A Food Lover's Guide To Miami

Journeys

June 14, 2018 | BY Annie Hou

First, it was a Lamborghini the colour of freshly farmed corn. Behind it trailed a tomato-red Porsche, followed by an avocado-tinged Jaguar. Killer heels and short skirts, shiny oxfords and fat wallets suddenly emerged from the fancy cars, only to walk right past a booming nightclub and right into Pao by Paul Qui (3201 Collins Ave, Miami Beach)—the James Beard award-winning chef and former Top Chef champion’s restaurant that offers a high-end mix of Filipino, Japanese and Texas barbecue cuisine.

It wasn’t the typical Miami scene this writer was expecting at all. Thanks to movies, TV shows and Will Smith, Miami was known to be the city where one would bounce in the club where the heat is on, all night on the beach ’til the break of dawn.

A place where partying came first and food was simply sustenance to get you to the next shindig. Until recently, Miami was never on the must-visit list of most culinary travellers.

But all that’s changed. Over the last several years, Florida’s southeastern corner has quietly carved the same reputation for its critically acclaimed chefs and booming restaurants as it already had for its sandy beaches and swanky clubs. With a combination of homegrown talent like Ghee Indian Kitchen’s Niven Patel and award-winning names such as Michael Mina and José Andrés, along with a surge of international brands including Zuma, La Mar, Scarpetta and Hakkasan, Miami underwent a food renaissance to emerge as one of the most vigorous and exciting food cities in the States. Be it posh grub, hipster eateries or traditional street food, the city confidently offers up a smorgasbord of choices.

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Wandering Around Wynwood

The first stop of any culinary journey through a refreshed Miami with an old-meets-new flavour profile has to be Wynwood. The trendy arts district north of downtown boasts murals and graffiti, art galleries, converted warehouses turned into craft breweries, stylish bistros and stores that all reflect the spirit of an arts hub that’s in an unwavering, delicious movement.

If you’re on a tight schedule, maximise your time by signing up for one of the Miami Culinary Tours. Nicknamed the “Miamian tour”, the Wynwood walking route departs from Wynwood Walls, an outdoor museum that has been showcasing large-scale works by some of the world’s best-known street artists since 2009. After the interactive art history lesson by your knowledgeable guide, a stop at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar (2550 NW 2nd Ave) is in order.

Chowing down on the most delicious ropa vieja (beef, peppers and onions) and chicken with chipotle empanadas, the cheese tequeños, and the sweet maduros (plantains) with queso fresco, I learned that the talented chefs of Miami are most excited about creating their own versions of the typical Latin dishes, different in taste from the countries where each dish originated.

The next stop on the list is Jimmy’z Kitchen (2700 N Miami Ave) by Puerto Rican-raised, Irish-American owner-chef Jimmy Carey. Jimmy’z might be a chain of Latin-American contemporary fusion restaurants, but its bolitas de queso—creamy cheese balls with a crispy coating, drizzled with guava sauce—is something else. They were airy, as opposed to the typically dense deep-fried mozzarella, and when laced with the sweet guava sauce, made all the more delectable. There’s also the mofongo—starring the traditional Puerto Rican plantain—that is the restaurant’s speciality. I particularly liked the puerco con mojo version, which arrived as a dome of fried plantains with juicy, garlic-laden morsels of braised pulled pork with onions and mojo marinade seeping out.

And then there’s Alter (223 NW 23rd St), the buzzy restaurant that epitomises Wynwood to a tee—splashy, slick and incredibly cool. You’d best book ahead if you want to try the experimental cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients by chef Bradley Kilgore, named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2016. On the menu are ritzy, unique Florida-inspired flavour combos, served up in an industrial-chic warehouse that is a testament to the hipster neighbourhood it inhabits. It’s refinement meets rock ‘n’ roll, with rousing dishes like shaved cobia with mustard oil and olive “snow”, or luscious Florida prawns and white corn grits topped with huitlacoche cream, chorizo oil and a lime-green mole sauce.

Another pair of Wynwood must-visit eats are The Deli (405 NW 26th Street) and The Bakery (295 NW 26th Street)—both the brainchild of Miami native Zak Stern, who many say has the best bread in the city. Zak the Baker, as he’s popularly known, honours his Eastern European Ashkenazi roots by preserving his ancestors’ cuisine—his kosher deli serves up the likes of homemade brined corn beef slathered on Jewish corn rye bread.

No epicurean trip to Wynwood would be complete without a slice of pie from Fireman Derek’s (2818 N. Miami Ave). It’s a tiny spot that can only fit about eight to ten people at a time, but nobody minds the squeeze because their pie-laden shelves are a gift from baked-goods heaven. The real-life Miami firefighter began by selling key lime pies out of a food truck—this dish remains the star of the show today. Creamy and tart, this pie (which boasts no sugar in the crust) is one of full-bodied sweetness that isn’t cloying, with just the right amount of citrus punch from the limes.

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A Food Lover's Guide To Miami
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A Taste of Cuba in Little Havana

Any jaunt to Little Havana, one of Miami’s oldest neighbourhoods, must begin at Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina (1442 SW 8th Street). The restaurant is on Calle Ocho, next to the iconic Domino Park, where septuagenarians throw down dominoes daily. A visit to Old’s is the real deal—a bona fide family-run restaurant that’s a tribute to the Cuba of yesteryear, right down to the black- and-white photos adorning the walls and the blaring soundtrack of Cuban classics—but it’s also a delectable mix of the rustic with the contemporary. You’ll find yourself double-fisting crispy chicken and ham croquettes and mouth-watering Cubano sandwiches, and washing them all down with mojitos after sampling some ceviche with arroz and frijoles (rice and beans).

Like the taste of tradition? Cross the street to Azucar Ice Cream Company (1503 SW 8th Street), where the facade of a giant ice cream cone will draw cheers from young and old alike. The scent of freshly made waffle cones when the door swings open teases, but it’s really the variety of artisanal gourmet ice creams and sorbets in Cuban and other Latin flavours that will inspire. Ask for the Abuela Maria ice cream—because who doesn’t like the combination of vanilla, guava and grandma’s special cookies?

There’s also the 40-year-old Versailles (3501 SW 8th Street), which is self-styled as the “world’s most famous Cuban restaurant”. It’s worth a visit, if not for its slightly tacky decor of chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors and 1970s cafeteria-style tables and chairs. Must-tries are its Cubanos and paellas—and its picadillo, a soupy, zesty, minced beef dish, is especially tasty.

Now, if you're already mentally planning how much food you can realistically take on, note that there’s no way you can leave Little Havana without trying La Camaronera (1952 W Flagler Street), the iconic fried-fish joint known for its pan con minuta (fried snapper sandwich) on a soft white Cuban roll. Also, you won't want to miss the frita Cubana at El Rey de Las Fritas (1821 SW 8th Street)—the best place to get the Cuban interpretation of the American hamburger, which consists of a patty of beef and chorizo in a bun, stuffed to the brim with shoestring fries.

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Stalwarts, Gastropubs and Beyond

It’s been a Miami favourite forever—and for good reason. South Beach institution Joe’s Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave) knows exactly how to cook the perfect stone crab claw. And who would have guessed that hash browns are a match made in heaven with crustaceans? It’s everything they say it is: affordable, delicious food with professional service.

What really elevates Miami as an eclectic epicurean city is the juxtaposition of a trendy new culinary kid on the block against an unfailing stalwart like Joe’s. Take James Beard award-winning chef José Mendin’s Pubbelly Noodle Bar (1418 20th Street), the Asian-Latino gastropub that opened on Miami Beach in 2010. The success of the original—which boasts dishes such as octopus sous vide in duck fat, buffalo sweetbreads and veal brains meunière—has since spawned an empire that now includes sushi restaurants, a food truck, a steakhouse, a bistro and a taqueria.

Or consider John Kunkel, the native of the US state of Georgia who ignited Miami’s southern food craze with Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (1600 Lenox Ave). The southern belle of the beach brought comfort food to Florida in the form of a beautifully brined chicken covered in spiced flour, fried to perfection and served up with green tomatoes and cheddar waffles.

Also proving it can hold its own is 27 Restaurant (2727 Indian Creek Dr), which serves inspired Miami-style cuisine with a Middle Eastern twist in a restored 1930s art deco house. The family-style menu is peppered with Jewish, Caribbean and Cuban influences. Look for plates such as lamb ribs with pomegranate molasses and pickled cauliflower, braised octopus with papas, Huancaína sauce and aji verde (green salsa), or Florida middleneck clams in sambal miso, lemongrass and kaffir lime.
With such a plethora of restaurant choices, the neon-lit, vodka-laden club venues are no longer Miami’s only draw—the city has well and truly turned into an eater’s paradise. “Welcome to Miami, bienvenidos a Miami” indeed!