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
*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.