I think it would be great for us. It would have it's own kitchen so everything's always hot. I think drive-thrus should be very fast, but I think sometimes nowadays you don't get the food you want it. For instance, sometimes your food is only semi-warm, it's not piping hot like you would expect it to be served to you. That's why I want a drive-thru with a dedicated kitchen, where we'd have a cooking just always making fritas so that you're always going to get it hot and fresh.
Do you think you'll try to keep El Rey de Las Fritas in the family for generations to come?
MG: I think so. We've gotten franchising offers from people with a lot of money and a lot of pull and they want to take the name all over the world, but the problem with franchising is that we're very hands on and when you're not in your store, things happen and they don't always go the way you want them to. We have wonderful employees, but things run better when the owner's there...Another thing is that I don't like freezing my product -- I never serve a frozen product. And I think once you franchise and your business is so big worldwide, that you have to freeze. It ain't a maybe, it ain't a 'Let's see if we can do this the other way,' -- it's a fact...I think I'd be hurt if I knew that somewhere in the world there were someone carrying on our legacy name, our legacy recipe, and their not doing it the right way and I hear feedback from a customer one day who tells me, 'Hey, this doesn't taste the same...' it would hurt me and it would make me very angry. It's something that my parents worked very hard for and it would hurt me if somebody took my father's dream and didn't do right by it...And my father's no longer alive, but my mother is, gracias a dios, and we're still family owned and we will be til the end.
[Photo via Facebook]