I first learned about El Carajo from a guy named Raul Rojas who pronounces his name with brio and whose Twitter bio describes him as a “political junkie” and “advisor to revolutionaries.” I can’t corroborate that, but I can attest that the short fellow likes his martinis just so and does not hesitate to give a charming bartendress whatfor when she serves them against his liking. I don’t know Señor Rojas — I met him by chance at Sugarcane, in Midtown. But it was on his recommendation that I first went to El Carajo, a tapas and wine bar inside a BP gas station in South Miami, and I owe him a debt of gratitude.
First off, I’ve read enough of El Carajo’s Yelp reviews to realize that some people can’t stomach eating in a gas station, much less a BP. If you fall into that category (no shame in it), then don’t go, because the place is very much in a gas station. You park in the glow of large fluorescent letters, you walk across oil-stained pavement, the aroma of various grades of petrol fills your nostrils, you traverse a bright mini-market under closed-circuit surveillance, and, when the dining area quiets, you hear the the cashier’s barcode scanner beep-beep-beeping away.
All of which makes me like the place all the more. The juxtaposition of a tapas bar with a first-rate wine selection — 2,000 bottles from around the world — in a gas station isn’t just quirky. It’s freaking ingenious. I salute whoever had abiding faith in this particular version of “if you build it, they will come.” Judging by the packed house each of the several times I’ve eaten at El Carajo, he/she is making loot.
Of course, the ingenuity of El Carajo’s location wouldn’t count for anything if the food sucked. It doesn’t. Besides being a bit on the salty side all around, it’s really good. While I haven’t tried close to everything on the extensive, bilingual menu, I can recommend the Caldo Gallego (Galician Soup), the Pulpo a la Gallega (Octopus Galician Style), and especially the Callos a la Madrileña, cubes of tripe served with beans in a heady gravy which, at $6, might be the best deal on the menu. I would suggest the Tabla del Mar — a generous helping of seafood served on a wooden plank that should sate two to three people — but my tongue had sodium burns on it afterwards.
One more bit of half-hearted criticism: the menus come rolled up and tied tight with rope in scroll fashion. While this charms at first, it quickly becomes annoying fighting a losing battle with a menu that does not want to be open. If you manage to gain the upper hand for a moment — and understand Spanish — you can read the story behind El Carajo’s name (something about the bird’s nest of a galleon). Just make sure you figure out your order before the thing snaps shut again.
Quibbling aside, El Carajo offers a rare experience in which the pros far outweigh the cons. The first time I went, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table. That’s no fun in any case, and when you’re waiting area is a gas station you might really expect it to blow. But the head waiter poured the missus and me each a complimentary glass of wine to sip until our table was ready. We spent a pleasant half-an-hour perusing the restaurant’s wine collection, arrayed impressively around a long communal dining table, and eventually found a bottle whose price was commensurate with our ignorance of what good wine tastes like. (If you’re not a wine drinker — or don’t want to incur the $10 corkage fee — you can grab a beer from the mini-mart’s freezers. Your waiter will obligingly pour it into a glass.)
That first visit won me over. The food was good, the wine was wine, the waiters were pros, and everyone in the place was smiling. The really amazing thing was how easily I forgot I was in a BP. Trust me, this isn’t a triumph of decor. With its faux-brick wallpaper, El Carajo’s main dining area feels a bit like the inside of a diorama, and the mini-mart is never fully out of sight or earshot. Nonetheless, whenever I eat there, the place invariably works its magic and soon I’m feeling pretty damn happy about the next hour or so.
Not bad for a gas station.
Below are the details. Expect to spend between $25 and $35.
El Carajo International Wine & Tapas
2465 SW 17th Ave, Miami, 33145