I have to admit that when I first heard about Cardón y el Tirano, a new Latin restaurant in Little Havana, I didn’t really pay much attention. One day I happened to be driving down Calle 8 and saw the sign in an old shopping center near Versailles and thought, “Oh, that’s where that place is,” without really giving it a second thought. Nonetheless, as a still-relatively-new food blogger, I’m always looking for new off-the-beaten-path restaurants to try, so when approached by Chef Francisco Anton himself to come in for a taste, I went ahead and accepted. What did I really have to lose anyway? Needless to say, I went in to my dinner reservation not exactly having the highest of expectations…
Well, what has two thumbs and was totally wrong about prejudging Cardón y el Tirano?
First of all, if I had only done a moderate amount of research, I would have found out that chef and owner Francisco Anton has some great culinary experience. Before opening Cardón he worked alongside Michael Shikany at SHIKANY and was heavily recruited to work with Alex Chang at the Vagabond. Instead of continuing on a path of working for others, however, Chef Anton decided to follow his dreams and open his own restaurant, offering a contemporary take on more traditional menus from all over Latin America.
The dishes at Cardón are basically a culinary representation of the Organization of American States with cuisines from Mexico, the Caribbean, Venezuela, and Peru all represented. Yet, this isn’t your typical street food-style, arroz y frijoles-type of restaurant. Chef Anton seamlessly melds his classic training and molecular experience with these comfort food favorites, resulting in a truly unique and innovative dining experience.
The Cardón menu is divided into a selection of tapas and small-plate appetizers, sharable main dishes, and desserts that are served in the middle of the table for all to enjoy it. Here’s a look at what I’ve eaten so far…over the course of two visits…in a one week span… My estimation of each dish’s country of inspiration is in parentheses.
From the “Tapeo” section: Tequeños with queso fresco and garlic aioli (Venezuela); Patatas Bravas with pecorino Romano, cilantro, and chipotle aioli (Spain); and Bacalaitos with salt cod, cilantro, and ancho chile aioli (Puerto Rico).
From the “To Share” section: Crema de Calabaza with pumpkin cream, shallot mousse, jalapeño dust, and popcorn (various); Tostones Picanha with salsa criolla, charred queso duro, and seared picanha steak (Brazil); Calamares Fritos with creamed corn, house made mole, capers, olives, spiced calamari, and pickled mango (various); Funche Negro with seared smoked gouda polenta, asado negro, salsa negra, herb oil, and celery salad (Venezuela); Chorizo & Camarones with wine and garlic reduction, shrimp, olives, capers, and pan Gallego (Spain); and Arepitas Duo with avocado mousse, queso Guayanes, ancho chile sauce, and garlic aioli (Venezuela).
From the “Tacos” section: Tacos al Pastor with house made tortillas, braised pork, sauteed poblano, caramelized onions, pineapple chutney, and pico de gallo relish (Mexico, obvi).
From the “Mains” section: Seafood Arepa with clams, mussels, tiger shrimp, calamari, marinara sauce, avocado mousse, and queso Guayanes (Venezuela) and Salmon & Polenta with seared salmon, crispy polenta, lobster bisque, frisse salad, and piquillo piperrada (various).
From the “Dessert” section: Plantain Bombolini with Nutella, pistachios, plantain caramel, and avocado rocks (Italy-ish).
It’s also important to note that the Cardón menu was developed to be paired with their small, yet quirky selection of wine, beer, sake, and cocktails. Besides a couple of bottles of interesting wines, I also tried a Sake Martini and Tinto de Verano.
Mitch’s take: Cardón y el Tirano is exactly what Calle 8 needs; I’m totally crazy about it. It takes all the great, traditional aspects of Latin flavors and cultures and brings them to a new level. It’s not a quite a full-blown makeover, but more of a refreshing modernization. Take it from me, throw your preconceived notions out the window and go check it out.
Standout dishes: Despite technically being a modern Latin restaurant, at its core Cardón y el Tirano is a Venezuelan restaurant. Chef Francisco is a native Venezuelan and there’s an underlying tone to his cooking that only naturally comes along with his background. To me, the Arepitas Duo and the Seafood Arepa, are the two dishes that fully accept this influence and are therefore two of the best dishes on the menu.
That said, to totally contradict my previous statements, the Salmon & Polenta is freaking awesome. And I’m so not a salmon guy. Go figure.