As Darcy Rhyno discovers, in Miami, everything from the Cuban sandwich to a bathtub full of herbs is an expression of the excitement here about the potential for food to tell stories, to express pride of place and of cultural roots.
Food is history. In Miami, the meaty Cuban sandwich tells the story of immigration, a strong work ethic and the corresponding need for a quick and hearty lunch. As I’m served my first ever Cuban sandwich at the Vizcaya Café, it strikes me that I’m biting into more than a no-frills lunch. Captured between these slices of bread is a relationship between nations, the century-old to and fro of Cubans to the nearest American landfall – Florida.
The Cuban sandwich brings together a perfect balance of savoury ham and roasted pork loin, that unmistakable earthiness of melted Swiss cheese, the zing of the mustard and the sour crunch of the dill pickle compressed and heated in a plancha – similar to a Panini press – between slices of simple Cuban bread. These are not a particularly unusual combination of ingredients. It’s what some might call peasant food. I like to think of it as a worker’s lunch. Like the Cornish pasty – literally a meat and potatoes pastry built to be held by the disposable pinched crust between dirty miner’s fingers – the Cuban sandwich is quick to make and eaten without the need of cutlery and dishes.
The presence of the Cuban sandwich at the Vizcaya Café – a landmark Florida museum – speaks to its ubiquity across the Miami menu. Dating from the time of the arrival of this working class sandwich to Florida, Vizcaya was once a lavish home and gardens inspired by the palaces of Europe. James Deering of the farm machinery company International Harvester built Vizcaya as a winter retreat. In contrast to these upper crust digs, the Cuban sandwich migrated north from the cigar factories and sugar mills ofHavana to the cigar factories ofTampa. The sandwich’s unofficial home shifted toMiami in the 1960’s with the exodus from Castro’sCuba.
Ordering the sandwich in the Little Havana district of Miami at a sidewalk takeout like Exquisito Restaurante seems more appropriate to its lineage as a food that arrived on a wave of immigration. Here, Cristina Mestres of the tour company Dragonfly Expeditions offers up samples of guava tart and buttered Cuban bread. We chase them with sips of sweet, thick Cuban coffee.
Of Little Havana, Cristina says as we look around, “You hear about these revolving door homes where people came and prospered and moved on.” I accept a second thimble full of coffee. “Everyone would have different work hours,” continues Cristina. “You hear stories of people diving under couches because the landlord didn’t want ten people living there.”
With Maximo Gomez Park– unofficially dubbed Domino Park for the crowds of men who gather for games of dominoes – just down the street and cigar factories like the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co. and Top Cigars facing each other acrossEighth Street, lunch here is truly a taste of history.
History in a Menu
Creativity is as easy to find in a menu here in Miami as tradition. The smoky perfections at the 60 year old Shorty’s Bar-B-Q (now expanded to five locations) and the authentic Cuban restaurants lining the waterfront mall at Bayside – try the flank steak tortillas – compete with menus like that of the Cinco Cantina and Tequila Bar in Merrick Park – an outdoor mall in Coral Gables with the feel of a park, so lush is the vegetation. The Cinco Cantina serves fresh, tart ceviche on the same menu with refried beans and succulent shrimp tortillas.
Over in another Maimi neighbourhood called Coconut Grove at the Peacock Garden Café, Executive Chef, Oscar del Rivero, wears his contemporary dedication to sustainable, local, fresh foods on his sleeve. As you enter the restaurant through a small garden, you pass Chef del Rivero’s bathtub herb garden. Otherwise, he sources his mainly vegetarian, flawlessly fresh ingredients from local, South Florida farms.
Just north of the heart of Miamiis the newly renovated Wynwood Art District with 70 plus galleries, museums and art collections, including Wynwood Walls where artists paint graffiti-style works on outdoor walls. Next door to this wall of creativity on Second Avenueis yet another reminder of Miami’s rich history of immigration, Joey’s Italian Café, a little restaurant absolutely buzzing with a clientelle as eclectic as the menu. The super enthusiastic waiters proudly serve up a house specialty, the dolce e picante, a surprisingly savoury fig and honey pizza. For the main, I select the tortelloni with mushrooms and speck, a type of Italian prosciutto, tossed in an earthy walnut sauce, which turns out to be perfectly prepared, but in too generous a portion to finish.
Because Miamiis such a visited city, hotel restaurants are of an unusually high quality and in some cases enthusiastically innovative. At the independently run Area 31 restaurant – named for an historically rich and diverse off-shore fishing zone – on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel, Chef E. Michael Reidt has assembled a menu in the spirit of the dining room’s name. Rich in exquisitely seasoned fish, Area 31 offers some surprises like the hearty and delicious dish of mixed grains flavoured with herb chimmichurri and their potato-chorizo croquettas with tomato plantain salad. And over at Chef Joseph Natoli’s Catch Grill + Bar in the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay, the seafood – so much a part of this city’s history and identity – is grilled to perfection.
In Miami, the taste of the sea, the scent of the breezy sub-tropics, the flavours of this city’s multicultural history live in its menus. There is an excitement here about the potential for food to tell stories, to express pride of place and to expose cultural roots. There’s a creativity that comes with the mixing of immigration stories and a new emphasis on fresh, sustainable ingredients. There’s a sense of excitement that this city might just be the quintessential expression of what it means to be in the New World.
Read more from Darcy Rhyno’s trip to Miami:
All photos © Darcy Rhyno. All Rights Reserved.