La Latina sits wedged into a small Midtown Miami strip mall quickly becoming overshadowed by towering new construction nearby. The Venezuelan arepas I ordered there resembled gaping mouths, their corn cake jaws stretched as wide as chattering teeth gag toys awaiting windup. Each maw was stuffed: one with sultry pulled pork paired with cubes of guayanés, a white cheese whose texture resides somewhere between feta and ricotta salata; another filled with ropy beef shards and an oozier cheese; and a third crammed with shredded chicken salad bound in garlicky mayo and tinted lime green from avocado.
With the food, a cook delivered a squirt bottle full of guasacaca, a thin avocado salsa pinged with vinegar that snapped the flavors at hand to attention. Two women in their early twenties sat at the table next to me, conversing nonchalantly in two languages. They saw me dousing my meal liberally with guasacaca and nodded their approval. We all agreed that the pork arepa was the day's winner.
There's nothing outwardly remarkable about La Latina, but it's the kind of Miami dining I had been craving — a simple neighborhood haven serving sustaining, contenting dishes that reflect the community.
Above: Jimmy'z Kitchen's Bolitas de queso and shredded green plantain fritters; Below: Stewed chicken, grilled conch, spaghetti with herring, and cornmeal porridge with bean sauce at Tap Tap, and Mofongo with mahi at Jimmy'z Kitchen.
These types of places aren't always so evident in Miami. Dependable Cuban sandwich cafes thrive, and there are the homegrown successes like Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District and Miami Beach's Pubbelly that have spawned flourishing restaurant groups. But the city also rivals Las Vegas in its appetite for glittery concepts imported by national and international celebrity chefs. The lure of their bespangled dining rooms, housed mostly in hotels and resorts along the water, proves powerful. Over the years, though, I've found too many of them inconsistent, particularly beyond the first months in business when the parent company turns its attention to the next project. Even spinoffs from local talent can be uneven: A recent lunch at Seagrape — a new restaurant in the freshly renovated Thompson Hotel helmed by Michelle Bernstein, a chef whose food I usually admire — proved a letdown with fishy grilled snapper and lackluster salads.
So for a deeper look into the city's dining culture, I decided to home in on Miami's Latin flavors and see where they led. Cuban exiles began enriching the city's culture as far back as 1959. In the half-century since, South Florida has become a magnet for immigrants from countries all across the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. According to the latest U.S. Census, 70 percent of Miami's population is Latino, and restaurants at every tier reflect the sundry influences.
70 percent of Miami's population is Latino, and restaurants at every tier reflect the sundry influences.
I began by checking in on Tap Tap, a Haitian stalwart near the tail end of South Beach that opened in 1994 and has since served as an antidote to the area's ever-increasing glut of glitz. Color detonates from every corner of the restaurant; murals by Haitian artists cover the walls and the tables. Tourists as well as local Haitian expats fill the labyrinth of dining rooms, sipping rum cocktails laced with passion fruit or lime and sharing dishes like fried chunks of goat with a vinegary dipping sauce; grilled conch, chewy but satisfying; and shrimp in coconut sauce. I hadn't been to Tap Tap in a decade. This time I was particularly taken with a plate of spaghetti tossed with tomato, onion, and potent, anchovy-like bits of herring. Our server told us the dish is a breakfast staple in Haiti.
The original location of Jimmy'z Kitchen, where chef Jimmy Carey cooks variations of the Puerto Rican dishes he was raised on, resides in a coral-colored strip mall about ten blocks north of Tap Tap. I lunched at the restaurant's second outpost — sunny and streamlined — in the burgeoning, art gallery-lined Wynwood neighborhood not far from La Latina.
Preparations showed cheffy finesse: Bolitas de queso, a typical snack of fried cheese spheres, combined mild queso paisa with Monterey Jack and cheddar for smart ratios of gush and tang. Drizzles of guava sauce provided tropical-sweet complexity. Arañitas de platano (shredded green plantain fritters) were fun but probably redundant when ordering mofongo, the traditional dish of fried and mashed plantains in which Carey takes pride. I asked the two staffers which protein I should order with my mofongo. "Mahi," they said in unison. It was an unexpected answer but sound advice, the fish pleasantly oceanic against the earthy mound of plantains and the moat of tomato-based Creole sauce.
Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co.'s Media noche croquetas and Cubano
Of course my quest needed at least a quick dive into Cuban food. When I inquired after the city's model Cuban sandwich, several locals pointed me to Enriqueta's, a breakfast and lunch staple in Wynwood long before the community began its ascent into gentrification. It was the Cubano of the mind's eye and palate, the shiny, oblong bread griddled to crispness and the pressed stack of thinly sliced meats exclamatory with mustard and pickles. It held up well against a powerhouse new Little Havana contender, Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co., launched in November by Alberto Cabrera. He also operates Bread + Butter in Coral Gables, where he serves pork-filled empanadas, grits with oxtail meat, and other dishes inspired by his Cuban-American heritage.
Before opening Little Bread, Cabrera visited Cochon Butcher in New Orleans as creative stimulus for re-engineering his version of the Cubano. His cooks stack black forest ham, salami, pork belly rillettes, and Swiss cheese; heat them on a baking sheet in a massive red smoker for a few minutes; and then transfer them to a squishy toasted roll slathered with mustard aioli and pickled mustard seeds. The bread didn't have the archetypal crunch, but in every other way it was a superior sandwich. A fun appetizer of croquetas suffused with the flavors of a media noche, the Cubano variation made with sweet bread, reinforced how masterfully Cabrera owns this iconic mix of flavors and textures.
Arroz con mariscos at La Mar
Peruvian is arguably Miami's most in-demand Latin American cuisine after Cuban. As in cities like New York and San Francisco, the multicultural food of Peru (which includes Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and African influences) has been cast locally in a fine-dining limelight. And I found that in Miami Peruvian cooking works in the genre. The citrusy, chile-sparked flavors refresh in South Florida's subtropical swelter, and the vivid colors of the ingredients make the dishes easy to glamorize.
Gastón Acurio — the Nobu Matsuhisa of Lima, with nearly four-dozen restaurants around the world — opened La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key nearly a year ago. Rich in woods and touches of turquoise, the place clicked as a group destination: We passed platters of causas (potatoes whipped with aji chile and topped with whimsies such as beet, crab, avocado, and fried kale) and marveled over a version of fideos fashioned using squid ink pappardelle. And a second outpost of downtown Miami restaurant Ceviche 105 on Lincoln Road successfully remade itself in a South Beach image, all sleek lines and sexy shadows and outbursts of tropical hues. The surprise? How homespun the food tasted. Each ceviche showed distinct personality; most memorable was a pale version of seafood draped in pisco cream sauce with a nutty, sherry-like flavor.
El Cielo recalls the sillier facets of U.S. molecular gastronomy madness from a decade ago
People of Colombian heritage outnumber those of Peruvian ancestry in Miami-Dade County, though the meaty, hearty cooking of Colombia isn't nearly as prominent in the city. For nearly two years, though, Miamians have been anticipating the arrival of El Cielo, a modernist high-flyer from 31-year-old Colombian chef Juan Manuel Barrientos. His outpost in Brickell is his third restaurant and his first beyond his native country.
El Cielo was the last meal of my trip. The restaurant was still in soft-opening phase, only two weeks open. For Miami it seemed such a leap forward for Colombian cuisine that I couldn’t resist. Barrientos made his name on fanciful presentations like yuca and cheese bread suspended on a "tree of life" made of copper wire. I’m guessing, though, that he might quickly drop some aspects to his 15-course tasting menu that recall the sillier facets of U.S. molecular gastronomy madness from a decade ago. For example, after a starting round of empanadas and ropa vieja splattered with peanut sauce, my friend and I soon had metal bowls in front of us. A staffer then carried over a carafe of rose-scented, Pepto-bismol pink goo and poured it over our hands. We were supposed to rub the stuff vigorously between our palms and roll it into balls: It turned tacky for a minute before dripping off our fingers. Our server awkwardly rhapsodized about how substances can turn from liquid to solid to liquid again. We watched every other table endure this experiential moment with the same strained smiles.
I sat there thinking about how I could really go for several more of La Latina's overflowing arepas.
Cost: Salads $7-$16.75, sandwiches $8.25-$11.90, mofongo $13.75-$22.50, other entrees $10.75-$22.
Sample dishes: Mofongo (paired with proteins like shrimp, fish, pork, or chicken), bolitas de queso (fried cheese balls), aranitas (shredded green plantain fritters), grilled churrasco (skirt steak) with chimichurri.
What to drink: Sodas, smalls selection of beer and wine
Bonus tip: The menu veers into American standards like paninis and Asian grilled chicken salad, but the Puerto Rican specialties like the dishes listed above are the real stars of the kitchen.
Cost: Starters $2.50-$8, sandwiches $8-$12
Sample dishes: Classic Cubano, Pan Con Lechon (smoked port butt, onion escabeche, garlic chips, and garlic aioli), Shrimp Enchilado (with plantain relish, avocado aioli, and watercress), media noche croquettas
What to drink: A revolving selection of beers on tap
Cost: Ceviches and other starters $9-$18, shared starter platters $24-$29, entrees $19-$45, desserts $11
Sample dishes: Ceviches in a rainbow of fish and styles, Peruvian nigiri, lomo saltado (beef sauteed with French fries), arroz con mariscos, fideos machos (seafood with wide noodles dyed with squid ink), alfajores (a selection of filled cookies)
Sample dishes: Papas a la Huancaína (potatoes in cream sauce), cream of pisco ceviche, sliced fish tiradito in rocoto chile cream, aji de gallina (chicken and potatoes blanketed in a chile cream sauce with parmesan), passion fruit mousse.
What to drink: Pisco sour or a crisp white like a Sancerre
Cost: Appetizers and salads $6-$10, entrees $8-$22.
Sample dishes: Malanga fritters with watercress dipping sauce, shrimp in coconut sauce, spaghetti Creole (with preserved herring or shrimp), stewed oxtails.
What to drink: Rum-fueled cocktails
Bonus tip: Haitian musician Manno Charlemagne and his band play jazz on Thursdays and Sundays.
Sample dishes: Sandwich Cubano, pan con lechon (pork sandwich), bistec con papitas (steak with fries)
What to drink: Coffee
Cost: 15-course tasting menu for $125 (restaurant is newly opened; additional menu options forthcoming).
Sample dishes: Yuca-cheese bread suspended on a "tree of life" made of copper wire; tuna with quinoa, mango vinaigrette, and pineapple aioli, chicken with squid ink sauce, beef nigiri with rice cooked in coconut milk
What to drink: Liquor license pending; complimentary glasses of wine with dinner
Cost: Arepas $5.50-$6.50, other dishes $3.25-$8.95
Sample dishes: Rumbera arepa (pulled pork and cheese), reina pepiada (arepa stuffed with avocado-laced chicken salad), pabellon empanada (corn flour empanada stuffed with beef, black beans, plantains, and cheese), cachapa (sweet corn pancake with cheese)
What to drink: Tamarindo juice, cafe con leche, beer