La Camaronera, where do I begin? We have a long history together.
I was born and raised here in Miami. From an early age, my parents took us out to eat at some of the city’s most iconic restaurants. Sadly, so many have shuttered throughout the years. All the Jewish delis are gone; the best of the Cuban restaurants are mostly gone; and there’s only a few family-run institutions that remain. You are one of them.
I remember my mother used to take my sister and me to visit you when we were kids. You didn’t have actual seating in the restaurant – we walked up, there was a counter (I could barely reach because I was so small), and we’d order and eat right there. Sometimes we would take out, but takeout wasn’t as much of a thing back then. It was fast; everybody knew us and what we were going to order from the moment we walked in; and everybody was always having their own very loud conversations, always in Spanish. I remember you didn’t have coffee, so at the end of the meal we’d walk to the end of the strip mall so my mom could get her Cuban coffee in the bodega.
Sometimes Dad would come – but you were really a place that the three of us would go, and we would order the same thing every time. Later I would take friends, and then all the first boyfriends or new best friends throughout the years. Every time I walked in, you would greet me with, ‘Camarones fritos!’ (fried shrimp). And then, years later, you knew me as a chef. I would walk in, and the greeting became, ‘What would you like, chef?’
Throughout the years, you’ve grown up too; along with the Garcia family, including the children who are running it better than ever. The restaurant is so tiny – but thank goodness you’ve kept it up throughout the years. You really do age beautifully.
And thank goodness your recipes haven’t changed. We go expecting that flavor, and we still get it. A plate of food that we’ve been yearning for – the kind of dish that just makes you feel better. You’re soul cleansing. You’re the pride and truth of South Florida and I’m so grateful you haven’t changed that much.
It’s hard to say what my favourite dish is, but these days, I have a ritual when I come to see you. I get a plate of fried shrimp – I always want to order another one, but I stop myself – and they’re beautifully battered. They’re not huge, not too small – it’s the perfect bite. Each one has a perfect crunch on the outside, and a lot of flavor hits you. And I always have it with tartare sauce and a little dash of hot sauce.
We always get a plate of arroz amarillo. And if I’m not feeling great, I’ll have a bowl of cherna (grouper) soup. We call it the ‘bring you back to life’ soup.
If I want to indulge, then my husband and I will share your deep-fried minuta sandwich (whole snapper) with the tails still on, but all the other bones are gone. It’s butterflied, beautiful and fresh, two tiny little filets hooked onto one tail, before being stuffed into a soft bread with ketchup and onions and very little else. It’s perfect.
La Camaronera, you’re quintessentially Miami. To me, Miami has changed a lot since I was little. I know the old Miami; I know the accents of the old Miami; I can tell from the attitude of a person if they’re from here. And to me, that’s what you are. You’re old Miami. It’s who we truly are.
Michelle “Michy” Bernstein is a James Beard award winning chef from Miami.