It was almost too good to be true for Mariela Paz. After moving from Miami to Cleveland to be closer to her mother, the former graphic designer had designs on a brand new career. In place of long days spent toiling behind a computer screen, she hoped to open a modest little coffee shop where she could highlight the beans from her family's coffee farm in Honduras, her first home.
"I was looking for a small place to open when I heard that Café Miami was available," says Paz.
Call it fate, call it luck, call it timing, but when Paz learned that the longtime Old Brooklyn cafe, which had recently closed after many good years, was available, she didn't hesitate.
"I'm pretty brave I think," Paz says, rattling off a list of major life changes that landed her in Old Brooklyn, a neighborhood with which she quickly fell in love. "In Miami everybody fights with you. Here, everybody is so kind; I can feel the difference."
Before it closed 12 months ago, Café Miami was a neighborhood oddity beloved for its amazing pancakes and gregarious cook and owner Larry Fields. American breakfasts, weak coffee and diner-style lunches were dished up in the one-of-a-kind space that feels like a cross between a thrift store and your great aunt's parlor. A mish-mash of furniture fills the snug two-room cafe, and every surface is covered by a different rug, carpet, tablecloth, doily, painting or piece of sculpture. The diverse subjects range from Jimi Hendrix and frisky white stallions to Victorian busts and African masks.
"I'm an artist and I want to do my own decorations," Paz politely responds when asked if she'll tweak the interior.
Diners immediately began noticing changes with the food. For starters, the coffee took a dramatic turn for the better, with the arrival of creamy caramel-scented cafes con leche ($2.75) and stiffer Cuban coladas ($1.75), sweetened espresso shots. Neighbors can enjoy both at the small counter, where they can chat with Paz and her mother while they prepare the food in an open kitchen.
Paz also introduced a line of new Latin-inspired dishes that include flaky fried empanadas ($2) filled with chopped ham and cheese, Mexican-style huevos rancheros ($6.75), and crispy tostones ($4.50), fried green plantains drizzled with cilantro sauce. Her range, culinarily speaking, touches many lands, which is why she's in the process of changing the name of her fledgling cafe to Sabor Miami, or Taste of Miami.
"Miami has a lot of fusion of flavors," she says, adding that her specials hop from Honduran tamales to Cuban sandwiches to Mexican churros glazed with Nutella and showered by coconut.
Those huevos rancheros are the best thing to happen to the breakfast service since the new coffee. Built atop a base of fragrant corn tortillas, each of two towers is layered with ham, cheese, sunny side-up egg, ranchero sauce and fresh salsa. For $1.75 extra, Paz will add a layer of refried beans. A fast fan favorite is the Tropi Chop ($8.99), a mountain of colorful, flavorful food that starts with fluffy yellow rice and ends with chopped roast pork. In between are black beans, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and a creamy curry-scented sauce.
"This is home-style food," Paz reflects. "I'm not a chef, but my food — I cook with love and you can see the difference. I've been cooking since I was a little, little girl."
Paz has kept the American breakfast section and, in fact, has already expanded it. Pancakes not only have been a customer favorite at Café Miami for years, but they also happen to be a personal favorite of Paz.
"I'm a pancake lover, so I have cinnamon pancakes, I have red velvet pancakes, I have pineapple upside-down pancakes," she says of the various breakfast specials that pop up throughout the week. Those pancakes join your basic eggs-bacon-homefries-and-toast platter ($4.99) and another with a little Miami flair, namely thanks to the addition of ham and buttered Cuban toast.
That Cuban bread also serves as the backbone to a Cubano ($7.99), a proper pressed sandwich filled with roast pork, thin-sliced ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Another version ($6.50) swaps out the pork and ham for turkey-based ham.
Café Miami/Sabor Miami is very much a work in progress, admits Paz. She is not afraid to experiment with dishes, tweak preparations, even revise the days and hours of operation. Already she began testing the waters for dinner service a few nights per week to see if there's any interest. Judging by the early support of her neighbors, I don't see why there wouldn't be.