As an occasional visitor to Miami, the dining scene always struck me as trapped in the 1990s, when supermodels, actors and fashion designers feasted on Puerto Rican chicken adobo at Bang then clawed their way to the rooftop of the Marlin, before South Beach's popularity scared away the elite. Either you went out for Cuban-American frituras or fried foods on Calle Ocho, hunted for other Caribbean cuisines such as Haitian or Dominican, or opted for flashy but dull ceviches served with boniato chips at Nuevo Latino fine-dining spots.
Today, lithe, curvy women with South American accents try to direct foot traffic on Ocean Drive into their lairs of price-gouging frozen cocktails garnished with upside-down beer bottles, yucca fries and dry, flavorless ropa vieja. These prospects, along with the outrageous prices of hotels in South Beach, have been a distraction, but a growing number of famous South American chefs and restaurateurs are turning Miami into a second front in a Latin American conquest of the American palate.
In February, I attended the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF), a favorite of mine since I first attended in 2014 because it's the only major food festival in the U.S. that gives its due respect to Latino chefs and culture. Where else can you attend an event hosted by Sammy Hagar and Emeril Lagasse featuring food by Miami Cuban institution Versailles with a killer set from Hagar, Jason Bonham and Van Halen's Michael Anthony playing classics from Montrose, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar's solo albums? I almost dropped my fufú con masitas when Bonham played the intro to "Rock and Roll"! From Peruvian cebicherias to classic Miami Cuban restaurants to fine Puerto Rican rums, SOBEWFF is the place to be for Latin American food lovers. But there was one event at this year's festival that I knew I had to attend.
At the Amigos de la Huella dinner at Quinto La Huella, I got an opportunity to try dishes from some of South America's most famed chefs, including Colombia's Harry Sasson, Fernando Trocca of Argentina's Sucre, Alejandro Morales of Uruguay's Parador La Huella and Nano Crespo of Quinto La Huella (an outpost from the team behind one of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants, the aforementioned Parador La Huella). It was a fantastic evening, but as I began to take a closer look at the other South American restaurants that have trickled in—El Cielo by Colombian chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, Francis Mallmann's Los Fuegos and Gaston Acurio's La Mar—I realized I was late to the party.
Miami has been called the gateway to South America and the Caribbean, just as Los Angeles and Orange County have served as a portal to the regional cuisines of Mexico. The Florida city has an edge over New York and is even slightly ahead of Los Angeles. There's no bad time to visit Miami, but I recommend coming for SOBEWFF just because so many great Latin American chefs are there cooking at events and for the grand tastings, which really highlight Latin American restaurants and products.
Once the event is over, start by checking into East, Miami (788 Brickell Plaza, 305-712-7000; www.east-miami.com), a small luxury chain from Hong Kong's Swire Group that's located just east of Little Havana in Miami's "it neighborhood," Brickell. Besides being so close to enough tasty cubanos, hand-rolled cigars and strong espressos to fuel tense rounds of dominoes, the sleek hotel hosts Quinto La Huella (786-805-4646; quintolahuella.com). At the center of Quinto La Huella's kitchen is an Uruguayan-style parrilla, or barbecue grill, where chef Crespo (an Argentine who had previously worked at Tasca Wine Bar, Cecconi's and the Soho House in LA) grills locally sourced seafood as well as more traditional items such as entraña (skirt steak) and sweetbreads. The menu is simple, with local products cooked over fire by applying the technical mastery only found in Argentina and Uruguay. Finish up your evening at Sugar, an Asian-themed rooftop bar with breathtaking views of the city's skyline.
Young Colombian chef Barrientos has opened a Miami branch of his empire, which counts franchises in Bogotá and Medellín, where Barrientos was born and raised. El Cielo Miami (31 SE Fifth St., 305-755-8840; elcielorestaurant.com) offers a contemporary taste of Colombian cuisine driven by local products. Get the tasting menu and explore such regional dishes as pan de yuca plated dramatically to resemble the Tree of Life, in which solomillo (beef tenderloin) and chicken and potatoes covered a black sauce applied in the style of Jackson Pollock.
Los Angeles has become interested in South American grilling, counting several Brazilian steakhouses, a second branch of Fogo de Chão and a gaucho-inspired concept by Karen and Quinn Hatfield, but Miami has the genius behind the seven fires of the Argentine parrilla, Mallmann. You can surf or turf your way with Los Fuegos' (3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 786-655-5610) shared parrilladas; get a salt-baked fish, toss in a salad and an oven-baked empanada; or order a 40-ounce porterhouse steak finished with a Malbec demi-glace. These are Mallmann's greatest hits cooked over an open fire set inside the Faena Hotel (3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-534-8800; www.faena.com), a Miami branch of the luxury hotel chain based in Argentina.
We can all be thankful for the forward-thinking hoteliers making this all possible—at the Mandarin Oriental, modern Peruvian cuisine has touched down with Acurio's La Mar (500 Brickell Key Dr., 305-913-8358). La Mar has a variety of cebiches cooked in different lime-based marinades called leche de tigre, featuring Peru's famed peppers (rocoto, ají amarillo) and a sesame-based potion. There are raw preparations, or tiraditos, showcasing Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, which is called Nikkei; whipped cold potatoes (causas); anticuchos (barbecued meats, seafood and vegetables) marinated in ají pepper sauce; and such classics as lomo saltado and Chinese-influenced pan-fried rice (chaufas).
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You can round out your Miami vacation by grabbing breakfast or lunch in Little Havana for Cuban-American and exploring Dominican, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Peruvian and Ecuadorian cuisines. And, of course, there's South Beach for sunbathing and the Miami nightlife, where a Pitbull party anthem is never more than three songs away—but Mr. Worldwide's playground has come of age.
While chefs such as Enrique Olvera has captivated the Big Apple with the opening of Cosme, and Los Angeles is buzzing after the much-anticipated openings of chef Diego Hernandez's Verlaine and the upcoming project by Olvera, no other American city has amassed a more impressive lineup of Latino chefs from Latin America than Miami. Beyond the tourist trappings of South Beach and as the infectiously droning intro to Pitbull's "Culo" fades away in the background, you're off for a tasty adventure in the new Miami. ¡Dale!