Monday, October 11, 2010

Big Snack In Little Havana: President Obama Visits Florida's El Mago de Las Fritas

Presidential food stops on the 2010 campaign trail: "Don't tell Michelle!" vs. Let's Move!
Miami, Florida: October has been an in-the-weeds month for President Obama. He's dealt with an economy that's like a poorly beaten soufflé which refuses to rise, while simultaneously hitting the national campaign trail to support Democrat candidates for the midterm elections.

But on Monday evening there was a delicious respite from those concerns, when President Obama made an "unscheduled" visit to legendary Little Havana eatery El Mago de las Fritas. It included a public moment of what's become regular presidential waffling about Mr. Obama's own relationship to food. (Above: The President in action)

The El Mago stop came after the President attended two crowded, back-to-back fundraisers at the palatial waterfront home of former Miami Heat star center Alonzo Mourning. Gay activists in speedboats gathered in the harbor, and shouted through megaphones for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It was creative but very serious activist theater, rapidly ended by the Secret Service. And forgotten by the time President Obama, a spring in his step and his shirtsleeves rolled up to combat the tropical Miami night, unceremoniously appeared at El Mago.

The President was accompanied by more aides than there were customers. His exhausted press pool was happy to be allowed inside the restaurant, hungry for any kind of diversion from the boredom of listening to the President give the exact stump speech over and over.

Open for almost fifty years, El Mago has a design aesthetic that includes peeled linoleum flooring and fluorescent lights, with chrome stools and faded, hand-painted signs. It is beloved by South Floridians, who routinely rank it high on their must-eat lists.

Speaking to a thrilled employee, the President stood by the cash register and ordered the house specialty, the Frita. It's a delirious spiced beef and chorizo patty slathered with ketchup, piled high with raw onions, piping-hot shoestring fries, and served on fluffy, traditional Cuban bread made with lard. The President also ordered five additional Fritas, topped with cheese. All were to go. Local Frita aficionados, by the way, consider the addition of cheese the gustatory equivalent of a crime against humanity.

Enrique Iglesias' hit I Like It played tinnily on an old-fashioned radio as the President and Joe Garcia, a Democratic House candidate, paid cash for their Fritas. They chatted with the handful of delighted diners, and urged them to vote early. They posed for phone cam shots, and shots for the press pool. The restaurant's name means "the magician of Fritas," and President Obama wrapped his arm around chef/owner Ortello Cardenas. (above).

"THIS is the magician," President Obama informed the pool.

Cardenas later said that he was very surprised when an hour before the President's visit, Secret Service agents had circled his humble joint, then filled the tiny trolley kitchen for a security sweep. Despite the obvious tip-off that an event of national importance was about to occur, apparently Cardenas didn't quite believe that the President of the United States of America would be in his very own restaurant. But then the motorcade roared up and Mr. Obama magically materialized at the front door.

The naughty Eater in Chief & the First Lady, Food Police
The President gave what has become his standard I'm-eating-naughty-on-the-road plea to the press pool, which he's made during other foodie outings. He chuckled as he requested that no one tell First Lady Michelle Obama that he had ordered the fabulous--and fabulously decadent--Fritas.

Don't tell Michelle
is a charming trope, and the President's own private nod to the fact that his foodie outings, which include donuts, ice cream, and plenty of other high-calorie offerings, seem a direct contradiction to Let's Move!, his wife's historic national campaign to promote healthier eating. It's an elaborate presidential fiction that incorporates some amusing concepts.

Amusing Concept 1: That anyone in the press pool actually gets close enough to Mrs. Obama to "tattle" about her husband's eating habits.

Amusing Concept 2: That the First Lady is unaware of the President's many "unscheduled" outings with less-than-healthy foods, which occur on an almost weekly basis. And which routinely make national headlines.

Amusing Concept 3: That anything having to do with the President is "unscheduled."

Amusing Concept 4: That the President actually consumes the various foods he orders when he's "among the people." The foodie hand-off to presidential body man Reggie Love was already being documented during Campaign 2008.

The President usually orders his food to go, as he did at El Mago. No one outside the Presidential bubble actually knows what gets consumed. Sometimes the President will take a big, photo-op bite of one of his treats, but most often these are packed into boxes and bags and handed to waiting aides who do double duty as food wallas.

But unfortunately, President Obama's jokey waffling on the subject of his street treats reinforces the right-wing criticism, promoted by commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, that Mrs. Obama is chief of America's Food Police, and has declared a Nanny State war on indulgent foods.

Not so. The First Lady has spoken about balance and moderation in eating, rather than encouraged people to entirely give up the glory that is America's pantheon of unhealthy foods.

"Life without a burger and fries is depressing," Mrs. Obama has said.

She's declared her love for Southern-style Sunday Dinners filled with fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. She's touted the many wonders of pie, and publicly praised her own White House Executive Pastry Chef, Bill Yosses. While discussing Let's Move!, the First Lady has even defended Twinkies, that nostalgic icon of American childhood.

Mrs. Obama's food aesthetic makes total sense, but the concept of moderation has been a tough idea to get across, especially when the President is enthusiastically roaming the country, sampling high-calorie wonders. Only once has he walked off from a food outing with a handful of something fresh, and that was in September, when he made another "unscheduled" stop at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

There, a fruit vendor urged Mr. Obama to take home four apples, and the President dutifully handed over a dollar. Body man Love stepped in with more cash to make up the difference in price. But the apples were given to the food walla aide on duty, and the President was photographed enjoying a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. Don't tell Michelle!

Actions speak far louder than words, as those gay activists in the speedboats reminded the President. At least the First Lady has been photographed actually eating vegetables.

After the magical visit with the Frita maker, the President left El Mago with Candidate Garcia and his aides. He sipped the traditional Cuban beverage Materva from a can, complete with a straw, as he climbed into the presidential limousine. Then it was time to head for the airport, to go back to the White House.

The events at Mourning's home were expected to raise about $1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Rep. Ron Klein, who is locked in a tight race to hold his seat. It was the President's ninth visit to Florida since taking office.

Info: El Mago De Las Fritas is at 5828 Southwest 8th Street, West Miami, Florida, 33144. Phone: (305) 266-8486.

*Top two photos by Getty; third by AP/pool