You’ll need to brush up on your Spanish to order food in some parts of Miami. The city has the highest immigrant population of any metropolis in the US, with 41% of residents born abroad. The majority of them hail from Latin America, and they brought their national dishes and abuelas’ specialties along with them.
Raised in an Argentinian household where cooking from scratch and enjoying long dinners with loved ones was a daily priority, Grace Della felt instantly at home in Miami’s eclectic Latin American dining scene. Her company, Miami Culinary Tours, which launched in 2010 and now offers seven tours throughout the city, is renowned for its good taste and restaurant community connections. Della and her team know everybody, from the city’s Michelin-star chefs to the women who serve cortados at Little Havana’s ventanitas (walk-up coffee windows normally attached to restaurants or bakeries).
Along Calle Ocho, which runs through the heart of Miami’s Cuban enclave, you’ll find around 60 of these Cuban coffee stops. Every Miamian has their favorite ventanita, but Della insists that El Pub serves an unbeatable café cubano – heart-racingly strong with a creamy caramel foam top. For classic Cuban snacks like guava-and-cream-cheese-filled pastelitos (puff pastries) or golden breadcrumb-coated croquetas, El Exquisito’s ventanita is the place to visit. “If you want the authentic experience, arrive at 7am before the other tourists,” says Della. “Copy a local who’s ordering and you can’t go wrong.”
The ultimate street snack of Miami, though, has to be empanadas. These half-moon pastries appear in many Latin cuisines, but there are subtle differences depending on whether they’re made by Cubans (wheat flour, fried), Colombians (cornmeal, fried) or Argentines (wheat flour, baked). Della’s go-to empanada joint is Cafe La Trova in Little Havana, operated by James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein.
“I almost fainted. Her empanadas are as literally as close as it can get to the empanadas my grandmother used to make,” says Della. “And the atmosphere is just like if you were sitting at a place in pre-Castro Cuba, with musicians, art and a coffee station.”
North of Little Havana is Miami’s arty region, comprised of Wynwood, with its outdoor gallery of murals, and the Design District, which is full of large-scale installations and swanky retail stores. Many of the restaurants here are a departure from the no-frills, cozy establishments you find in Little Havana. Multi-chef food hall St Roch Market brings together local talent in a contemporary space that’s typical of the Design District. When Della visits, she normally makes a beeline for Jaffa to order chef Yaniv Cohen’s falafel served with creamy hummus, Israeli salad, pickles and tahini.
Miami isn’t known for its Italian cuisine, but Salumeria 104, a traditional Italian trattoria, and R House, a farm-to-table Italian-American spot in Wynwood, might just change all that. The latter has won a slew of awards, including the Snail of Approval award from the Slow Food Movement Miami.
In terms of fast-casual dining, Coyo Taco, which has two permanent locations in the city, including Wynwood, can’t be beaten. This restaurant is all about fresh ingredients; almost everything is locally sourced and homemade. Try the nopales taco with grilled cactus, quinoa and queso fresco – “a delicious and different vegetarian option,” according to Della.
Outside of Little Havana, Della’s favorite neighborhood for food is currently Brickell. Of all the taco joints in Miami, Taquerias el Mexicano, which is owned by the team behind the Cuban bar and live music spot Ball & Chain, stands out for its classic cuisine (Della’s go-to order is enchiladas smothered in spicy sauce). For a fancier dining experience La Mar at the Mandarin Oriental offers upscale Peruvian dishes with waterfront views of Biscayne Bay. “You will not try a better lomo saltado (stir-fried beef) than the one they make there,” says Della. “It’s unbelievable how they get classic Peruvian dishes to taste so authentic and make them look so arty at the same time.”
While its famously flashy dining scene is still flourishing, champagne sparklers and all, Miami’s food offerings are more varied than the city gets credit for. The convergence of so many cultures and cuisines gives Miami what Della refers to as “a really unique gastronomic landscape.”
“The customs of how people eat the food as well as the food itself really differentiates the city,” says Della. “You can go have an empanada standing up at a ventanita in Little Havana, or you can be sitting down at a beautiful five-star gourmet restaurant. It has both of those worlds, and that makes Miami very special.”
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