There’s no denying José Mendín’s influence on the Miami restaurant scene. Of all the concepts the Puerto Rican chef-restaurateur has been linked to, Pubbelly Sushi, with its menu fusing Japanese and Latin flavors with French technique, is arguably his best known. The restaurant earned Mendín five James Beard Award nominations, and a decade later, Pubbelly’s reach and influence have spread throughout South Florida. After dining at Maguro Sushi near the Florida Mall, it seems Mendín’s influence has spread even further.
Maguro is run by Jose Joubert Torres, who sliced and diced at Shari Sushi for two years before it closed in 2019. Torres launched Maguro as a delivery-only concept from Dollins Virtual Food Hall and, in July last, went brick-and-mortar. But its roots are in Puerto Rico. Torres had just opened Masago Sushi outside of San Juan before Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He was forced to close it. A certain paper towel thrower didn’t do much to help the good people of the island, so Torres traveled to Orlando, where he honed his skills at Shari’s. And the skills he has.
There’s a sophistication to his creations and flavor combinations – if you’re averse to roll, Torres might sway you otherwise. Shrimp tempura and sweet plantain make a magical duo in the “pa’ bravo yo” ($13.50), a superb roll topped with a layer of cilantro aioli. It’s named after a popular salsa song, but given the inclusion of sweet plantain, the “maduro” roll would work too. Hell, Maduro Sushi might work as a name for the restaurant, but there’s also plenty of maguro (tuna) of the same name. I guess his “bori” bowl ($17) refers to “Boricua” and “donburi,” but it’s an attractive blend nonetheless, with ruby cubes of tuna, avocado, sweet plantains, and shallots. crispies placed on spicy sushi rice.
The space itself is quite appealing, with its soothing tropical-zen motif contrasted by an eclectic soundtrack from Drake to Sade. We started from the bottom of that bowl of rice, and now we’re here – sitting in front of the chicken leg ($4.25) and chicken oyster ($4.25), yakitori, and lobster gyoza ( $10). Both made solid openings, and both are great for sharing. The gyoza, resembling plump seared scallops sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, were almost perfect bites. The yakitori was nice, but it wasn’t quite on the level of, say, Tori Tori or Susuru. The meats didn’t look like they were grilled over binchotan coals (which preserve the juiciness and flavor of the meats), nor did they have that shine produced by a tare glaze. Not serious ; we were more curious about Latin-Asian dishes anyway.
There was no riff on Mendín’s mofongo ramen, but the trio of meaty ribs ($10) was an exercise in Koribbean cooking thanks to a sassy kimchi and guava-based glaze. The “mere pescao” ($18), a sushi roll with hamachi, crispy garlic and green onions wrapped in avocado and topped with chimichurri sauce, was a roll I ate over and over again. We were hoping to try some of the items incorporating ropa vieja, like the bao ($11) or the spring rolls ($5.50), but they were out on both of our visits.
The desserts look deceptively benign, but one bite of the fried chocolate cheesecake ($8) was like swallowing a balloon – an indulgent, cracker-crusted, chocolate-filled balloon. Personally, I could take or leave the bread puddings, but I’d have the guava bread pudding ($10), served with dulce de leche and wonton chips, any day. I like it, and I like what Torres does. After enduring disasters, displacement and a pandemic, Torres is slowly coming to terms with his vision. When he does, I imagine it will be quite a spectacle.