Miami is one of those cities where you quickly realize everybody is from somewhere else. “When you hear a foreign accent you think, ‘Hey, you’re like me,’” muses Jean D. Cidelca, my guide in Little Haiti, who moved from Haiti to Miami over a decade ago.
We walk down the neighbourhoods’ lanes, passing sorbet-coloured bodegas and botanicas and walls swathed in the bold, colourful paintings of muralists like Wilfred Daleus, which speak to Haiti’s tumultuous political past. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Miami saw an influx of Haitian immigrants seeking refuge from a brutal civil war. This history isn’t just immortalized in Little Haiti’s street art; the traditional Haitian culture that refugees have fought to preserve is alive in the scent of sweet, tangy Haitian food that wafts out onto the streets.
A blue and yellow mural of a fisherman reeling in an enormous marlin marks Little Haiti’s Anthony Bourdain approved Chef Creole restaurant. Born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents, Chef Wilkinson “Ken” Sejour opened his landmark eatery almost 30 years ago and continues to serve his steaming towers of spicy crab and shrimp, as well as stewed conch and slow-cooked oxtail, to a cult following.
It’s not only Little Haiti that infuses its menu with a strong sense of place. I’m staying at The Mondrian on Miami’s toniest strip, South Beach. For all its unapologetic decadence, the restaurants that dot the neighbourhood act as an authentic microcosm of the city’s rich multiculturalism. The evening air is warm and balmy as I walk from the hotel to one of the area’s newest Mexican eateries. Bodega Taqueria y Tequila’s tomato-red neon sign buzzes against the indigo sky and Crayola coloured tables and chairs spill out from the garage-style door onto the sidewalk. I bypass the bustling walk-up window and head through a small passageway that leads to a sumptuous lounge decorated with crimson velvet sofas and crystal chandeliers.
Bodega’s collection of top-shelf tequila means a margarita is in order. Amid salty, tangy sips, I keep my meal simple with what they do best here – tacos. Grilled mahi is cradled in a soft corn tortilla and showered in charred pineapple, pickled red onion and fresh cilantro, while another taco holds plump coconut shrimp smothered in a sweet-and-salty mix of mango pico de gallo and crispy slivers of potato. The last course is a plate of warm, sugary churros dipped in liquid chocolate, which I’m glad to not have to share.
THE NEXT DAY I duck in and out of South Beach’s art galleries, including The Bass Museum, itself a tribute to Miami’s diversity. Focusing on conceptual art by international artists, works like Pascale Marthine Thayou’s Welcome Wall presents viewers with an installation of blinking neon signs that read “welcome” in 70 different languages, a commentary on our communal, yet fractured modern existence. Difference is celebrated in Miami, especially in its food. As the day’s heat starts to dissipate, I head to the newly opened Chotto Matte for dinner. Kurt Zdesar’s restaurant – the mogul who snagged London’s Nobu its first Michelin star – specializes in modern Nikkei cuisine, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion.
Nestled in glitzy Lenox Ave, the room’s design seems to echo these two cultural sensibilities, melding minimalist Japanese wood and steel with Peru’s colourful Latin spirit, seen in the neon graffiti art on the walls. Overhead, a soaring, open-air roof is framed by shaggy palm trees. Executive Chef Jordan Sclare’s tasting menu is a parade of nine small plates, each one more seductive than the next. There’s the ceviche, a happy marriage of sashimi and Peruvian corn and potato, dumplings stuffed with pork, prawn, and cassava, and grilled octopus served over sweet potato puree. Chotto Matte translates to “wait a minute” in Japanese slang, and I do, savouring dessert – a trio of mochi ice cream – with a view of the onyx sky.
THERE'S NO BETTER DISPLAY of Miami’s cultural melting pot than in Wynwood. The creation of the Wynwood Walls in 2009 – a permanent installation of street murals painted by artists from around the world – put the neighbourhood on the map. Since then, a number of privately-owned art galleries and independent restaurants serving international cuisine have enriched the creative vibe.
After a morning of meandering through the vivid street art, I make my way to Bakan for lunch, a modern Mexican restaurant from Chef Oscar del Rivero. The striking patio is forged of steel and wood, hedged in by giant cacti and anchored by a centre bar crafting fresh, herbaceous cocktails with more than 500 different types of mezcal and tequila. I order the Chilean sea bass tucked into hand-crafted tortillas and fresh guacamole enlivened by serrano chile. Other plates include mole from Oaxaca nestled against smoky pork rib and roasted chicken, as well as local snapper cooked over a cherry and oak wood-burning grill.
I leave Bakan utterly satisfied and dreaming of a foodie trip to Oaxaca. Yet, I’ve managed to leave room for dessert and walk the few blocks down to 1-800-Lucky. The 10,000-square-foot Asian food hall hawks everything from Vietnamese banh mi to bubble tea and poke, but I’m here for the Insta-famous Japanese ice cream from Taiyaki NYC. Two black sesame scoops are stuffed into a fish-shaped cone, topped with a unicorn horn and ears, and studded with rainbow sprinkles. It tastes as delightful as it looks, and yes, I snap a photo.
THE NEXT MORNING, I sit at the small bar at Los Pinarenos market on Calle Ocho, Little Havana’s main drag, sipping on juice made from rare mamey fruit and sugar cane extract. The farmers’ market is the oldest in Miami and although its faded shopfront might be overlooked by passersby, it gives a glimpse of local life for Cubans before they fled the revolution in the ‘50s and ‘60s, arriving here in the U.S.. “Little Havana is still full of hidden treasures,” says the red lipped Christine Michaels, founder of Little Havana Tours, from beneath a wide-brimmed hat.
Michaels leads me down the neighbourhood’s narrow sidewalks, where the occasional rogue chicken flutters and squawks about, big-bellied retirees take long, slow drags of their cigars on café patios, and Cuban exiles compete for bragging rights over a game of chess at Domino Park. Passing a string of ventanitas (walk-up coffee and sandwich windows) we stop in at Yisell Bakery for a pastelitos con guava y queso, a pastry filled with white cheese and guava jam, before making our way to the coffee bar Guantanamera. The room is thick with the sweet scent of cigars which are sold here and the walls are decorated with Cuban genre art. “This is what we call black gold,” says Michaels as we both take a sip of dark, velvety espresso. She surreptitiously pulls a small flask of rum out of her purse and adds a dollop to our coffees. “Now you’re drinking a carajillo,” she says with a wink.
Later, I stroll through the golden evening from Life House where I’m staying – itself a tribute to the community with its modern Cuban cuisine and décor that gives a nod to the Caribbean – towards Cafe La Trova. Award-winning Chef Michelle Bernstein teamed up with legendary Cuban bartender Julio Cabrera to open the restaurant, an elegant take on the classic Cuban bistro. I take a seat at the polished wood bar on a burgundy leather stool while one of the expertly trained cantineros (bartenders) muddles fresh mint for my mojito. A plate of golden croquettes arrives and each bite of the crispy shell reveals a warm, gooey cheese and fig centre. Next is a pan con bistec, a traditional Cuban sandwich overflowing with churrasco, caramelized onions, tomatoes and charred jalapenos.
I can’t leave Little Havana without a scoop of ice cream from Azucar, where the owner taste-tested all the recipes with local Cuban exiles to ensure authentic Cuban flavours. I order a cone of Burn in Hell Fidel, a blend of chocolate and chili pepper, and wander back to the hotel. Crowds spill out onto the street from the popular Ball & Chain bar, young families walk arm-in arm and the cigar-smoking grandfathers I spotted earlier seem not to have moved. I think of how much richer and vibrant the city is because of neighbourhoods like this that offer a window into a different culture, place, and time.
CRAVING SEAFOOD? Taste the flavours of the world at Mare Mio, tucked away on foodie-haven Española Way. The internationallyinspired menu is anchored by homemade pasta, organic meats and pristine seafood. A rolling trolley displays fresh, line-caught fish and oysters, clams, lobster, shrimp and stone crab. Al fresco dining and a laid-back atmosphere offer a gourmet respite from South Beach’s frenetic energy. Save room for dessert – the deconstructed tiramisu is heavenly
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