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Most restaurants in Miami are at least a little bit Latin American. Practically every seafood joint has fish tacos on the menu. There’s even a Jewish bakery on Biscayne Boulevard called El Bagel, where in addition to classic toppings like lox and whitefish salad, they offer jalapeños and guava.
But Miami also has an enormous variety of straight-up Latin American and Latin-fusion restaurants, ranging from Cuban cafeterias to haute Peruvian-Japanese. There is also a hipster Latin American food scene: a new generation of entrepreneurs are serving up hand-pounded tortillas, vegan arepas and artisanal Miami-Cuban ice cream. Any self-respecting Miami foodie can now expound on the difference between tostones and maduros.
Miami’s Latin culinary offerings reflect the city’s demographics. At last count, 73 per cent of Miami-Dade residents identified as “Hispanic/Latino”, and 66 per cent said that they speak Spanish at home.
Accordingly, Latin Americans can find products in Miami that they grew up with back home: Peruvians drink electric-yellow Inca Kola; Argentines compete to bake the best alfajores pastries; and Venezuelans buy Cocosette chocolate wafers and queso de mano, a soft white cheese.
Cubans were the first Latin Americans to arrive in Miami en masse, so in the decades after the 1959 revolution, Cuban restaurants served comfort food to exiles: steaming plates of dishes such as ropa vieja (“old clothes” — shredded beef and vegetables), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), a Cuban version of rice and beans called moros y cristianos (“Moors and Christians”), and rich desserts such as tres leches (“three milks”), made from sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. These were served at family-style restaurants, or at Formica counters with menus printed on paper placemats and walls dotted with nostalgic photos of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Often a waitress would approach and just say “dime” — tell me.
In the 1980s, violent cold war conflicts in Central America brought other nations — and their cuisines — to Miami. A few years after Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown by the Sandinistas and fled to Miami Beach on a Learjet, his nephew Julio Somoza co-founded Los Ranchos Steakhouse near Miami International Airport. It grew to include several large-portioned, family-friendly locations in local shopping malls. Julio later went to jail for tax evasion, but Los Ranchos still serves its trademark beef tenderloin marinated in Chimichurri sauce, and gallo pinto — Nicaragua’s signature mix of onions, beans and rice.
Then, in 1989, a young Miami restaurateur named Douglas Rodriguez — the son of Cuban immigrants — elevated the local Latin dining scene. He opened YUCA, a sleek, upscale Cuban restaurant in tony Coral Gables that served lighter Nuevo Cubano cuisine. (“Yuca” refers to both the ubiquitous, starchy Cuban root vegetable, and Young Urban Cuban Americans, Miami’s version of the yuppie.)
Some Miami restaurants are inspired by celebrated eateries in Latin America. In 2007, a Venezuelan named Yony Moy — whose grandfather emigrated to Venezuela from Canton — opened Qianlong, a Miami-Dade version of the popular Chinese restaurant his father owned in Caracas. The original Caracas incarnation, El Palmar, used to serve Peking duck to Venezuela’s politicians, reportedly including Hugo Chávez in the early years of his presidency.
Some smaller countries have joined forces. Mi Tierra Las Americas, a Bolivian restaurant in Little Havana, also serves Honduran and Peruvian food (locals mostly come for the salteñas, Bolivia’s version of empanadas).
There are endless restaurants to sample in Miami, with new ones opening (and others closing) all the time. Here are some of the top places to get a taste of Miami’s Latin American culinary scene, broken down by national cuisine.
It’s impossible to mention all the Cuban restaurants scattered around Miami-Dade, the metro area that includes Miami. In working-class Hialeah, 75 per cent of residents have Cuban origins and many of the restaurants do too. But the symbolic centre of Cuban Miami is the neighbourhood of Little Havana, west of downtown. Generations of Cubans settled here upon arrival in Miami, though many residents are now from Central America. In a nod to its importance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the neighbourhood a “National Treasure” in 2017.
Little Havana’s main thoroughfare is SW Eighth Street, which even Miami’s gringos call “Calle Ocho”. The tourist district of Calle Ocho is around SW 15th Avenue, but Little Havana extends roughly north to the Miami River, west to NW 37th Avenue and east to the I-95 highway. Off the main drag are small, colourful single-family homes, many with classic Cuban-style rejas, wrought-iron security grills on the windows.
Parts of Little Havana feel like a theme park of bygone 1950s Cuba. Buses deposit visitors to buy Central American cigars and pleated guayabera shirts, and watch old men play dominoes in Máximo Gómez Park, named after the 19th-century Dominican who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. But it is also possible to have a culturally (and culinarily) rich experience here, thanks in part to the children and grandchildren of Cuban immigrants who’ve stepped in to revitalise the area.
One way of experiencing this is by signing up to a 2.5-hour Little Havana Food and Cultural Tour ($59.99 for adults, $49.99 for children). The walk takes in a Cuban sandwich, guarapo juice — made from pressed sugarcane — at a tropical-fruit market called Los Pinareños Fruteria, and a visit to Azucar Ice Cream Company, founded by ex-banker Suzie Batlle in 2011. Modelled on the ice cream that Batlle’s Cuban grandmother made, flavours include platano maduro (sweet plantain) and Abuela Maria, a mix of vanilla ice cream, guava, crushed cookies and chunks of cream cheese.
An essential element of the Cuban diet is coffee — notably, dark-roast, bitter espresso heaped with sugar, served at ventanitas, wide serving windows built into the sides of low-key Cuban restaurants.
There are ventanitas all over Miami, but especially along 17th and 27th Avenues fanning out from Calle Ocho. Locals, Cuban and otherwise, drop by at all times of day for both the bullet of caffeine and the socialising. Forget Italian coffee lingo: here you order a single-shot black cafecito; a cortadito — espresso with a splash of milk; a very milky café con leche; or a colada — black coffee served in a large styrofoam cup plus tiny plastic cups so you can pass shots around to friends. (The waitress will spoon sugar into all of these orders unless you specify “sin azucar”.) You won’t pay fancy prices here: a cafecito usually costs about $1.
Have your coffee with a sticky — and sometimes warm — pastelito de guayaba y queso, layered pastry stuffed with guava pulp and sweetened cream cheese. Then lean against the ledge of the ventanita and pick up some local gossip.
Enriqueta’s, a favourite ventanita of both the creative and labouring classes, is further afield in Wynwood, Miami’s eclectic arts district. It is hailed for its Cuban sandwich: a pile of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles on crusty Cuban bread that’s flattened in a sandwich press. Its cousin, the medianoche, has the same ingredients inside a sweeter, brioche-type bread. “Medianoche” means “midnight” because it’s often eaten by the post-clubbing crowd, though not at Enriqueta’s. The restaurant opens at 7am, to serve construction workers before they head off to build condominiums, and closes at 3pm (2pm on Saturdays; closed Sundays).
El Palacio de los Jugos (“The Palace of Juices”) is a sprawling, sweaty, authentic Miami-Cuban experience, opened in 1977, and now with branches across the city. I’m partial to the original on 57th Avenue and Flagler, near the airport, where businesspeople pull up for the $6.42 lunch special, served cafeteria-style from giant troughs. El Palacio is known for its fried pork-belly rings, called chicharrones. But I come for the fresh juices and batidos — Cuban smoothies made with milk and tropical fruits like mango and mamey, which tastes like a cross between sweet potato and papaya. They have coffee too, of course, and are open daily from 6am to 9pm.
A bit closer to downtown on Calle Ocho, and at the other end of the dining spectrum, Café La Trova is a recent, upscale arrival started by Cuban bartender Julio Cabrera and local celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein. It features rollicking live Cuban dance music, and expert cocktails shaken in front of you by one of the cantineros (I had the classic daiquiri with rum, sugar and lime juice). The food menu has delicious twists on traditional Cuban fare such as Maine lobster croquetas and free-range arroz con pollo.
Venezuelans arrived in Miami more recently, so the Venezuelan food scene is still developing. For now, the most interesting fare comes from young Venezuelans, steeped in the fresh-and-fast street-food model. They’ve seized on the humble arepa, a white cornmeal patty to which you can add shredded chicken, black beans, cheese, avocados, and practically anything else.
Colombians and Venezuelans have a longstanding dispute over who makes better arepas. The Colombian variety tends to be yellow, sweeter, stuffed with cheese and often eaten for breakfast. The Venezuelan version is white, thicker and blander, though in a good way, and usually served with savoury proteins.
Doggi’s Arepa Bar, a fresh-fast-food place with three locations, serves arepas with a choice of fillings like chicken or marinated churrasco, along with avocado, fried plantains, rice and beans. They also serve pabellón criollo, Venezuela’s national dish of shredded beef, fried plantains, beans and rice.
On the side, try Doggi’s tequeños — finger-sized fried dough filled with cheese. (The Venezuelan grandmother I dined with warned me: “If you’re on a diet and they pass the tequeños, you’re going to take one.”). Doggi’s also sells raw ingredients such as queso de mano, though serious Venezuelan cooks order their ingredients from the larger selection at Doral-based Zerpa’s.
Another trendy and delicious destination for arepas is La Latina, on a sleepy, leafy street just south of the swanky Design District. Opened by young Venezuelan-American entrepreneur Alejandro Diaz (he was busy pitching a table full of investors when I visited), it is decorated with colourful plastic-coated fabrics. Its “traditional Venezuelan comfort food” includes a wide choice of arepas, with many vegetarian options.
While comparatively few Mexicans live in Miami, tacos are now ubiquitous. There are some standouts. Proprietor Ken Lyon makes his yellow- and blue-corn tortillas from scratch for the cocktails crowd at The Anderson, a historic indoor/outdoor bar and live-music lounge on NE 79th Street. At his El Toro Taco Bar, one of the stations inside The Anderson, try the taco pato confitado with preserved duck, roasted pumpkin and pickled red onions. Chase it with a margarita made with Madre mescal.
If you’re across the causeway on Miami Beach, stroll up the boardwalk until you reach the North Beach branch of Taquiza, where braised-brisket tacos are flavoured with cumin, chilli and Modelo Negra beer. Have them with Taquiza’s version of the Mexican roadside dish elote: grilled corn on the cob smothered in coriander-jalapeño cream and cotija cheese.
With an abundance of fresh seafood and a thriving Peruvian population, Miami now boasts Peruvian restaurants at any price point. Everyone I meet swears by a different one.
A casual chain called Cvi.che 105 has four locations (including one on Lincoln Road, the pedestrian shopping street on Miami Beach). The restaurant makes a reliable ceviche and a memorably frothy passion-fruit pisco sour, now one of Miami’s de rigueur cocktails. Cvi.che 105’s chef-owner Juan Chipoco likes to tell his origin story: he arrived from Lima as an immigrant and worked his way up from dishwasher. He now oversees a small ceviche empire, including an upscale Peruvian-Japanese restaurant called Intimo on the southern tip of Miami Beach (reservations recommended) that he opened in 2019.
I kept avoiding La Mar by Gastón Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key because it seemed overly fancy and insufficiently ethnic. When I finally ate there, I was enchanted: it’s the hands-down star of Miami’s Peruvian cuisine. Sit on the vast terrace and enjoy its sublime leche de tigre (the liquid that marinates fish for ceviche), while toned joggers circle the island and the sun sets over downtown.
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