MIAMI — Breakfasts from a bakery here start with shots of robust coffee and a beloved finger food shaped like a cigar. These golden appetizers run out faster than cake at parties. And every week, restaurants churn out thousands of them.
Croquetas are as ubiquitous as 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 the restaurant Islas Canarias and its brand 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 of local heritage. They’re put on T-shirts, celebrated at an annual festival and popularized on social media. Croquetas are one of the trademarks of Cuban food, a hallmark of celebration and a cherished grab-and-go item among the rush of the area. Croquetas are so respected in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, that the counties 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.
But when his sister, Eileen Andrade, traveled to South Korea in 2013 and learned about its cuisine, it opened a world of possibilities. 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 created in 17th century France 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 took on a form similar to the one we know today, and recipes for them began to be written down and published.
Croquetas reached Spain in the 19th century, and eventually spread to its colonies like Cuba. And with the availability of ingredients over time, it became a treat for the rich and worked its way down to the poor in the 20th century. This is where the croqueta began to flourish, Mrs. Sevilla said, because of its use of leftovers.
Over the last 20 years, Spanish chefs have made similar innovations to the recent ones in Miami, she said, taking their family recipes and revamping them to create light and crispy croquetas that almost melt in your mouth.
“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 includes classic flavors such as ham and chicken, along with matching sauces, but staff members encourage customers to try more novel versions like the creamy spinach, the bacon cheeseburger, the Buffalo chicken, or the labor-intensive 305, with picadillo and maduros, which takes eight hours to make. The medianoche croqueta (which inspired Mr. Andrade to make his Elena Ruz-sandwich version) incorporates all the elements of the sandwich, like pork and pickles, in every bite.
“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.”
Other places, like Vegan Cuban Cuisine, which opened in 2020, are filling a need for croquetas to fit a vegan lifestyle. Lismeilyn Machado, who learned to make croquetas with her family in Cuba, sells about 4,000 croquetas a week with her husband, Steven Rodriguez, from their tiny restaurant. Little by little, she replaced each of the croquetas’ most important ingredients with vegan substitutes like cashew cream and a soy-based ham. A garbanzo croqueta is made with chickpeas and cassava flour to cater to people with food allergies.
At first, they rolled each croqueta by hand. But after just six months, demand was so high that they got a machine to help automate the rolling and breading process.
“As long as you put the Cuban spices, it’s going to taste delicious,” Ms. Machado said.
In Miami, the easiest way to see the breadth of croqueta creativity is a competition held in December, Croqueta Palooza. 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. But over the years, the offerings have become more and 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.
Croqueta Palooza has served as a reason to pioneer these new flavors, several chefs said. “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