Chef Jose Mendin’s La Placita is a love letter to Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Rican food has never been thought of like other cuisines,” five-time James Beard Award-nominee Jose Mendin says. “It’s always been overshadowed by foods from other Latin countries, like Peru, Mexico, or Cuba. But now, Puerto Rican culture is coming up in ways it never has before and that’s having an effect on diners and in restaurants.”
Mendin’s latest restaurant, La Placita, is a love letter to his home country, celebrating the flavors of the island with a mofongo bar, pop-up food markets, and a large menu dedicated to Puerto Rican comfort food. Through a partnership with Spanish television celebrity Julián Gil and Mendin’s Food Comma Hospitality Group, the restaurant – which is almost impossible to miss (the building’s façade features a larger-than-life mural of the Puerto Rican flag painted by artist Héctor Collazo) – has quickly become a hub for Puerto Ricans who fled the island after Hurricane Maria.
“We have such special flavors hidden in the island that much of the world has never experienced,” says Mendin, who moved to Miami in the late ‘90s. “I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant centered around the food I grew up with, and now seemed like the right time.”
As Puerto Rico heals, many residents have relocated to Miami. That’s why Mendin, originally from San Juan, designed La Plactia’s menu to be familiar to any Puerto Rican.
“I was on the phone with my mom the other day telling her how we have so many people visiting us from every part of the island, and they all have their interpretation of what a true Puerto Rican restaurant should be,” Mendin says. “The food gets very specific depending on where you are. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to bring the flavors of home, no matter where home exactly is.”
Named after San Juan’s iconic Mercado Santurce, which locals call “La Plactia,” the restaurant’s main draw is the Mofongo Shop, which is formatted more like a bar than an actual store. Here, customers can design Puerto Rico’s national dish to their liking, mixing and matching fried plantains with cassava root, ropa vieja, camarones al ajillo (garlic and butter shrimp), or pollo guisado (fall-off-the-bone stewed chicken).
“For years, Puerto Rican food, at least in Miami, was either too cheap or too extravagant,” Mendin says. "When I moved here, I went to a restaurant that charged $50 for mofongo. We’re trying to recreate abuela’s food beyond the typical cafeteria environment. And with the Mofongo Shop, we’re giving people to the chance to experience one of the most important dishes of the island on their own terms.”
Otherwise, the tapas-style menu includes Bacalaitos, salted cod fritters with a coconut aioli; the La Tripleta, a sandwich stuffed with roasted pork, steak, pastrami, frites, onions, and adobo sauce; Pastelon de Asado, with sweet plantain, short rib, and béchamel pie; Asopao de Mariscos, a Puerto Rican-Spanish seafood stew served with rice and vegetables; and Mendin’s favorite, the Carne Guisada a la Zaydi, which is based on a stewed meat recipe from his mother. Pastry chef Maria Orantes is behind the Arroz con Dulce, a creamy blend of coconut, rum raisins, cashew, and sesame, and Limbers, Puerto Rico’s version of seasonal Italian ice.
The bar area, which channels a beach vibe, slings traditional Puerto Rican cocktails, including the Mayagüez Sabe a Mango, a tequila, mango, and grapefruit soda drink inspired by poet Luis Llorens Torres who wrote at length about the Puerto Rican town of Mayagüez, and Anibal’s Secret Punch, a vodka and pomegranate citrus drink dedicated to a Puerto Rican politician caught drinking from a red plastic cup in Mercado Santurce.
In the future, La Placita’s 6,000-square-feet of outdoor space will transform into a lively food market with local vendors, similar to Puerto Rico’s own market with live bands and prepared foods.
“You’ll have pork by-the-pound, piña coladas, and music,” Mendin says. “It’ll feel like you’re right at home, back on the beach.”
La Placita. 6789 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-400-8173.