Ralph Pagano's newest restaurant, a spot taking over the former Serafina space at the Tudor House, doesn't have a name, yet. But it does have a concept – Mexican -and a whole lot of dishes and cocktails in the works. Chef Pagano, who also owns Alba in Sunny Isles, spoke to Eater about what's coming at "The Unnamed Mexican Joint." There's lots of booze, of the tequila variety, plenty of " melty, gooey, cheesy, crunchy" dishes and a sexy table involved. Here's what he had to say.
So, tell me a little bit about what's to come at your new restaurant.
Right now, we're calling it "Ralph Pagano's Unnamed Mexican Joint" because I've taken to the digital airwaves to have the people name the restaurant. And it's very fun because everybody's got an idea of what the restaurant name should be and everybody's got an idea for the logo, so I figured why not put it to the test and put it out to the streets. So we've gotten like a thousand different names, it's been a lot of fun.
We're doing the interior of the restaurant … there are three very distinct spaces in the restaurant. The patio, which sits outside is very alfresco, outdoor reading all day, all night kind of stuff and the restaurant's going to offer breakfast lunch and dinner so we're pretty mindful of the fact that there's three different faces that the restaurant has to wear. Inside the restaurant, we're going really sexy Mexican, Hollywood, round tables, booths with great ironwork, incredible suede wall-coverings and leather, really … groovy, I think is the best word I have to describe it. And then the far bar or the North side bar – there's actually two bars in the place, so we've named them aptly, Bar Noche and Bar Manana. Bar Noche is where all the tequila is going to be, we're going to have 125 different tequilas, we're going to have tequilas that we steep our own, so we'll have our own coffee tequila, our own honey tequila, our own grapefruit and mint tequila that we infuse in our infusion jars. And then on the Bar Manana side, it's everything coffee. To not nod our Miami existence with café con leche and café colada would be crazy, silly and foolish right? So, we're doing that. For me a jacked up coffee tastes just as good. In fact, in my double espresso right now, I have a Mia Maria float – very delicious, so you can expect that kind of stuff. Fresh juices, mango juice, fresh orange juice, beet juice, the cold press as well as the typical juices. We'll use some of those juices to also make some non-alcoholic cocktails as well as alcoholic cocktails.
My love affair with Mexican food started about 15 years ago, but really got amped up eight years ago. My wife is from Southern California and when we cook at home and when we eat, we cook and eat Mexican food if not once, then two nights a week. By virtue of that, my mouth enjoys it. Not only the spice, but the flavors, the lime, the cilantro – they make everything taste better. The food that we're going to be doing is a cross blend. The menu's going to be chopped up into different sections with traditional, so doing taquitos, carnitas, along that line and then what I call "hecho a mano," made by hand is the translation. And what that is is streetfood that you would get in Ensenada, street food that you would get in Baja, but because I'm a chef doing street food and I have a kitchen, I get to trick it out a little bit. So, we're super excited about that.
There's a section of the menu that I call, "Con Mis Amigos," which is with my friends, and that's all the sharing appetizers, the queso fundidos and the flautas and the taquitos; things that are melty, gooey, cheesy, crunchy – that's where they all live, in that area. And I'm going to be doing fajitas because I just think a sizzling fajita is just spectacular. I love everything about it. So, we'll do chicken, steak and shrimp, but we're going to do Florida lobster. We're going to do a snapper that's a crispy snapper, fried and tossed up in acid, sitting on top of the peppered onion as it goes out. So, we get to do a couple of riffs on the fajita too. So, I'm pretty … I'm jacked up, I love the food. We did a hot sauce tasting the other day, I have 14 hot sauces, and I fell in love over and over again. I felt like was cheating on each hot sauce.
The fun thing about it is that its South Beach and Mexican food is a food that comes with a cocktail culture attached to it whether it be cold beer and cold margaritas or sangria, so the bar program that we'll put together is a fun one. It's fun and it's affordable.
You're mostly known for your Italian cuisine, what made you choose to go with Mexican this time?
I love it. I mean substitute the cilantro for basil, keep the tomato in place and I'm on my way right? So, the fact is, why the cuisines and the styles of cooking are completely different – Mexican and Italian- the fact is that the flavors are that of what's local to the streets of a particular area. So, if you cook Roman Italian food or Sicilian Italian foods, they're completely different. They all have their little subtle changes just because of where they are. Mexican is the same thing. All those foods are local and indigenous. And as a chef, I've been around the world, I've cooked Mexican food in Mexico, I've cooked Italian food in Italy, I've cooked Finnish food in Finland. I've figured out farm-to-table food a long time ago. You just take the food of the people and you treat it that way and that's the cuisine, so I'm psyched about it. And everybody loves Tamales! Who doesn't love a Tamale? Give me a pork and pineapple tamale, what?!
So, you're letting people suggest names for the restaurant via Facebook and ultimately picking one. What are some of the funniest and best ideas you've gotten so far?
Because we're located at the Dream hotel everybody says "Sueno," "Sueno Loco," some sort of crazy dream that happened. Nobody said "Sueno Agua" … I wonder how you say "wet," wow that would be crazy. I got "Sucio Sueno," dirty dream. I've got a lot of riffs on my name like "Paganitos" or "Pagoloco" or "Pagano Mexicano" or "Mexigano," crazy stuff like that. "El Loco," "Diablo," "Diabolito." They range. In the kitchen I've been known as "Diablo" for a long time, so a lot of these come from my former line cooks. "Calor," "Caliente," "Right to Heat," it's fun. This is the ultimate focus group. We've taken all these names and thrown them out there and we're taking the ones that have a) a lot of repetition – like "Sueno" – and even if nobody says the name, but it's a really killer name, we have to look at that one too. It's a lot of fun. This weekend, we're going over the names and putting them into like a playoff formation, just like the Super Bowl, and then we'll have them played out and make the announcement the day after the Super Bowl. The Tuesday after the Super Bowl will be the reveal, I'm going to do it on the Paul and Young Ron Show that I'm the official chef of. So, Tuesday, February 4. The opening party is going to be February the 21st at The Unnamed Mexican Joint. And everybody that's been involved in the name thing, I'm going to put a post out there and invite them into the restaurant like the week before, the week of Valentine's Day, everybody who's been part of it, I'm going to give them a first look. A look at the drinks and the food for friends and family. So, everybody wins. Everybody wins at Ralph Pagano's Casino!
Is that a hint?
I don't know, but I'll tell you what, it should be the name. Ralph Pagano's Casino Taco. I'm going to submit that one. I can't enter the contest, some regulation, but … That's the thing. I've been in the restaurant business my whole life, I love it, everything that I do, I've been successful and like everybody else I've had some failure along the way. The great thing about the restaurant business is you get to wrap your arms around a new idea and a new concept and there's so much thought that goes into execution – I don't care if it's just a fish shack, a fish shack takes a lot of work to think about what people want and how to do it the right way. The cool thing that there's so much interest in the fact that the restaurant doesn't have a name, maybe the next thing I'll do is have everybody write the menu. That's not a bad idea!
Design-wise, how will you update the former Serafina space to reflect your new concept?
The building is a South Beach historical building, the Tudor House has been since 1939 on South Beach so the buildings have to be kept in their integral form. So, what we're doing is, we're flying in all of these beautiful, custom built banquettes, great exotic Mexican woods wrapped with leather. I've got this chef's table that is going to be right in the dining room, that's this incredible inlay of figured, again exotic woods, that we got from one of those cool spots at DCOTA, the Design Center of the Americas over there. It's just sexy as it'll get, it is a beautiful table. It's just gorgeous. So, we're spending the time and the money and getting the real craftsmen to build some serious stuff that's cool.
What are you most excited about?
So many things. The idea of a fun menu, a fun-fueled, margarita, jacked-up menu that everybody has a good time with. Mexican food to me is all about the party and that's what we're doing. We're building a restaurant that's all about having a good time. And it's not high-end expensive, but it's high-end fun. So for me to reveal my love and my love letter to Mexico to my friends and family in Miami is really what I'm excited about. And if you could do it with a lick of salt, a squeeze of lime and a shot of tequila, that's not so bad.
Once it opens, what are some of the dishes you think people absolutely shouldn't miss?
Well the menu is going to reveal itself every single day. But some of the easiest dishes are some of the dishes that you have to have like the queso fundido with house-made chorizo and house-made tortillas and cucumber tomato pico de gallo is just dope! There's nothing wrong with it! It's gooey, crunchy good. I'm equally as excited about my fried-chicken tacos with melon, avocado crema and chipotle. Every time I have one I love it. We're doing an open-faced lobster taco with grilled pineapple and smoked pepper also super cool. So, there's some traditional dishes, we're having some fun with those and then dishes like my lobster taco, those are my kisses on the cheek.
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[Photo via Clean Plate Charlie]