Miami... A Taste of Latin America in the USA

I lived in Fort Lauderdale Florida for several years. Thirty miles south of Fort Lauderdale was the city of Miami, a city I visited many times during my tenure in Florida.

At that time, Miami was your typical South Florida vacation spot, visited by “snowbirds," who flocked to the city in droves from December 15th through April 15th (the peak tourist season). During the rest of the year Miami was frequented by old Jewish retirees from the New York area (especially in the South Beach area), drug dealers, a sprinkling of budget minded off-season tourists and hearty locals who held on through the hot and humid summer month’s.

That all changed in 1980 because of the Mariel Boatlift. During that time, over 125,000 Cubans left Cuba and immigrated to Florida, the majority of whom ended up in Miami. The disruptions this caused to a city that, at the time, had a total population of only 346,681, were immense. Although there were major problems with displacement of existing residents (it was common to see bumper stickers that stated “Will the last American leaving Miami, please take down the flag”), the influx of Cubans radically changed the city forever.

Many cities have specific areas where immigrants have migrated to. New York’s “Little Italy”, San Francisco’s “China Town” and Los Angeles’ “Persian Square” are just a few that come to mind. With the influx of Cubans, Miami was beginning to form its own “Little Havana”. When I moved away a few years after the boatlift, the city was changing rapidly but was still the sleepy southern tourist town I knew. And this is what I expected upon my return after so many years.

Miami now calls itself the “Magic City” and on my return, it showed its colors everywhere I turned. South Beach had transformed from a Jewish retirement community into a “hip to be seen” bistro and small art deco hotel strip. Great dining areas have sprung up all over the city from Lincoln Road and the urban neighborhood of downtowns Brickell area, to the crazy cool arts warehouses of Wynwood and the always popular and reborn Coconut Grove area, Miami seems to be bursting at the seams with new and exciting restaurants.

It’s not only the restaurant scene that is making Miami one of the most exciting cities in the country. All the big old hotels have been reborn into not only trendy hip places to stay but, also offer great dining, night life and pampering spa’s.

When you cross over the causeway into the Miami Beach area, you come upon a vibrantly lit “Welcome To Miami Beach” sign that’s representative of the city. Not only is the sign lit in a multitude of neon colors but also the palm trees, bushes and anything nearby. It clearly speaks to the “Magic” that you feel throughout the city. What this large influx of Cubans (and later on Haitians) has brought the city is a unique latin vibrancy that is not only felt in its “Little Havana” area but throughout the entire city.

The “Magic” could be its spectacular sunsets or warm waters which send balmy breezes across its shores but, many cities have those qualities. Many say the term came from its phenomenal growth but, that too is matched by many other cities. Whatever the reason, magic is the very word that came to mind for me when I reacquainted myself with our southernmost city. The energy was clearly palatable in every corner of the city. It’s as if the caterpillar of a city that I left in the 80’s has turned into a beautiful butterfly that is only now spreading its wings.

As the gateway to Latin America, Miami is influenced by not only its Cuban population but by a great variety of Latin American immigrants. This makes its cuisine unique among US cities. You’ll find dishes here that are found nowhere else. We chose unique restaurants off the beaten (can you say tourist) path.

Our first find was in the tree lined streets of the Coconut Creek area. There I found a wonderful French bistro that reminded me of the bistro’s in Paris. To me, the supreme test for a French restaurant is an Escargot appetizer, Duck a L’Orange, Gratin Dauphinoise (Scalloped Potatoes) entree and Crème brûlée for dessert, accompanied, of course by a great French wine. Our find passed each dish with flying colors.

While exploring Coconut Grove, we also found a wonderful Italian restaurant that served the most amazing fresh-made pasta Gnocchi accompanied by a fine Montepulciano and another French restaurant that provided us with the finest Filet Oscar I had ever eaten.

Our quest to find unique restaurants led us to what would become one of my favorite, off the beaten path restaurants in Miami. Located in the hidden (at least from tourists) Morningside area of town, was a gem that featured wonderful Mediterranean dishes, exquisite service and ambiance that I did not think could be found in the USA. Dining in the lush gardens of a century old, coral stone building with exotic flowers and water gardens throughout is about as good as it gets.

The Brickell are of downtown Miami is where the beautiful people dine and there are many fantastic restaurants that serve this crowd well. We found a great one right in the heart of the area. Offering Argentine inspired dishes that feature some of the finest cuts of beef in the country, we enjoyed a wonderful filet mignon and Angus Flap Steak, each accompanied by an outstanding creamed spinach and luscious Butternut Squash.

You can’t dine in Miami without choosing at least one seafood restaurant and Miami has a ton of them. Most, unfortunately, are tourist traps, featuring fried shellfish on paper plates. After many false starts, we finally found a great seafood restaurant in the Buckhead area of town. What wonderful ambiance to share fantastic baby calamari, stuffed lobster and Icelandic Arctic Char. Finish it off with great homemade Profiteroles and a choice of several great white wines and you have the best seafood Miami has to offer.

Although we dined at at a few great and many not so great restaurants on the preview trip for our first USA Epicurean Getaway, these five gems were by far the best of the best and we are excited to share them with our exclusive group of dining guests.

J Stephen

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