MIAMI — Breakfasts from a bakery here start with shots of robust coffee and a beloved finger food shaped like a cigar. These delicious appetizers go fast, and they sell out faster than cake at parties. Restaurants make thousands of these appetizers every week.
Croquetas can be found everywhere, just like the Cuban sandwich. They’re eaten anytime, as a snack, a party staple or breakfast. Made with béchamel and minced ham, chicken or fish, the bite-size cylinders are rolled in bread crumbs then deep-fried.
“Something as little as croquetas is such a cultural movement,” said Jonathan Andrade, who is in charge of making croquetas for Islas Canarias and Croqueta County, often considered by fans to be the “gold standard” of the food’s classic varieties.
While Spanish and Cuban immigrants brought the croqueta to Miami, chefs today are taking the croqueta’s basic framework and adapting it to reflect the county’s increasing cultural diversity. So many bakeries and restaurants now have a notable croqueta — with innovative flavors like ham, bacon and Gouda, or short rib — that it’s hard to even list them all.
Croquetas are also a symbol for local heritage. They’re put on T-shirts, celebrated at an annual festival and popularized on social media. Croquetas, a Cuban culinary icon, are a staple of Cuban cuisine. They are also a popular grab-and go item in the area’s rush. Croquetas are so revered in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that they even declared a Croqueta day in 2020.
Islas Canarias, named after the Canary Islands where Mr. Andrade’s great-grandparents are from, was opened by his grandparents in 1977. Over many decades, the restaurant has perfected a recipe from Mr. Andrade’s great-grandmother.
Eileen Andrade was his sister and she traveled to South Korea in 2013. She learned about the cuisine and opened up a new world. At her other restaurants, Finka Table and Tap, Amelia’s 1931 and Barbakoa by Finka, the siblings experiment with flavors like kimchi mojo pork, jambalaya shrimp, Buffalo cauliflower and an Elena Ruz sandwich.
“That kind of opened a path to think outside the box and be creative,” Mr. Andrade said.
Croquetas have a long history of transformation, so their origins can be somewhat difficult to trace, said María José Sevilla, the author of “Delicioso: A History of Food in Spain.” Something similar was created in 17th century France that was shaped like a little ball and filled with commonplace ingredients. Then in the 19th century, béchamel was added, and the dish began to be known as croquettes. They developed a form that was similar to what we know today. Recipes for them were written down and published.
Croquetas arrived in Spain in 19th century and spread to its colonies like Cuba. It became a popular treat for the wealthy and slowly grew in popularity among the poor during the 20th century. She said that this is where croqueta first flourished because it used leftovers.
Mrs. Sevilla explained that Spanish chefs have developed similar innovations over the last 20-years to those in Miami. They take traditional family recipes and make light, crispy croquetas, which almost melt in the mouth, using them as inspiration.
“It’s become one of the most fashionable, and one of the most popular foods in Spain,” Mrs. Sevilla said. “At the end of the day, these beautiful foods do evolve in the hands of home cooks, chefs. They’re making the most extraordinary, diverse croquetas.”
Miami’s first croqueta bar, Dos Croquetas, opened in 2019. The menu features traditional flavors like chicken and pork, as well matching sauces. But staff encourage customers try more innovative versions such as the creamy spinach and bacon cheeseburger, Buffalo chicken, and even the labor-intensive version of the 305, which requires eight hours to make. The medianoche crêta (which inspired Mr. Andrade’s Elena Ruz-sandwich variation) includes all the elements from the sandwich, including pork and pickles.
“Our goal is to transition people from the traditional flavors,” said Alec Fernandez, who estimates they sell about 17,000 croquetas a week. “It’s the ultimate respect to turn this old-school item, and modernize and evolve how people perceive a croqueta.”
Vicky Carballo, Mr. Fernandez’s aunt, who largely develops Dos Croquetas offerings, said she focuses on surprising depths of flavor, since “we are coming into a market with croquetas on every corner.
Vegan Cuban Cuisine, which opened its doors in 2020, is another place that caters to the vegan lifestyle. Lismeilyn Machado, a woman who learned how to make croquetas in Cuba with her family, now sells approximately 4,000 croquetas per week from her small restaurant. Little by little, she replaced each of the croquetas’ most important ingredients with vegan substitutes like cashew cream and a soy-based ham. To cater to those with food allergies, a garbanzo croqueta uses chickpeas as well as cassava flour.
They started by rolling each croqueta individually by hand. After six months, the demand for croquetas was so great that they bought a machine to automate the rolling and breading.
“As long as you put the Cuban spices, it’s going to taste delicious,” Ms. Machado said.
Croqueta Palooza is the December competition that showcases the breadth and creativity of croqueta in Miami. In 2014, its first year, “it was kind of like a giant ham croqueta festival,” said Sef Gonzalez, the head of the festival who also runs a blog called Burger Beast. Over the years, the offerings have become more innovative.
“Chefs go there with the mind set of, ‘I’m going to put my best croqueta,’ but others go, and they want to show off what they can do with croquetas,” he said.
Many chefs claim that Croqueta Palaoza has been a great opportunity to explore new flavors. “It’s good to have healthy competition,” Mr. Andrade of Islas Canarias said.
No one has pushed the croqueta’s limit like Breadman Miami, which serves mini croquetas on a vanilla layer cake. Andy Herrera, the bakery’s owner, was inspired by a piece of cake at a party that was touched by a croqueta. He thought the sweet, salty and smoky flavors went well together, and when a customer challenged him to make a cake that was different, “the croqueta cake was born.” On top of selling about 1,200 croquetas daily, the bakery makes at least three of these cakes a day. The bakery has even done croqueta wedding and quinceañera cakes.
“The only thing I can tell you is that after owning a bakery, it’s astonishing how many croquetas people eat,” he said. “It’s pretty breathtaking.”
Recipe: Ham Croquetas