Charlie Carrington must have a lot of stamps in his passport. His restaurant, South Yarra’s Atlas Dining, is well-known for every three months completely changing the country and cuisine its menus take their inspiration from. In order to consistently pull off that feat tactfully and deliciously, Carrington makes several international research trips each year. Last year, Carrington transited through Miami twice.
“I went to Colombia, which was one of the Atlas menus, and on the way home we were flying out through Miami, so we just said we’ll have a few days there, which was fantastic,” Carrington says. Not long after, on the way back from Havana for Atlas’s Cuba transformation, he knew to make some more time for Miami. On both trips, he found himself gravitating towards the city’s Little Havana district.
“Little Havana is almost like a full suburb, similar to Chinatown in Melbourne – where everything is Cuban,” he says. “There’s heaps of art and music, little hole-in-the-wall bars and cigar-rolling stores – it’s pretty hectic.
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“But what I really loved about it was these incredible Cubano sandwiches.”
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of visiting Little Havana or watching Jon Favreau’s Chef, 2014’s feel-good comedy of the year, here’s the crash course: Cubano sandwiches, which visually resemble a panini, were created by Cuban immigrants to Florida. The long sandwich – which is often, but not always, toasted – is typically stuffed with ham, cheese, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. It’s a highly portable and calorically dense lunch – designed to sustain the eater for a hard day’s labour.
They’re found throughout Florida, but Little Havana has the highest Cubano-to-square-metre ratio in the American state. During both trips, Carrington and crew voraciously ate their way through as many sandwiches as they could. Not long after returning home, he knew he’d found his next project.
He found the site for Little Havana back in March, and has been working on the build since then. After a soft launch phase this week, it opens to the public today. It’s a fun, casual space that uses Miami’s two signature colours – neon pink and neon blue – as a visual leitmotif throughout.
Although the star of the menu is rightfully the classic Cubano, there are four other Cuban-inspired sandwiches to try – including roast beef, chicken and mayo, and mushroom.
“For that whole build period I was constantly testing them,” Carrington says. “We make all our meats in-house, and I tested all different kinds of marinades and brines. It was probably only in the last month of testing them that I got them to where I wanted them to be – once I got it right it was epic.” There’s also a small range of salads, sides and sanga add-ons to investigate.
After years of cooking at a restaurant that changes its cuisine every few months, Carrington is relishing the chance to really drill down on something specific for the long haul.
With my restaurant, we’re forever changing our menu and there’s so much work that goes into that,” Carrington says. “Here, we’ve created this product and spent a lot of time getting it right, now it’s about refining it and every day trying to work out how to do it better.”
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