Between visits to the beach and late nights on South Beach, there is no better way to refuel than stopping in to one of Miami’s many Latin American restaurants. No trip to South Florida would be complete without sampling the food and flavors that have come to define its culture. We’ve selected a few must-try dishes that are sure to make your stay in Miami memorable and absolutely delicious.
Coffee (or Cafe) and Beverages
We kick off our Latin food crash course with popular Miami beverages. First up, the classic Cuban pick-me-up – coffee. Be it a café con leche, cafecito, colada or cortadito, coffee is undeniably one of the most widely enjoyed drinks of South Florida. Simply meaning “coffee with milk,” a café con leche is a breakfast staple, typically served at a 50/50 ratio of highly caffeinated Cuban coffee and hot milk. Often, you’ll find it complimented by Cuban bread (or Pan Cubano), which is commonly dunked in the coffee, making a perfect breakfast pairing. Other Cuban kick-starts include the cafecito, colada and cortadito. The cafecito (sometimes called the “Café Cubano”) is the café con leche’s more aggressive cousin. But don’t be fooled by its petite size; this sweetened shot of Cuban espresso packs a punch that will keep your heart pumping throughout the day. A colada is simply several cafecitos in one cup and is meant for sharing between four to six friends. Similar to a latte, the cortadito is another variation on this Miami favorite and consists of Cuban espresso, topped with steamed milk.
Now that you’re awake, you may find yourself craving a rich, refreshing treat. In which case, a batido is the way to go. At first glance, a batido may seem like just a milkshake, but it’s the flavors that set it apart from typical Baskin Robins fare. Mango, mamey and guava are just a few of the tropical “sabores” (or flavors) you’ll find at a South Florida Latin food joint. At first, these flavors may seem jarring, but the creamy finish is a guaranteed palate pleaser. Tropical fruits are also squeezed into thirst-quenching juices; so be sure to try a swig of fresh watermelon or papaya juice. If it’s sodas you fancy, try Jupina (pineapple soda) or Iron Beer.
Latin finger foods are quick bites to be savored during breakfast or lunch or as a snack throughout the day. Look out for empanadas, croquetas, pasteles and arepas: all of which are typically found in heated glass displays near the entrances of Latin food establishments.
Empanadas are a flaky favorite in Latin America (Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador) and many parts of the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and Jamaica). Each country has their own tasty twist on the classic, but the most common empanadas in Miami are filled with beef, chicken or cheese, wrapped in dough and deep-fried. Feeling adventurous? Try Go Go Fresh Food Café on South Beach for empanadas with crazy combinations like the Steak, Blue Cheese and Tomato Go Go Pie or the Spicy Thai Peanut Chicken Go Go Pie.
Moving on to more miniature munchies, the croqueta (or croquette) is a delicate, deep fried nugget that is lightly breaded and filled with ham, beef, chicken, cheese or fish (ham being the most popular in Miami). While it is usually flour based, another common variation is the potato and ham croqueta. A pastele, also called a “pastelito” or Cuban pastry, is usually the sweeter sister of the other finger foods. Pasteles are similar to puff pastries and are typically topped with a thin layer of sweet, sticky glaze. The most common pastele is filled with guava and cheese; sweeter fillings include coconut or pineapple; and for the savory palate – beef or chicken. Pasteles are not to be confused with empanadas. An easy way to distinguish the two is by their shape: the squareness of the pastele versus the half-circle of the empanada.
Finally, and certainly not to be forgotten is the arepa – a scrumptious sandwich, comprised of two sweet corn patties and a gooey helping of cheese in the middle. Arepas can be filled with vegetables or meat and vary in style, depending on country of origin. The most common arepas you’ll encounter in Miami are Venezuelan and Colombian.
Sandwiches & Hearty Entrees
Latin American main courses range from crisp sandwiches to steak, depending on the time of day. One of the more popular sandwiches to march onto mainstream American menus is the Cuban sandwich. A traditional Cuban consists of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and yellow mustard, tightly pressed between two slices of Cuban bread. Cuban bread is often lightly buttered or brushed with olive oil and is similar in taste and shape to a French baguette. But if a sandwich isn’t satisfying enough, you’ll want to look towards arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, vaca frita, or picadillo.
Arroz con pollo is a succulent serving of moist chicken in a bed of yellow rice, showered in seasonings and sprinkled with pieces of olive and mild peppers. This delightful dish makes for a filling lunch or dinner that taps into all your taste buds. Beef lovers take note: ropa vieja is a serious serving of shredded flank steak, dripping in a juicy tomato-based sauce. Ropa Vieja is literally Spanish for “old clothes”, but the taste of this delicious dish is a far cry from those sweaty gym shorts at the bottom of your hamper. Vaca frita means “fried cow” and is similar to ropa vieja but differs in its crispy texture. Vaca frita is marinated in lime, garlic and salt and then seared until crisp. Picadillo is another marvelous and meaty meal, traditionally comprised of ground beef, peppers, onions, garlic, tomato sauce, olives and served over a bed of white rice. Commonly paired with these main courses are three sides that are not to be missed – rice, beans and sweet plantains (called platanos).
Most Latin American desserts are rich, sweet, creamy and the perfect finish to a Miami dinner. Flan, tres leches and rum cake are among the favorites you’ll find at any Cuban bakery or restaurant. Flan jiggles and wiggles and may remind you of eating Jello as a kid, but its creamy consistency tastes nothing like its transparent, fruit-flavored relative. This Cuban custard is prepared with lots of milk and several eggs, lending to its rich, melt-in-your-mouth quality. Flan may even be enhanced with flavors such as coconut. Tres leches is a sponge cake or butter cake topped with icing and soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream. Rum cake is a Latin American and Caribbean classic. Safe for designated drivers, rum cake’s alcohol cooks off, leaving behind a hint of warmth and spice. But if you’re not the designated driver, be sure to throw back a couple of mojitos: the classic Cuban rum concoction with muddled mint and sugar.
Keep in mind these are only a few of the most traditional Latin American dishes, but the aforementioned are so popular they can be found at nearly every walk-up counter, bakery or restaurant. More often than not, the best Latin American food is simmering slowly in the back of a mom-and-pop shop or inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall.
Indulge in a heaping plate of some traditional Latin American food; it's the most sensational way to immerse yourself in Miami’s rich tropical culture.
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