Miami is more like another country than just another American city. Nearly half of its residents are foreign born. The diverse population―plus a near-tropical year-round growing season and a perch right on the Atlantic Ocean―makes Miami one of a kind, and for several years the tropical melting pot has been providing thrilling food.
In just one block of a sleek, swanky neighborhood like the Design District or South Beach, restaurant menu boards cover such Caribbean-cooking mainstays as fiery curries and jerk seasoning, South American arepas and empanadas, traditional matzo ball soup, or high-end steaks with duck-fat frites. At Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein, a James Beard award winner who was born and raised in Miami by an Argentinean mother and a Minnesotan father, shows just how the city’s many influences distill into a single dish. She riffs on the classic Cuban sandwich, using salty, creamy, briny sea urchin in place of the traditional roast pork, pressed in buttered bread until hot and crispy.
The sultry heat is just right for bright flavors like citrus-flecked grilled seafood and quickly “cooked,” Latin-influenced seviches. With the wealth of seafood available and the variety of kitchen help preparing it, innovative preparations seem to emerge almost spontaneously. Chef Michael Psilakis turns out a creative sampling of Greek-inspired raw meze at his new Eos at the Viceroy Hotel (305-503-0373, viceroymiami.com), where basil seed, lemon puree, and microgreens brighten plump scallops, watermelon and crumbled feta lend an edge to thick squares of tuna, and even lamb is left uncooked in a caviar and egg yolk dressing. Those unfamiliar with seviche can sample it by the spoonful at Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar and Latam Grill (305-444-0216, jaguarspot.com), where on any given day there could be six or seven different takes on swordfish, calamari, and tuna.
While much of the country is dining on cellar roots if they want to eat locally, Miamians are plucking heirloom tomatoes from the vine, feasting on stone crabs, and slicing open fresh grapefruits―just some of the food at its peak right now.
BREAKFAST: Breakfast Tortilla at Versailles
Breakfast in Miami just might happen at 4 a.m. after a night out dancing. It can be as simple as a sweet roll and cafecito, but an omelet offers a more satisfying start (or end) to the day. Versailles (305-444-0240), an earthy Cuban eatery despite its lofty name and glitzy decor, serves up a hearty open-faced omelet, called a tortilla, which has potatoes inside instead of on the side. A variety of root vegetables appear in Cuban cuisine, including the exotic yucca and boniato, and most definitely the plain white potato, which, when cubed and fried as papas bravas, is a common meal accompaniment. Our omelet maximizes flavor with Yukon gold potatoes, fresh tomatoes, and kicky Manchego cheese.
Go there: Versailles (305-444-0240)
Make it at home: Cooking Light Breakfast Tortilla recipe
LUNCH: Cuban Sandwiches at David's Café
Miamians are passionate about their Cuban sandwiches and debate endlessly about who makes the best. Once simply a working class lunch, this iconic sandwich appears on menus in hundreds of eateries around the city. Like any classic, it’s made a bit differently by everyone, but the usual components are ham and fresh-cooked pork, seasoned with a garlicky mojo, mingled with Swiss cheese and dill pickles inside toasted, pressed Cuban bread. At David’s Café (305-672-8707, davidscafe.com) it’s flat-pressed a la plancha on a hot electric grill and eaten straight from the wax paper package, making it a perfect portable meal for the beach.
DINNER: Fresh Seafood and Relish at Alta Mar or Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink
Loads of local chefs make use of the dazzling array of tropical treasures that grow year-round here. But the mango, a true backyard gem with hundreds of local varieties, symbolizes all things good and sweet in Miami cooking. In fact, the chefs who originally brought Miami’s unique cuisine to national attention in the 1980s were dubbed The Mango Gang. One of them, Chef Allen Susser of Chef Allen’s, still gives dinner for two to those who bring him two hundred pounds of mango. In South Beach, Chef Claudio Giordano of Alta Mar (305-532-3061, altamarrestaurant.com) combines mango and pineapple in a tangy relish and serves it on that day’s fresh catch―anything from tuna to mahimahi to pumpkin swordfish. Michael Schwartz, of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (305-573-5550, michaelsgenuine.com) in the Design District, dices papaya and mango into a scorching hot relish to serve alongside black sticky rice and local black grouper cooked in his wood-burning oven. Though this dish is inherently light, we keep flavors fresh and lively with the addition of serrano chile and ginger.
Go there: Alta Mar (305-532-3061) or Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (305-573-5550)
Make it at home: Cooking Light Grilled Mahimahi with Mango Salsa recipe