Just south of downtown Miami—where I-95 ends and US1 begins, on a road of bleak strip malls and fast-food joints—sits an unassuming gas station. And like ten thousand other gas stations, this one has a convenience store behind it, the kind you go into only because you need to take a leak or buy a pack of gum. I drove by it countless times as a teen and never even thought to look inside.
But this convenience store is like nothing you've ever been to before. You enter and see cases of empanadas, macarons, and flaky pastelitos. Walk a little further into the store and you'll find a selection of serious sakes and sparkling wines instead of just Vitamin Water (although there is Vitamin Water, too). Then walk to the back of the store and you'll enter El Carajo, where fine wines are sold and Spanish foods—from tapas to paella—are served in a charming, cave-like area that is a favorite among those who have, some way or another, managed to find it. With one of the better selections of wine in the city of Miami, this place is clearly not fucking around.
Carlos Fonseca, whose father owns the gas station and the store, told me that the idea for this hidden grotto of a restaurant and wine store began on a family trip to Italy.
Fonseca told me, "We stopped on the autostrada for a quick meal in Tuscany. When we arrived the food was served buffet style with inexpensive disposable cutlery and plastic trays." He's referring to the Autogrill, which is Italy's answer to roadside fast food. "Then, we walked into the main dining room, dug into our meals expecting little, only to find some truly phenomenal quality. The wine my father had gotten in his plastic tumbler was incredible as well. From this, we learned that we can truly overcome expectations and give an amazing food and wine experience where you'd least expect it!"
Carlos and his two brothers now run the place, where you can find a magnum of Chateau Palmer Margaux 2005 for more than $1000. Although El Carajo carries wines from all over the world, Carlos says, "I carry dozens of Spanish wines. All the major regions—Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Rías Baixas—and many of the lesser known ones—Catalayud, Yecla, Bierzo."
He adds, "My favorite wine changes, but my current wine crush is a Chateau La Pointe Pomerol 2005."
Carajo, by the way, has a few meanings in Spanish. It can mean the lookout basket in the top mast of a Spanish galleon ship or it can be a curse word meaning, variously, "hell," "damn it," or "penis," depending on your location in the Spanish-speaking world and your whim. It's a cheeky name for a business that inspires shocked interjection—"Oh shit!" is probably heard a lot around here.
The Fonsecas hope to expand El Carajo to other locations and bring their Autogrill-inspired convenience stores to byways elsewhere. Let's hope this happens soon. After all, the open road can be an unfamiliar, lonely place—but that's nothing a tortilla española and some really good wine can't fix.