From the FINKA to your table

As we team up with A&E District to launch A&Eats: The Search for Miami’s Next Great Restaurant Concept, we’re sitting down with some of Miami-Dade’s boldest restaurateurs, whose business have thrived thanks to original concepts and sturdy business plans to create the deliciously unexpected, quite often in the most unexpected places.

All of which describes Eileen Andrade to a T. The 26-year-old is the brains behind West Kendall’s trailblazing FINKA Table and Tap, and last Sunday — a little over a year from its official opening — the establishment was abuzz, bustling with a crowd you’d expect at a recently opened trendy South Beach resto, not nearing the county’s boundaries with the river of grass.

“Opening a 260 seat restaurant in West Kendall was definitely ballsy, and I guess my biggest fear was not being able to fill up the space,” she shares. “We’ve been able to fill up the house every night to the point where we have a wait. That has obviously been pleasantly surprising and overwhelming, in a good way.”

She joined us on one of the steel stools that line the treated and tiled concrete bar, where specially skilled bartenders make suggestions to newcomers and regulars alike about what craft cocktail or beer they’d like according to their usual choice of drink. This is a struggle they take on diligently, and one that has become Andrades’ — and the restaurant’s — mission. “Every day is about educating people, and it’s cool in a way because I feel we have given another perspective to Miami locals. But there’s still a lot of work to do in this area and hopefully this will inspire others to give Kendall a chance,” she explains.

Pleasing the untried palates of Kendall’s more traditional diners proved to be a worthy feat. According to Andrade, “[I] knew that was something that was going to be an issue. I thought we’d get over it quickly, like maybe six months in. We still have people asking for Presidentes and Heinekens, and they just don’t get why we don’t carry them.”

They don’t carry mainstream selections because instead they opt for local brews like MIA Brewery’s 305 golden ale, Wynwood Brewing’s La Rubia, and J Wakefield’s Amber Waves, along with other national craft selections like Michigan’s Bell’s Double Cream Stout and Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Resin.

The cocktail menu offers 10 drink selections, with the house versions of traditional drinks like the Cuban Old Fashioned, and original concoctions such as the The British are Coming — a shaken cocktail with Martin Miller’s gin and a grapefruit-rosemary syrup. They set out to create something that could compete with the most requested drink not on the menu — the classic Mojito. “I guess that’s the risk in Kendall,” she admits. “For the most part if I could sway at least half or 75 percent of the people to try something new then I’ve done my job.”

But the ambitious craft cocktail program was always part of Andrade’s vision. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why she opted for such a large establishment. She explains, “There were two reasons as to why we opened such a big restaurant. One, the investment to make the restaurant larger to get approved for a liquor license was less than purchasing one, and two, my mom. She told me ‘If we are going to do this, let’s go big or go home.’”

A supportive mother may not seem like anything out of this world, until you take under consideration that her mother Nancy Andrade is the restaurateur and owner of two outposts of her grandparent’s — Cuban immigrants Raul and Amelia Garcia’s — iconic local restaurant chain, Islas Canarias. “So I thought if my mom has that much faith in me with my ideas and my concept then I might as well just do it, and go for it.”

Growing up in the kitchens of her family’s restaurants was definitely helpful for the young entrepreneur, but it’s something Andrade has always had in her. Her grandfather passed away last week, and it was at the funeral that she was reminded about her early years as a business owner. “She brought the story up and I thought ‘Damn! I’ve loved to make things and own businesses since I was in the second grade”. So what’s the story you might be wondering? “It goes back to me in second grade; I would sell these bracelets that were custom made, and would set up in my little corner — I even had an employee! I ended up getting sent to the principal’s office at Conchita Espinosa Academy of the Arts. The reason I got caught is because someone tried to open up their own business and they got caught and ratted me out.” This person who ratted out, ironically, was the same person reminding her of the story — her best friend.  “I guess it’s in my blood,” she concludes.

It’s this more creative and bold side of the young Andrade that sets her apart from the rest of her family. “I don’t know if it was a mistake or a blessing that I made a sign that read ‘FINKA by the owners of Islas Canarias’” she explains, “because when older crowds would drive by they’d think ‘Oh! Islas Canarias!’ and when they got here, they’d be like ‘What the hell is this?’”

The later might not be the most appropriate reaction to the ingenuity and bold flavors found in the dishes offered at Finka, but they’re definitely indicative of what’s so very different from what customers expected of the brand. They might have the same owners, but this generation has a very different concept. At FINKA, Andrade finds transformational ways to fuse the three gastronomic cultures that shaped the young restaurant’s concept: Korean, Peruvian, and Cuban.

At first glance, even to the savvier palates, the mix might seem hudge-pudgy. But once you sink your teeth in a spoonful of that Cuban fried rice — tossed with shrimp, maduros, pineapples, and red peppers, then topped with a fried egg and doused with cilantro aioli — all of a sudden, things begin to make sense.

It was during a trip to Korea, which took place a little over a year prior to opening the restaurant, that Andrade had a sudden realization, “I went to Korea and tried the food and fell in love, and thought it would mesh well with Caribbean food because Korean flavors are so intense, very flavorful, but also very homey, very casero, just like Cuban and Peruvian food,” she explains. “My mentor was Peruvian, which is how that fell into the mix. Peruvian food now is known as something modern, but really it’s very similar to Cuban food. You have your seco de cordero, chaufa, and all that stuff is very homey.”

Today, everyone who frequents the restaurant can attest that one of the greatest things about it is that it offers something for everyone. It’s also what sets the young chef very much apart from the more traditional restaurants in the area. And that’s exactly what Eileen wants to be known for.

“That’s what I’d like to continue pushing in the future with any restaurant we open from here on out,” she says. “To be an entirely different concept, so when they think it’s from the owners of FINKA, they’re not expecting to have a Cuban fried rice. Maybe it’ll be pho or Vietnamese-style chicken wings or whatever. Something completely different, where you can’t compare the two.”

So what are Eileen’s consejos for someone looking to open a restaurant? “Two things that might be contradictory, but, don’t be afraid to take risks and look at what everyone else is doing that is successful. All of the successful people are taking risks. Push it as far as you can, but still make it idiot proof, where the business works so well it carries the concept.”

That’s how, a year later, Eileen Andrade’s Finka is still as much of a surprising success as the day it opened.

The author has a personal connection with a staff member at this restaurant who was not interviewed for this story.