The morning haze was breaking, and the delirium of another Friday night in Miami Beach had finally been put to bed. The rows of clubs lining the infamous Collins Avenue, notorious for buzzing well into the morning, had gone quiet; the nightclubbers had stumbled home. And I noticed that a different vibe was settling in with the heat.
At the Freehand — a hipster-chic hostel that landed on Miami Beach in 2012 — I watched as other young travelers, clad in strappy tank tops and ripped jean shorts, joined me in line for espressos and cappuccinos at the lobby stand just as that morning’s yoga class headed to the beach. Afterward, several blocks south at Á La Folie, I indulged in savory crepes as the charming French cafe churned to life.
Later in the day, I would encounter restaurants on the beachy island and on the mainland that paraded dishes as culturally diverse as duck kibbeh and Spanish octopus, Bao buns and sea urchin nigiri, and tiny plates of beet tartare topped with tweezer-placed herbs and a horseradish foam.
I was surprised — stymied, almost — by the abundance of diverse, enticing options.
Wait a minute, I thought. When did Miami get so cool?
A decade ago, when I was traveling the country as an early 20-something, Florida’s southeastern corner owned the reputation of a food desert where patches of authentic Cuban and Latino cuisine were the only reprieves from lifeless hotel and casino fare. I visited a couple of times — and didn’t stay for long.
But things have changed, in a hurry.
Boosted by an expanded core of homegrown chefs, a surge of national restaurateurs and an invigorated interest in all things dining, it’s obvious Miami is in the midst of an awakening, transforming from culinary minefield to gastronomic mecca.
These days, the city is as likely to be known for its booming restaurants as it is for its beaches, as revered for its critically acclaimed chefs as it is for its swanky clubs. And on a warm December weekend, as I hopped around town from Miami Beach to Wynwood to Coconut Grove, I was introduced in a major way to Miami’s old-meets-new flavor and an epicurean style that is all its own.
From dancing to dining
Bodega was packed and full of the rowdy and the scantily dressed. A newly made friend and I lasted at the club only as long as it took to slurp our gin and tonics through straws. In the dark, we saw just flashes of each other’s faces. The bass-hijacked beats were vibrating up through our heels. Half-amused, half-revolted at the grinding dance floor antics, we barreled out of the hidden warehouselike entrance and into its cover storefront: a taco shop.
Yep, I thought, the “magic city’s” party-hearty reputation is doing just fine.
But a second musing quickly replaced the first.
Hey, these tacos are pretty good.
From dusk till dawn, neon lights, house music, short skirts and ankle-breaking heels rule the ’hood. But as I discovered, the vodka-filled venues are no longer the only draw.
From 1994 to 2004, Miami was nearly iced out of the James Beard Awards, those annual medals bestowed on chefs and restaurants for excellence in food and design. But from 2007 to the present, the city has become a regular participant in what is commonly referred to as the Oscars of the dining industry. In that time frame, there have been 46 such nominations, semifinalists and winners.
One such nominee — a small, prix-fixe restaurant named Alter — was the national semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category last year, and a “must hit” on my list.
The menu was a series of multicourse meals filled with impressive-sounding ingredients and the kind of obvious culinary technique that one might associate with a white-tablecloth affair. Inside Alter, though, the pipes were exposed and paint was peeling off the neon-lit concrete walls. I took my seat near the kitchen, and almost immediately the show began. Tiny, immaculate dishes were rolled out with professional exactitude. Shaved cobia, the seafood delicately placed in a half-moon around the plate’s rim, was accompanied by mustard oil and olive “snow.” A heart of palm “trunk,” along with mushrooms and vegetable purées, were manipulated to look like a fallen tree. Each course had a wine pairing, with a story behind it. It was the precision of Paris, seamlessly blended with the hip aura of Los Angeles.
Such newfound culinary obsession is evident all over the city, where much of the emerging talent came of age. Jose Mendin, one of the city’s more recognizable chefs, graduated from culinary school in Miami and after a few years abroad, returned to start a restaurant called Pubbelly. Now, his empire includes not just the Asian-Latino fusion original in Miami Beach, but also a sushi shop, a steakhouse, bistro, taqueria and Pubbelly Station, a seafood palace downtown where plates of raw oysters meld with ocean breezes on the rooftop. Giorgio Rapicavoli, raised in the Southern port, heads the popular fusion restaurant Eating House. And Miami native Zak Stern, the man behind the uber-popular Zak the Baker, was named a semifinalist in the Beards’ outstanding baker category.
The restaurant scene has gotten so interesting that restaurateurs starting off in food hubs like New York and San Francisco have begun to flow south. Miami now has versions of hot NYC establishments such as Employees Only (a craft cocktail bar), Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill, Upland (which turns out wood-fired dishes) and Lucali (a pizzeria). Chefs from elsewhere in the country are also making their homes among the palm trees.
Tacos, tweezer food and neon
Some of the dishes served up by this new culinary wave seem, well, not so new.
The cover taco shop at Bodega, a converted Airstream that hides a doorway leading to the sprawling club in the rear, reflects that old South Florida feel. The lengua taco and queso fundido, served in plastic red baskets, seemed like a twist on what Miami has always done well: street food.
A day earlier, I’d scoped out Doggi’s Arepa bar, a 2010 Latin American hot dog cart that has swelled to two brick-and-mortar locations. Whiffs of grilling chorizo and frying masa spilled out into the Little Haito parking lot on the outskirts of Miami proper. The slightly charred sandwich-like creation brimming with pork and beans was the kind of simple food rooted in cultural tradition that I’d always expected from these shores.
But other emerging hot spots feel starkly different, albeit filled with nods to Miami’s neon-filled party past.
At the Freehand’s outdoor cocktail bar, the Broken Shaker, tiki drinks mingle with artichoke fries and vegan ice cream sandwiches in an Art Deco atmosphere reminiscent of Miami’s last heyday. Nearby is Byblos, a Mediterranean restaurant pumping out colorful plates topped with everything from duck kibbeh and octopus to Turkish dumplings and Japanese Wagyu steak. At dinner one night, the atmosphere alluringly combined inspirations from Greece and Spain. But the hostesses, clad in 5-inch heels and oh-so-tiny dresses, provided a good reminder that I was still in Miami.
On another evening in Wynwood, the ever-trendier arts district north of downtown, I sipped an espresso at Panther Coffee. The 20- and 30-something patrons toting paperbacks and laptops hovered over mugs of Nicaraguan brew and lounged outside at the tree-canopied concrete bar. Later, I joined the masses, strolling in and out of the mescal- and Aperol-filled cocktail bars scattered around the neighborhood’s famous graffiti-covered walls.
The night was still young and the lure of shot glasses, bass-hijacked beats and stilettos tall enough to act as weapons would claim plenty — though I’d had my fill of that scene.
But the next day, I knew, the sun and a couple mugs of espresso would burn away the hangovers, and Miami would be born anew again, deliciously.