Miami Cafe Express, we loved your chicken stew and sweet plantains, and the sound of the carwash announcer in the background as we ate your food. Alas, according to your Facebook page, a landlord dispute caused you to close. However, you are in some sort of state suspended halfway between being a restaurant and being a fond memory, as your Facebook page also indicates that you still exist in the form of a catering company. Miami Cafe Express the Restaurant, we bid you aideu. RIP.
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If you’ve been following my blog posts, you probably realize that I’ve become obsessed with finding hole in the wall ethnic restaurants in strip malls or attached to gas stations. Today, I struck foodie gold yet again. I found a hole in the wall ethnic restaurant attached to … wait for it … a car wash.
Not that Miami Cafe Xpress is a secret. To the contrary, it has a devoted Urbanspoon following. When we went today, a Saturday, at noon, it was absolutely packed.
Miami Cafe Xpress
is a Puerto Rican/Caribbean restaurant located on Lorna Road in Hoover next to the Riverchase Car Wash:
Once inside, you wait for your food practically inside the carwash lobby. This genuinely adds to the restaurant’s charm.
But what makes this place really great is the owner. He is a one man show. When we arrived, he was behind the counter using a mortar and pestle to make what he explained to us was mofongo, a dish of fried green plantains mixed with pork and other goodness. He is in business by himself, and is a greeter, cook, cashier, and storyteller all rolled into one.
I arrived with a group of 4 friends with the specific purpose of trying as many menu items as possible. Here’s the menu:
Several patrons and the owner guided us as we got one of almost everything to share. We took a seat outside, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the car wash and parking lot on either side of us. Was the perfect day for an outdoor meal – finally nice and warm after the polar vortex.
First, the owner brought us some Jesus Cake. Yup, like the sign says, don’t forget to try it. We hadn’t ordered it but he heard us talking about it and since we ordered so much at once and had to wait, he brought us one to share as an appetizer. You will have to get him to tell you the story behind why it’s called Jesus Cake – it is really an incredible tres leches cake. If you don’t find religion after you eat this, well, you probably won’t. It was moist but not soggy like tres leches cakes can be, and was sweet and delicious. And beautiful:
After that start we had great expectations for the rest of the meal and were not disappointed.
First, the special of the day, a chicken salad sandwich. The board said “chicken salad” and we were all confused when we received a dish wrapped in tin foil, but this was a serendipitous mistake-it was one of our favorite dishes. Had the perfect amount of mayo and some mustard on a delicious roll:
Next, the chicken stew with huge pieces of chicken and bones, rice, carrots and potatoes, mild and comforting while still flavorful:
Fried sweet plantains, as sweet and buttery as you can imagine:
A Cuban sandwich – ham and shredded meat (?pork) with melted cheese and pickles – perfect balance of ingredients, and really, the perfect sandwich:
Ground beef empanadas, aren’t they adorable? Crispy on the outside, soft and perfectly seasoned on the inside. Very filling:
Pork chunks with tostones, which are fried green plantains. The pork was juicy and wonderful. Tostones can be dry and flavorless, but these were moist and salty, with lots of great flavor. The best I’ve had. The lettuce looked like just lettuce but was actually salad with a light vinegar dressing that was a perfect complement to our heavier entrees:
Had to try the rice and beans. They were not spicy like I expected but had good flavor, and the rice was slightly salty in a way that I really liked:
Then, the mofongo, with pork chunks. Of course I had to order it. This dish was incredibly rich. Diet food it is not, but wow. Really amazing. The mound of mashed fried plantains is seasoned with pork (I think), and tasted delicious alongside the pork chunks.
I can’t believe there are 2 amazing Caribbean restaurants in Birmingham (not a city known for its ethnic food), one in a gas station and the other in a carwash, run by guys who cook food they love. (If you don’t know about the other one, see this blog post). Pretty incredible.