Photo by Hanna Friberg
Little Havana Fruit Stand
Little Havana Fruit Stand (photo by Hanna Friberg)
By Ed Avis
Grace Della loves it when one of her Miami Culinary Tours clients says that all Latin food is hot and spicy.
“That’s our best client, because there is so much to discover,” says Della, whose company (https://www.miamiculinarytours.com/) has been leading tours through Miami’s many distinctive foodie neighborhoods since 2010. “Cuban food is so different from Mexican, for example, and Venezuelan food has its own distinctive set of ingredients. We take our clients on an edible journey through Miami.”
Indeed, over the past decade Miami has become a truly international amalgamation of cuisines, primarily Latin.
“The Miami food scene is changing very fast,” says Carlos Metheus, co-founder of La Latina Restaurant, which specializes in Venezuelan arepas. “People from all over the world are moving to Miami and bringing their food and traditions.”
This has created a vibrant restaurant scene, with some restaurants serving traditional dishes from their respective homelands and others mixing and matching flavors to create entirely new tastes.
Just like Mexican food dominates the Latin scene in many other cities, Cuban food dominates the Latin cuisine in Miami. As of 2012, there were 1.2 million Cubans living the greater Miami area, so their deep influence on the culinary scene is understandable.
“The relationship between Cuba and Florida goes back to the Prohibition era in the U.S., when Cuba became a paradise for people who wanted to enjoy drinking,” says Mandy Baca, a Miami food historian and author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine. “Then Cubans started coming into the U.S. in the late 1950s because of political turmoil. Those first groups were less interested in having their food here; they were more interested in assimilating. But in the 60s that changed, and all types of Cubans came in, including a lot who had had their businesses stolen from them. They wanted to come here and continue their traditions. That’s when the supermercados and bodegas and restaurants started popping up.”
Perhaps the city’s most famous Cuban restaurant, Versailles, was opened by one of those immigrants, Felipe Valls, in 1971. Versailles serves traditional Cuban cuisine, such as the Cuban Sandwich, made with sliced ham, pork, swiss cheese, mustard and pickles on toasted Cuban bread; and ropa vieja, which is shredded beef with garlic, onions, bell peppers, wine and tomato sauce. The restaurant is located in the heart of Miami’s Cuban community, Little Havana.
The role Versailles plays in Miami’s Cuban community extends beyond the cuisine, however.
“I think a lot of people in Miami’s Cuban community consider Versailles their second home,” says Nicole Valls, granddaughter of the founder and vice president of operations. “It’s where they come to celebrate and mourn. It’s a place where they can get a taste of their food and traditions and language in a family atmosphere.”
The Valls family – including Felipe, who still works every day – also owns a chain of Cuban restaurants called La Carreta. The nine La Carreta locations serve the same style Cuban food, though from a shorter menu.
Politics are often the focus of conversations in Miami’s Cuban restaurants, especially around the ventanita, the little window on the outside of the restaurant from which patrons can order a colada, which is a styrofoam cup full of the sweet, strong espresso. The colada comes with several smaller cups, with the idea that the buyer will share the coffee with other diners in order to launch a political discussion.
“That’s something in Miami that is very unique – the Cuban coffee time,” Della explains. “So be careful – if you don’t have five hours to talk about Castro, you better run. Because if you accept the coffee, you’re all in!”
Another tradition among Cuban restaurants is cafeteria-style dining, Baca explains. “That was very popular in Cuba – it’s quick, anyone can go in there and grab some really good home cooking on the cheap. You can spend hours or eat in five minutes.”
Baca says two Little Havana mainstays – El Pub and El Exquisite – have the cafeteria vibe and have remained loyal to traditional recipes. Among the dishes at El Exquisite, for example, are Lechon Asado (roasted pork), Zarzuela de Marisocos (seafood stew), and Croquetas en Entremes (ham croquettes).
The Cuban community in Miami is large enough to support a wide range of Cuban restaurants, including some with differing interpretations of the cuisine.
For example, Ball & Chain features traditional Cuban flavors with a modern twist. The restaurant is located in a classic Little Havana building that housed the original Ball & Chain, a famous nightclub from the 1930s to the 1950s.
“We didn’t want to just introduce the same Cuban cuisine everyone is familiar with, because a lot of restaurants here have that on their menu,” says co-founder Bill Fuller, who opened the restaurant in 2014. “We wanted to reinterpret some of the dishes and make them more fun.”
Ball & Chain’s menu includes the Cuban Spring Roll, which takes the traditional Cuban sandwich ingredients of pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard and wraps it in a spring roll wrapper. Another innovation is the Elana Ruz sandwich, named after a famous Cuban socialite known for frequenting late-night diners. The Elena Ruz is roasted turkey, cream cheese and strawberry preserves served on the traditional pan suave. Popular cocktails include the Canita, made with Bacardi, lime juice, honey syrup, guarapo (sugarcane juice) and a sugarcane stick; and the Havana Regal, made with Chivas, lemon and lime juice, angostura bitters, simple syrup, and fresh mint.
Much More than Cuban
Today many other Latin cultures are well represented among Miami restaurants. For example, South American restaurants such as Venezuelan, Peruvian, Argentinian and Colombian dot the metro area.
La Latina, for example, serves authentic Venezuelan arepas. The most popular, according to co-found Metheus, is the Reina Pepiada, made with chicken salad and avocado. Metheus says the Reina arepa was created when Miss Venezuela returned from the Miss Universe pageant at some point in the 1950s and was asked what she would like to eat – she ordered up an arepa with chicken salad and avocado, and that combination has been called reina (queen) ever since.
“In Venezuela restaurants like ours are called areperias,” Metheus says. “They are open late and serve Venezuelan comfort food. We tried to recreate that here.”
Another popular arepa at La Latina is one that Metheus and his partner, Julie Recao, developed themselves: the La Latina, with gouda cheese, avocado, and bacon.
Argentinian food is well represented in Miami, too, with restaurants such as Fiorito. “Fiorito really captures the flavors of what my grandmother used to make, empanadas and steak,” Della says. “It’s a hole in the wall, nothing fancy, but it’s magnificent Argentinian food.”
Main dishes at Fiorito, which is located in Little Havana, include Braised Short Ribs a la Riojana (ribs with mashed potatoes, bell peppers, green peas, and a fried egg) and Canelones con Salsa Mixta (ricotta and spinach crepes with tomato basil cream sauce).
Central Americans also brought their flavors to Miami. El Novillo, for example, serves classic Nicaraguan cuisine such as churrasco – butterflied, tenderloin steak topped with chimichurri sauce or tomato and onion red sauce.
Miami also includes other Caribbean restaurants besides Cuban. Haitian immigrants, for example, have opened numerous small restaurants in the Little Haiti neighborhood. Leela’s Restaurant serves Lambi (conch), Poulet (stewed chicken), Tasso (fried goat) and a long list of other Haitian dishes to mainly Haitian customers.
“The restaurants in Little Haiti make lovely food that’s not well known or well explored,” Della says.
Considering the number of different Latin influences in Miami, it’s no surprise that a “Nuevo Latino” cuisine emerged there. The chef considered the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, Douglas Rodriguez, opened his first restaurant, Yuca, in 1989 in Miami.
“Yuca was an acronym for young upscale Cuban American, though only two Cubans worked there,” says Rodriguez, the son of Cuban immigrants. “All the rest were from other Latin American countries. So whenever I made a dish, they would say, ‘In my country we have a similar dish but with this preparation.’ So I learned about other Latin cuisines and culture.”
Rodriguez took that expanded understanding of Latin cuisine to New York City and founded Patria in 1994.
“When I opened Patria, I decided to broaden the menu to include all Latin cultures,” says Rodriguez, whose many honors include the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1996. “I used whatever inspired me from any Latin culture and made it my own.”
He returned to Miami a decade later as executive chef of OLA, and then opened De Rodriguez Cuba in 2010. Among the many Nuevo Latino dishes he served at that restaurant, which closed five years later, were Marlin Tacos (rum-marinated smoked fish in a shell of Malanga, a tropical root vegetable), Shrimp Chicharron (crispy shrimp with aji Amarillo glaze), and the Cuban Sandwich Stick (the classic ingredients – ham, pork, pickles and Swiss cheese – in a crepe-like wrap on a stick).
Rodriguez says his next concept, called Mojito Bar, is scheduled to open early in 2017 at Sawgrass Mills Mall, about 35 miles from Miami. In the meantime he’s leading culinary tours to Cuba.
Rodriguez may be the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, but other chefs have joined the gang. Two restaurants that are frequently mentioned as places to try innovative Nuevo Latino cuisine are Finca Table & Tap, which blends Korean, Peruvian and Cuban cuisine; and Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, where Chef Miguel Aguilar combines cultures to create dishes such as Ropa Vieja Empanadas and WKB Hamburguesita, a chorizo-chicken burger topped with pickled jalapeno, arugula, and cascabel glaze.
International Melting Pot
The Latin restaurant scene in Miami is pulsing with new flavors and combinations, while keeping a strong base of traditional spots. That combination of new and old creates an intoxicating environment.
“In the last six years, Miami has become an international dining scene,” Rodriguez says. “It’s becoming a melting pot and attracting people from around the world.”