A Melting Pot: Miami's Mouthwatering Latin Cuisine

By: Mandy Baca

Miami’s dining scene has sizzled with the flavors of Latin America and the Caribbean since the 1960s with the city’s first wave of Cuban immigration. Shortly thereafter, other cultures followed suit (Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Argentines, Mexicans, Peruvians and more) creating a mouthwatering melting pot of Latin cuisine.

Today, all 19 Latin American countries are represented and their restaurants are peppered throughout Greater Miami and the Beaches for your taste-testing pleasures. Whether it’s an authentic Cuban ventanita (“little window” in Spanish serving treats on the go) with strong ties to its native homeland, or a modern fusion restaurant blending Peruvian dishes with Asian flavors and French technique, Miami is bursting with opportunities to sample these pan-Latin, palate-pleasing dishes all in one city.

Cuban Cuisine and Little Havana

For Cuban fare, establishments such as La Carreta, El Exquisito and Versailles serve as classics in Little Havana. At these restaurants, you’ll be served a basket of hot buttered Cuban bread to nibble on as you peruse the menu. Order empanadas (a fried or baked pastry shell turnover with salty or sweet filling), croquetas (cylindrical deep-fried nuggets often filled with minced ham or chicken) and other fried delights as appetizers. Select from classic entrees, like ropa vieja (shredded beef cooked with garlic, onions and bell peppers in a tomato sauce) shrimp al ajillo (with garlic) or mojo-marinated chicken. Most dishes are accompanied with black beans, yellow rice and fried sweet plantains. Of course, you could always opt for a classic Cuban sandwich, made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles toasted and pressed between crusty Cuban bread. Finish your meal off with a cup of strong Cuban coffee, a cortadito or café con leche, depending on how much milk you like, and a guava and cheese pastelito (pastry).

While historically Cuban, Little Havana has become increasingly diverse in the last few years. It’s a place where Latin Americans from all countries have their place (including a second home for a slew of Mexican restaurants for those who don’t want to trek to Homestead for their fix).

The Spanish culinary forefathers round out the versatility of Little Havana with Casa Juancho and Las Tapas de Rosa serving delicious fare, such as paella, a saffron rice and seafood dish, and tapas including Serrano ham and bacalao, fried codfish.

The Central American Melting Pot

The Nicaraguans have also had a lasting imprint on the city. Nicaraguan food in the form of churrasco (grilled skirt steak), gallo pinto (red beans and rice mixed with spices and garlic) queso frito (a thick square of fried white cheese) and raspados (shaved ice topped with dulce de leche or fresh fruit puree in unique flavors like tamarind and pineapple) can be found in Sweetwater or “Little Managua” in places such as El Madroño, Raspados Loly’s and Los Ranchos.

These traditional dishes are Nicaraguan staples that will please any palate, no matter how picky. Fritangas, the name for restaurants that serve authentic and inexpensive Nicaraguan fare in a casual setting, can also be found throughout the city. Try La Pulperia, a grocery store where one can purchase desserts to go alongside hard-to-find snacks imported directly from the country.

South American Influences

If you want a trip to South America, head to Doral for the likes of tequeños (fried cheese sticks filled with white cheese), arepas (corn pancake sandwiches), patacones (fried plantains also known as tostones) and pabellon criollo (a traditional plate that consists of shredded meat, rice and beans, fried plantains slices and an egg).

The Argentine community primarily rules North Beach with dishes including parrillada, (an assortment of grilled meats) empanadas and homemade pastas at Las Vacas Gordas, Buenos Aires Bakery & Café and Café Prima Pasta. A highly Italian influenced country, Argentina creates its own Latinized version of Italian cuisine.

Today’s Latin Fusion Scene

Most recently, the cuisine of Peru, that of ceviches and lomo saltado, a Latin style beef stir-fry served over rice, has exploded in popularity and can be found practically all over Miami.

Puerto Rican fare, such as fried plantains and mofongo, a mashed plantain dish mixed with a heavy dose of garlic and topped with crispy pork rinds, are predominant in the Wynwood area at places such as El Bajareque and Jimmy’z Kitchen.

Harder to find cuisines from Ecuador and even Bolivia exist at locations such as Mi Lindo Ecuador and Las Americas, respectively.

Many new players on the Miami dining scene have Latin roots, and offer a more sophisticated experience. Gourmet palates will be excited to try restaurants such as Bread + Butter, The District, Catharsis Restaurant and the soon to be opened Finka Table & Tap. It’s now common to see restaurants that mesh Peruvian and Japanese or Italian and Argentine cuisines as much as Nuevo Latino foods. These spots take old traditions and blend them with the new to create dishes that could only come from Miami.

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