Miami Food: On Beyond Cuban Cuisine

New Latin American arrivals are enriching the city's restaurant scene

It's Sunday afternoon in Miami Beach, and as usual, the 15 tables at Confitería Buenos Aires Bakery & Café are packed with Argentines sipping espresso and munching on sweet medialunas, or croissants. A few doors down, on Collins Avenue between 71st and 72nd streets, customers are eating ceviche at Peruvian restaurant El Rincón de Chabuca, which is just down the street from the unpretentious El Rey del Chivito, named for a steak sandwich popular in Uruguay.

If you're intrigued by Latin cuisine -- from arepas, a corn flour pancake and cheese combination popular in Venezuela and Colombia, to Brazil's soft cheese bread paõ de queijo -- Miami is your kind of town. At 51.4%, Miami-Dade County's percentage of foreign-born residents is the highest in the country, and the overwhelming majority of those are from Latin America. A tough economic climate south of the border has precipitated a wave of more than 150,000 Latin American and Caribbean immigrants to the city and its surrounding area in the last three years.

AUTHENTICITY RULES

Recent arrivals from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Central America are proudly planting their national flags on hundreds of new businesses -- mainly restaurants. Many of the eateries are going up in areas once dominated by Cuban immigrants, who have dispersed throughout South Florida. You could roughly monitor the state of Latin America's economies by noticing which ethnic groups are setting up shop in and around Miami. A surge of Peruvian restaurants, for example, is a sign of bad times in Lima.

Lima's loss is Miami's gain. The periodic waves of immigration translate into increased variety and improved quality of the cuisine. "Because of all the foreigners, restaurants here have to be really authentic," says Luis Vidal, who in July opened Chocolate, an upscale Argentine restaurant on Coral Way just southwest of downtown Miami. "In another U.S. city, not many people would know whether you're preparing the food correctly, but in Miami, people know." A dinner for two at Chocolate with a bottle of Argentine red wine runs about $80. That meal would cost around $40 in a comparable restaurant in Argentina.

Although the communities often overlap, many are carving out neighborhoods as their own. A 10-block area around Collins Avenue and 71st Street has become known as "Little Buenos Aires," where thousands of working-class Argentines have settled after fleeing economic chaos in their country. Wealthier Argentines have gravitated toward Aventura, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and Key Biscayne, an island southeast of downtown Miami. Colombians and Venezuelans, escaping social and economic turmoil in their countries, have flocked to Weston, a fast-growing suburb west of Fort Lauderdale.

Brazilians have been the most willing to stray from Miami to the more "Anglo" areas of Broward and Palm Beach counties to the north. Sample Square, an otherwise unremarkable strip mall off Interstate 95 in Pompano Beach, 45 miles north of Miami, is a one-stop shopping center with more than a dozen establishments targeting Brazilians, including a travel agency, hairdresser, law firm, money-transfer outlet, and a couple of food markets. But the area's most popular Brazilian restaurant is Porcão Churrascaria, on Biscayne Bay near downtown Miami. For $36.50, you get the rodízio, an all-you-can-eat carnivore's heaven. Energetic waiters carrying huge slabs of beef, pork, and chicken pounce on your table until you signal for a reprieve.

LITTLE HAVANA

The cuban american community, which accounts for some 30% of Miami-Dade County's 2.3 million residents, is still by far the largest ethnic group. But Miami's best-known neighborhood, Little Havana, becomes less and less Cuban every day. A drive down the main street, Calle Ocho (also called Southwest Eighth Street), reveals Honduran and Nicaraguan restaurants and snack bars that started to sprout up in the 1980s, when refugees fled civil wars in Central America. Look for the Honduran baleada, a white flour tortilla filled with beans and cheese, and Nicaraguan carne asada, or grilled beef strips.

As diverse as South Florida's culinary landscape is, you won't find a Chinatown or Little Tokyo. But if your palate is ready to rumba, Miami can set the table.

By Ian Katz

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