It’s 11:45 in the morning and a mini cooper is making my immediate life hell. I have ten minutes to park on South Beach and walk to a meeting place to start what I will later call “One of the best Miami food tours I have ever been to.” This mini though obviously doesn’t know what it’s doing. Inside the garage, for 5 floors, I watch it stop in the middle of the lane (leaving me no room to pass through) to contemplate life or maybe the interior architecture of the building, but it certainly isn’t looking for a spot because there obviously aren’t any. Finally I get rid of my automotive nemesis and park.
I exit the parking garage. It’s bright and sunny. My eyes hurt. I have to put on my sunglasses. Walking at a brisk place to meet the group on time I hear the familiar rhythm of Miami streets, a symphony of bilingual dialogue. It goes: English,Spanish, Beat. English, Spanish, Beat.
Thirsty, sun-blinded and annoyed at all mini coopers I’m caught off guard by an enthusiastic and down-to-buisness Grace who greets the tour. She is our guide. After she introduces herself and explains the tour as bringing us back and forth from “Gourmet to hole in the wall delicious” she asks everyone to introduce themselves and say where they are from. Quickly I find out that our motley crew stretches from California all the way to Germany…
Our first stop is 660 at the Angler’s an elegant white tented restaurant. “It’s Miamian. Combining different ingredients from Central America with European technique and local products.” Grace introduces our first dish, a Tiradito. Tiradito is pretty much the same as ceviche, Grace explains, except that the fish is cut sashimi style as opposed to chunks. As Grace is talking I’m busy scribbling the history of tiradito and ceviche. Completely in my own world of paper in pen, I mindlessly grab my fork and put it in my mouth without looking. I stopped writing. I was literally stopped by the taste of the tiradito. I put down my pen, my eyes widened and I looked at the dish. The finely sliced pale flesh of the scallops is contrasted by small pieces of passion fruit, raw red onion, bright avocado and parsley. It’s almost as pretty as it tastes. All of the sudden the stress of the day and the worry of getting everything in my notes subsides and I just sit and enjoy the food.
As soon as we are finished Grace corrals us to move onto the next stop. She explains that we are going to cross streets together as a group because here in miami “Yellow means green.” The tour is designed to represent the various cultures of South Beach from Cuban to Italian to Jewish and more.
The next stop is Boliviar a Colombian restaurant with dark warm wood, bright neon cushions and black chalks. There is a live band complete with a guitar, harp, and newsboy hats. I sit down and already waiting for me is a light peach colored drink that matches the napkins. Refajo, Grace teaches me is a Colombian drink made from mixing an Aguila beer with half a Colombiana, a cream soda. I take a sip and the bitter aftertaste I normally get from beer is missing and replaced with a smooth creamy taste. Out comes a little plate with a green shot of habaneros, vinegar and cilantro. “It goes with the empanadas.” Grace suggests to the group, “if you can take the heat.” There is a braille textured corn empanada filled with smoked potatoes and beef in front of me along with a patagon, a plantain that is double fried and flattened out, topped with shredded chicken. I put some sauce onto the empanada and take a bite.
My mouth is on fire. My eyes are filling with tears. I drink some more refajo. My sinuses clear from all the spice. The corn empanadas are not too salty like most and there is a good ratio of dough to filling. I The patagon is nowhere near as spicy as the empanada but light, fresh and crunchy. I can feel the tingly fresh cilantro and I notice that I’m swaying to the music. This is my poker face failure when it comes to judging food. If I’m dancing to the music in my chair I love what I’m eating. The last bite I put some habanero sauce to see if I can in fact conquer it. I wind up chugging what’s left of my drink.
Making our way to ocean drive, the famous or infamous depending on who you talk to. Everyone seems to enjoying the tour and I know I sure am. Once we hit Ocean Drive Grace plants us under the shade of a palm tree for a quick history lesson of Miami before we move on.
We then reach Lario’s which is owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Grace greets the chef while I take in the black and white photographs and antique advertisements that give this place a real Havana feel. Papa Rellena is being brought out and Grace describes it as “the Cuban version of shepard’s pie” but Papa rellena is an on the go food. A small ball of fluffy mashed potatoes lightly fried with a picadillo filling. The texture was like biting into a thick cloud and the succulent beef made it so savory. But just like Papa Rellena’s are to-go food we quickly were on the go again!
After another quick history lesson in our palm tree ceiling classroom we head over to Sera Fina. I pass a bright yellow motor scooter at the entrance and sit down to a plate of light pink penne al vodka dusted with parmesan cheese. Pasta can be a pretty heavy dish especially on such a warm day but this was light, fresh and the flavor of the ripe tomatoes could be detected through the cream sauce. As an Italian-American I can say the pasta is good but it will never be the way mamma makes.
Grace then takes us across the street to David’s cafe for some cuban coffee and to show us some nautical art deco architecture. She walks up to a window to order, “You know you’re at a traditional Cuban restaurant when you see a ventanilla (little window).” I nod in agreement. Out comes cortaditos that are strong, sweet and served like a shot. Grace accompanies it with a Guava pastelito that has a golden flaky crust and a pink burgundy filling. It is sweet and the flakes stick to the sides of your cheeks as it crumbles in your mouth while the filling is fruity and strong.
We then head over to Jerry’s an authentic Jewish deli for raspberry rugula. The pastry is a beautiful roll up of dough made with cream cheese baked to a golden brown, sprinkled with sugar and complemented by a pretty red swirl. It is firm but soft when you bite into it and it tastes like a small french fruit pie. The tart aftertaste from the raspberry keeps me licking the roof of my mouth till the next stop.
I laugh when I find the food tour heading to Charlotte’s bakery where I used to go back in my waitressing days. I know that I am about to eat something amazing. The bakery is small and our tour clumps together in a little corner to eat another type of empanada. This one is made with dough, baked and filled with moist shredded chicken. It is so soft and the chicken is bursting with flavor and bursting out of the empanada. While here we also get to try Colombian and Brazilian cheese bread. The Colombia pan de bono is sweet and fluffy which makes me sway my shoulders to the Shakira song playing on the radio. The Brazilian cheese bread is harder, crunchier and more cheesy than sweet but light like a biscuit.
On the way to the last spot Grace strolls through Espanola way snapping to the music till we reach Milani, a gelateria. Grace explains the fundamental differences between ice cream and gelato while I carefully choose my flavor. Frutto di bosco, or forest fruit, I decide. Here I know I will be criticall because though the owners are from Torino, I am from Viareggio and my summers as a child were filled with gelato. It does better on my tastebuds than I anticipate. It’s light and fluffy but just not as potent in berry flavor as the gelato I had as a kid. Nonetheless it puts me in a good mood.
The South Beach Food Tour ends our tour but Grace graciously answers any questions and gives out recomendations left and right of where to eat and stop. She hands us each a flyer with all the restaurants we visited. As a local Miamian it hurts my pride to admit this, but I learned a lot. As I get back into my car I see another mini cooper but that’s all right. I have a cup of gelato now.
By Editor Corinne Nobili