Finger-food showdown in Miami

Croquetas have become as common as Cuban coffee in South Florida, and comfort food aficionado Sef Gonzalez wants to give them a place to shine.

So Gonzalez created Croquetapalooza, to be held Aug. 19 at Magic City Casino in Miami. Fourteen South Florida restaurants, including Vicky Bakery and Breadman Miami, will be throwing down in a competition to win the title of the "Best Croqueta."

"I think the croqueta is the perfect example of Miami culture," says Gonzalez, who became locally known as the "Burger Beast," which is also the name of his food blog. "When I was a kid, I traveled to California to visit my grandmother, and they didn't have ventanitas there, which are the windows that are all over Miami, where you can get your pasteles and order your café con leche. That kind of culture only exists down here. People eat croquetas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go to a party, and you'll see the first thing to run out are the croquetas."

A croqueta is a cylindrical finger food, known for its soft center filling, commonly made of ham and a breaded exterior. Along with Croquetapalooza, Gonzalez is also holding a Frita Showdown, now in its fourth year. About six competitors, including last year's title holder of best frita in the world, El Rey de las Fritas, will showcase their takes on the frita Cubana. The frita is a Cuban sandwich that has a flat, ground-beef patty, with toppings such as paprika, potato sticks, diced raw onions and ketchup.

Gonzalez, who is Cuban American, hand-picked all the Croquetapalooza competitors. The participants will be judged by a panel of foodie bloggers and writers. They will be looking for original qualities in taste, texture and ingenuity. Previous submissions have included cod and ropa vieja croquetas.

Among the croqueta competitors this year is Atlas Meat-Free Delicatessen, a Broward County-based plant butcher who is competing with his vegan croqueta. It's the first time the competition will showcase a meat-free option to the public. Atlas co-owner Ryan Bauhaus says his submission has a fighting chance because of its special recipe.

"We'll be featuring our soft, gourmet cheese in our croqueta. The cheese is a lengthy process. We don't just go to the store and buy it," Bauhaus says. "It's a cashew-based recipe where we soak the cashews for three days and use rejuvelac, a fermented liquid to age our cheese. So even though it's dairy-free, it's still cultured and aged."

Gonzalez says competitors are allowed to submit as many flavors as they want, but notes it is easy to mess up a croqueta. When he researched the best croqueta recipe, he tried making his own and failed.

"You're better off just going to buy them. It is a lot of work," he says. "I didn't consider that ham in itself is salty, and I created a very salty croqueta. But the main crime committed against croquetas is that they are not fried properly, or get dropped in the oil before it's hot enough, and they soak it all up and get soggy."

Chris MacDonald of Kendall has been attending the event since its inception three years ago and enjoys the party atmosphere. He also likes the croqueta-eating contest that challenges contestants to eat 10 croquetas as fast as possible.

"Just being from Miami and being raised here eating croquetas becomes part of your culture," says MacDonald, who was born in Chile. "For those people who are not sure if they should go, it's a big mix of individuals. It's not just one demographic, and I'll think they'll be surprised about how much fun they'll have. It's not only just about the food. It's also about the people."

Croquetapalooza will take place 7-10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, at Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., in Miami. Attendees must be at least 21 years old to attend. Tickets cost $35 at