By: Shayne Benowitz
Get a taste of Latin America in Miami.
Miami’s food culture is strongly associated with Cuba, but in reality Miami is a true melting pot of Latin American cuisine ranging from the Caribbean to Central America to South America. Each of these regions and the countries within them bring their own special recipes to the table and their food is found in restaurants throughout the city. With such diversity, oftentimes these flavors intermingle to create a fusion of Latin American food that can only be found in Miami.
Cuban Cuisine & Little Havana
The heart of Miami’s Cuban community is found in Little Havana where classic restaurants like Versailles are found amidst fruterias (fruit stands), bakeries and ventanitas (little windows) for café con leches and pastelitos (pastries) on the go. Cuban cuisine is largely influenced by its Spanish forebears, as well as the native Taíno people and Afro-Cuban culture, which bring a hit of spicy, savory criollo flavor to its dishes.
Traditional Cuban cuisine falls into a few different categories. First, there’s Cuban coffee. Made of strong espresso, lots of sugar and steamed milk, Cuban coffee provides an addictively sweet jolt of energy. You can order yours in a variety of sizes and styles: café con leche is similar to a latte, a cortadito is a smaller, stronger version and coladas are extremely potent and meant to be shared. You’ll find windows serving Cuban coffee throughout Miami where you can pair it with a sweet or savory pastelito. These range from croquetas to empanadas to guava and cheese pastries.
The Cuban sandwich is also a staple of Cuban cuisine. It’s made with honey-glazed ham, marinated pork, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and pickles pressed on a crusty Cuban roll. More formal Cuban entrees are traditionally served with black beans, rice and sweet plantains to accompany the main dish, which can range from ropa vieja (stewed beef) to garlic shrimp to grilled chicken criollo.
South American Influences
South American cuisine is perhaps the next most influential in Miami with signature dishes from countries including Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Peruvian food, in particular, is having a moment in Miami’s culinary scene with a range of restaurants including the down-to-earth My Ceviche, Cvi.che 105 and Chalan on the Beach to fine dining establishments like Coya and La Mar by Gaston Acurio.
Peru’s fresh and citrusy ceviche, with its raw fish marinated in lime juice with red onions, peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, is especially popular in Miami. Peruvian food also has Chinese influences, which can be tasted in entrees like lomo saltado, a beef stir fry with onions and peppers. Potatoes and quinoa are major crops of Peru and these are reflected in the cuisine with mashed potato causas with a variety of seafood and vegetable toppings. Fresh fish doesn’t end with ceviche and Peruvian food also includes tiraditos, which are similar to sashimi.
A highlight of Argentinian cuisine is the parilla tradition of grilled meats over an open flame often referred to as asado. Think of this as your backyard barbeque, but with the flavors and the temperature cranked way up. Highlights of the parilla include everything from flank steak to chicken to lamb and often include offal, like sweetbreads and tongue to start with.
While empanadas are a staple of many Latin American countries, Argentinean empanadas are especially favored for their baked, flaky pastry dough and high-quality beef. There’s also a strong Italian influence in Argentinean fare, so don’t be surprised to find pizza and pasta on the menu at traditional Argentinean restaurants in Miami. Popular spots include Fiorito’s, Las Vacas Gordas and Buenos Aires Bakery & Café.
Brazilian cuisine is for the true carnivore. Brazilian steakhouses are known as churrascarias and they’re home to an all-you-can-eat meat bacchanal. Servers walk through the dining room with skewers of assorted meat that they shave onto diners’ plates. Steaks are slathered in aromatic chimichurri sauce, which is made of finely chopped parsley, garlic and oregano (also served at the Argentinean parilla). These churrascarias boast an elaborate salad bar with every imaginable fresh veggie, salad and side dish under the sun. Popular spots in Miami include Texas de Brazil and Fogo de Chao.
Central American Influences
Miami is increasingly home to a variety of Central American restaurants, ranging from Mexico to Nicaragua to Costa Rica. While traditional Mexican restaurants can be found in Little Havana, Homestead and South Beach, Miami’s also seen a rise in trendy taquerias in recent years with a slew of new restaurants offering their version of the street food or cantina-style taco. Try Coyo Taco, Taquiza and Bodega to sample Miami’s new batch of tacos.
With Nicaraguan cuisine, you’ll find similarities to South American food in dishes like churrasco (grilled skirt steak), gallo pinto (red beans and rice mixed with spices and garlic) and queso frito (thick squares of fried white cheese). Sweetwater is often called Little Managua and you can find Nicaraguan restaurants there, like El Madroño, Raspados Loly’s and Los Ranchos.
Latin American Fusion Today
Today, it’s hard to step into any local Miami restaurant without some aspect of the menu influenced by Latin America. Whether it’s a South American twist on sushi at restaurants like Sushi Samba and Juvia or a melting pot of a menu at hotspots like 27 Restaurant where dishes are inspired by Cuba, Haiti, Israel and South America, there’s no doubt there’s a world of flavors that can only be found in Miami.
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