Wednesday, April 15, 2009

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine - Miami

One of my colleagues, after seeing the Robert Rodriguez movie "From Dusk Till Dawn," described the scene in the Mexican bar, when Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is dancing and ultimately reveals herself and the other bar denizens to be vicious vampires,* as the most dramatic paradigm shift since the transition from black and white to color in "The Wizard of Oz." That might be a stretch. But there's a comparable, though much more pleasant, paradigm shift when you walk into the gas station on the corner of US1 and S.W. 17th Avenue. Seemingly just an everyday gas station (used to be a Citgo, think it's now BP), once you go past the sodas and beers and sundries, you'll discover in the back a remarkable little wine shop and tapas bar which goes by the (apparently laden with double-entendre in Spanish) name of El Carajo.

The wall of wines lining the back holds a number of choices you'd never expect to find in a gas station. I just happened to be sitting last time in front of the Australia and South America sections, and glimpsed multiple different releases from Mollydooker, some Achaval-Ferrer Quimira, Montes Alpha Folly, and many other intriguing bottles. While the prices may not be the cheapest in town, here's a good deal - take anything off the wall, have it with your tapas, and you'll pay only $10 corkage.

The menu lists a surprisingly deep (for a gas station) selection of cold and hot tapas as well as paellas and more substantial entrees. I've stuck mostly with the tapas. On a recent visit I tried boquerones, very nice Spanish white anchovies in a pungent vinaigrette loaded with onion; fresh sardines, grilled and bathed in olive oil and lemon; and a tortilla de chorizo, a substantial slice for $4, redolent with the paprika-spiked sausage but a wee bit dry for my taste (though you rarely see here in the U.S. the more oozy tortillas you often find in Spain). On other occasions I've had their gambas al ajillo (decent), chistorras al vino (bright red little sausages cooked in wine, the wine and oil making a fantastic dipping sauce for their good bread), and a decent if somewhat oversalted caldo gallego.

When I first started to visit El Carajo, they used to have what I thought was possibly the finest tapa I'd ever eaten in South Florida - piquillo peppers stuffed with a bacalao mousse, lightly fried, and topped with a squid ink sauce. However, as a result of a chef change, the dish is now a shadow of its former self. When I last ordered it, the codfish stuffing was unpleasantly dry, and the sauce was just a nebbish red pepper sauce. This used to be a dish I'd actively pine for - it's now no longer worth ordering.

But there's still plenty else good to be had, somehow made all the more enjoyable by the incongruous location.

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine
2465 S.W. 17th Avenue
Miami, FL 33145

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine on Urbanspoon

*Now that I made you think of it, let me save you the effort: here's the trailer, and here's the dance scene in its entirety.


  1. Why is there a corkage fee if you are buying the wine from right next to your table?

  2. CB - because glasses, and dishwashers, and servers cost money. Considering that most restaurant markups are generally at least 2x retail, and often upwards of 3x retail (i.e., if you bought a bottle that would retail at $10, a restaurant will typically charge you at least $20 and often $30 or more), the $10 corkage fee is a bargain for any bottle that retails for more than $10.

  3. I understand that, but $10 corkage fees are common, and in restaurants that aren't part of a gas station.

    Waving that would probably be a wise business decision. Likely people are grabbing wine and leaving, they'll more than make up the corkage fee on food, tip and possibly extra wine.

  4. How many restaurants in Miami offer $10 corkage? I can think of one.

    Don't understand your second comment - if you're grabbing wine and leaving, they don't charge the $10 corkage. It's only if you're sitting down and opening it to have with a meal.

  5. Think of it this way, would you pay $10 to bring a bottle from home to drink at that gas station restaurant?

    You are buying the bottle from the restaurant, it's the same people's pocket. Corkage is charged largely because you aren't paying the restaurant a dime for the bottle. And sure, higher end restaurants usually charge a higher corkage than $10, but again, this place is attached to a gas station. In this situation it should be more like a BYOB, which there are plenty of that don't charge any corkage.

    My second point is that if they don't charge the corkage fee and more people stay, they'll make more money.

  6. Would I pay $10 to bring a bottle from home to have at El Carajo? No, but that's solely because I can buy right there from a pretty darn good selection at retail prices. That's sort of the point. It is still vastly better than the wine markup you will see at any restaurant, from dive to 3-star.

    Find me any other place in Miami where I can sit down, have a good meal, and drink a $30 (retail) wine for $40 and I'll happily visit it.

    BTW, don't overstate the "but it's in a gas station" thing. Remarkably, even though it's not fully closed off from the rest of the station, once you sit down you can easily forget where you are.

  7. My husband often brings home their paella. The seafood one can be a little, er, chewy, but I love the meat one.

  8. Frod, I love El Carajo, for the price, and the price of the wines, it can't be beat. (Plus, I kind of like the gas station novelty). You mentioned in your review that they don't have the lowest wine prices around, where have you found cheaper wine prices than El Carajo? Thanks!