Florence Avenue is jammed on weekends, a slow crawl west through Bell from the card clubs, not quite a cruise thing but pretty close, an inching parade of Jeeps, spruced-up Impalas and mini-trucks jacked up higher than Macks, a hundred boom-car duels between hip-hop beats and banda . Bell is what happy urban Los Angeles looks like on a Saturday night.
Past the off-brand supermarkets, past the "model studio," past the custom-oriented auto-body shops, the 24-hour mariscos joints and the neon taco stands as big as ball fields stands the Cuban restaurant Miami. More than perhaps any other Cuban restaurant in the Los Angeles area, the place looks and feels like the crowded small cafes in the Cuban Calle Ocho neighborhood of central Miami, decked out with vintage travel posters, a mammoth cappuccino machine, frosted glass and bright brass. Miami is brightly lit and gleaming the way a plush, pastel airport lounge might be, if airport lounges smelled of garlic and made their customers happy.
There's a lot of food around here at Miami, plates heaped high with the fried beans-and-rice dish Moros y Cristianos , steamed yuca buried under hillocks of chopped garlic, green plantains that have been flattened and sizzled in oil until crisp. Tables are littered with empty bottles of the dense fizzy drink malta , with half-finished glasses of mango milkshake, with carafes emptied of cold, red wine. (Miami has an OK wine list--cold Marques de Riscal Rioja, for some reason, goes splendidly with almost everything on the menu--but skip the sangria, which is essentially cheap red wine doctored with the entire contents of a can of fruit cocktail.) All around are platters of avocado-onion salad, of rib steaks fried with garlic, of Chinese takeout-style Cuban rice fried with bits of pork, ham and egg, and a generous handful of shrimp.
What we're talking about may be only the second-best Cuban restaurant in Bell--my favorite is still the splendid El Chori, which has probably the best Cuban food in the Southland--but Miami is a fine, reliable place, with cheap lunch specials, enclosed parking for your Lexus and an atmosphere genteel enough to please a finicky uncle. Almost everything comes with rice and extravagantly spiced black beans, with fried green plantains or with blackened, caramelized fried sweet plantains, with bread and butter, so it is hard to leave hungry here . . . unless you order the camarones al ajillo , which are good but include a lot more garlic than shrimp.
Carne asada , distinctly unrelated to the Mexican dish of that name, involves a couple of thick tranchers of pot-roasted beef and a dense, garlicky pan gravy; lechon asado , the tenderest roast pork, comes in chunks with salty, chewy pigskin still attached, plenty of fat and, if you ask for it, a healthy wallop of garlic sauce. Stewed oxtail is soft, intensely flavored, almost gelatinous.
Fried snapper, crunchy-crusted, vaguely scented with garlic and citrus, was a bit puzzling, one side moist and fragrant, the other dry and overcooked, but it was at least half good. (Fried snapper fillet was utterly ordinary.) Squid stewed with onions in its own ink is salty and perfect with rice; apporeado de tasajo , dried-beef shreds stewed in a sweetish tomato sauce, may not be the best version of this dish--at its best, tasajo is like the best machaca you've ever tasted--but is probably worth tasting.
* Miami Restaurant
4031 E. Florence Ave., Bell, (213) 560-0672. Open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$22.