Latin Food Primer
By: Mandy Baca
There’s more to Miami’s mouthwatering Latin cuisine than Cuban sandwiches and cortaditos. While those mainstays are must-eats on any visit to Miami, tempt your taste buds with these 11 Latin dishes you must eat before you die.
Frita - El Rey De Las Fritas in Little Havana
The Cuban equivalent of the American classic, the frita is a hamburger with an accent. The patty is a mixture of ground beef and chorizo mixed with seasonings and then topped with shoestring potatoes, diced raw onions and ketchup. A slice of bright yellow melty American cheese can also be added as a topping. One of the oldest frita slingers in town, El Rey De Las Fritas offers the best interpretation of the dish. Their fritas are sized just right, not too big or too small and while it can get messy, it’s not greasy, as one might expect. For those that are ravenous, it’s easy to eat two. The Cuban style 50’s diner adds a fun twist to the experience.
Cuban Sandwich - Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop in Wynwood
It doesn’t end with the frita, Cubans step it up a notch with their own signature grilled sandwich. It consists of Cuban bread, roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. You can’t say that you’ve had a proper Cuban sandwich until you order one at Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop. Touted by many as the best in town, all products are fresh and the sandwich stands tall (even after it’s pressed) with the amount of ingredients stuffed in between the perfectly buttered and toasted Cuban bread.
La ventanita is Spanish for little window and is literally a window that can be found at many Latin American restaurants for on-the-go treats, such as empanadas, pastelitos and cortaditos. Miami is fueled by the cortadito. It literally means Cuban espresso “cut with” steamed milk; the secret being that the coffee is brewed with sugar adding that extra kick needed to steam through a day. La Ventanita at Versailles Restaurant is great for grabbing a shot of Cuban nostalgia and politics, along with food. The cortadito game is a tough one in Miami and it’s hard to find a bad take in town. Plus, the cortadito’s foam is a sight to see.
Empanadas & Pastelitos - Yisell Bakery in Little Havana
At la ventanita, this is a battle older than your abuela: empanadas vs. pastelitos. Both can be salty and sweet, both can be filled with a variety of items like guava, cheese, beef and spinach. The difference lies in the crust and cooking techniques as empanadas use a heavier dough and can be both fried and baked; while the pastelito is lighter and flaky and only baked. Not only a Cuban-only tradition, all Latin American countries eat the treats. As an empanada and pastelito aficionado, there is a precise balance that one looks for when seeking the ultimate empanadas and pastelitos. First, the products should be homemade. Second, there should be more filling than dough or pastry. Most importantly, the dough should be the perfect consistency, not too greasy, doughy or flaky. Yisell Bakery hits all three marks.
Croqueta - Islas Canarias in West Miami
Like empanadas & pastelitos, croquetas are versatile goodies (cylindrical in shape, they are deep-fried, finger-sized nuggets) filled with all sorts of minced salty items. First timers should start with the classic ham filling. Chicken is also a popular alternative. These are the croquetas kids in the suburbs of West Miami grew up on. While some croquetas are skimpy, Islas Canarias makes sure they are plump with the right of amount of creamy filling and covered in a lightly fried, golden brown exterior.
Arepa - Redland’s Farmers Market in Homestead
Arepas are Columbia’s answer to the grilled cheese, using Swiss cheese and corn pancakes in place of traditional bread. Over the years, they have become so popular that all types of ingredients are added to the patties alongside the cheese. The best arepas are usually served from food carts. When it comes to arepas, the simpler the better. At Redland’s Farmers Market, not only are the arepas griddled right in front of you, the owner does not roll out the pancakes in advance and rolls them to order. These are no nonsense arepas—corn pancake, cheese and butter, nothing else.
Colombian Hot Dog - La Moon Restaurant in Brickell
Colombian hot dogs are the half-brother to another American classic, the hot dog. Boiled and not grilled, the dog is topped with coleslaw, pineapple sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and potato chips. It is not for the faint of heart, but truly a favorite amongst the inebriated crowd. La Moon Restaurant popularized the perro game in Miami, making it a household name. The salty and sweet dog is not frugal in its toppings, which are piled high. Setting it apart from its competitors, La Moon’s dogs stand up to the weight of the toppings they hold. It’s guaranteed to be a messy affair.
Plato Mixto - El Madroño in Sweetwater
If there is something that all Latin American countries can agree on it’s the plato mixto, which goes by many other variations and names, but this is the most concise: plato mixto is Spanish for mixed plate and includes as many traditional dishes as can fit onto one plate. In Nicaragua, the plate consists of carne asada with chimichurri sauce, chorizo, fried cheese, corn tortilla, gallo pinto and fried plantains. The plato mixto is a no frills dish, there are no special spices of note and it specifically relies of the quality of the ingredients and precise cooking to bring out its best qualities. Located in a strip mall in the heart of Sweetwater, El Madroño is the go-to restaurant for Latin Americans from all reaches missing the taste of home. Simple ingredients cooked just right.
Jugos - El Palacio De Los Jugos in Flagami
No trip to Miami is complete without a fresh squeezed juice from the expected oranges and grapefruits to the more exotic Latin products that are grown in the city’s own backyards, such as mamey and tamarind. Even more exotic is guarapo or sugarcane juice, which is also put through the juicer and provides a sweet drink with healthful benefits. You will find juicers and juices at many local establishments, but El Palacio De Los Jugos stands out above the rest for making it their specialty offering at least a dozen juices made to order. Aside from the delicious food notes that instantly hit your nose and entice your palate, the outdoor restaurant features a sprawling fruit market, all fresh and local. They are not skimpy on juice sizes or the quality of the products used and it’s reasonably priced.
Chicharrones - El Palacio De Los Jugos in Flagami
Chicharrones are the Spanish name for fresh, fried and seasoned pork rinds. These can’t-resist treats are crispy, crackly, greasy and cholesterol’s worst nightmare. For those that have never eaten fresh chicharrones, these are not your store bag variety. A layer of pork belly is left attached to the skin for a heavenly little square of fried skin and fat. Aside from the juices, chicharrones are one of the most popular items at El Palacio De Los Jugos and fresh batches are continually prepared throughout the day. They have truly perfected the fried skin to fat ratio, without being too chewy, large or greasy.
Ceviche - Dr. Limon in Kendall
Peru is most often associated with ceviche, but again, you can find this traditional dish across all Latin American countries that are bordered by a body of water. The traditional recipe is simple: raw fish is marinated in citric juices, spiced with onion, salt and cilantro. The best ceviches are made with freshly caught fish and eaten beachside. The deliciously simple Remedio Casero at Dr. Limon will transport you there. Detail to ingredients takes center stage at this hole in the wall restaurant that attracts Peruvians from all over the city with a hankering for the fresh and traditional flavors of their mother country.
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