Dirty words can be good sometimes...that is, when they have another meaning. To most who grew up speaking Spanish (myself included), one hears the word “carajo” (meaning crap or hell) used as a cursing exclamation, as in the phrase popular among my Cuban breed “Vete pa’l carajo!” (Go to hell). It's a risk when a business, moreover a restaurant where the last thing you want to taste is crap, appropriates the word as its own. But in this instance El Carajo, a Miami Spanish tapas and wine spot, the word grabs our off-put attention and then wafts it under our noses so we can wake up and smell the roses - the roses of meaning. The restaurant’s “carajo” refers to the lookout basket at the top of a Spanish ship's mast.
If that does not pique your interest, then they've got back-up: a disguise. This full-service restaurant with wooden tables, a delectable bakery, an impressive meat and cheese case, and a glass-paned wine cellar operates inconspicuously behind the literal facade of a BP gas station market. You won't know it's there unless you know it's there, thus the speakeasy allure is enough to draw in the loyals and rookies alike.
But I'm not quite sure this schtick was enough to keep me roped to this ship. While the service is excellent and the air graciously absent of stuffiness, only a few dishes excelled and all were overpriced for their sizes. Any bottle of wine lining the walls is yours to gargle with your meal, but at a price: $10 corkage in addition to the sticker value. A tickling bargain no longer!
The bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers ($10.50) satisfied with their salty bite rounded by the orange cascades of smokey pimentón sauce. Also parading paprika, but not as successfully, were the disappointing slivers of octopus ($14.50), which failed to identify themselves as such, but rather tastelessly surrendered to the bright red dust.
Sabor was also absent in the fufú de cangrejo ($10), a dish that held such promise in my mind, but fell flat on my tongue. Plantains and crab, oft a match made in heaven and two of my favorite things, quizzically did not harmonize but instead canceled each other out to a flavorless void.
On the upturn, truly sensational were the camarones al albariño ($15). A full bed of fluffy greens cradled supple shrimp drenched not overzealously in a complexly rich tomato sauce with melted shreds of delicate white queso. If you dunked your finger in it that glorious sauce, I would eat it without question.
Well cooked was the grilled filet of corvina, but so small it was that the two shrimp served alongside almost dwarfed it. Plated with a few rustic vegetables at $16, it was a tough pill...er fish...to swallow. The same story can be told for the duck breast special, a mere fist sized medallion with a few well-crisped yucca fries. The taste was on point, but it hardly left a dent in the stomach.
I will insist on ordering the guava cheesecake ($6) if nothing else. The creamy layers of rich and fruity and sweet and savory and crumbly belt for your favor. The Santiago crumb cake ($7) was also satisfying with the nutty crunch of an almond crust and a powdered sugar coating. And so quickly does the crunch slacken when the viscous sherry it is served with is waterfalled into a porous bed of soaked cake.
Though El Carajo can't be taken at face value (a gas station food mart it is not), it should be taken with a grain of salt. Expect not a restaurant with fully expressed dishes. Rather, if you keep your visit quaint with robust wine, savory cheese, and saccharine postres, all the rest of the carajo won't count.
2465 SW 17th Avenue
Miami, FL 33145