Fantastic Latin American cuisine abounds in Miami, but what to get where?

Long known as a gateway to Latin America, Miami over the years has evolved as a place where food from all over Central and South America can be had just about anywhere in town. It wasn’t always this way. From the early 1960s into 80s, Cuban cuisine dominated the landscape. There were other Hispanic countries represented but not many.

Flash forward to today, and the scene has changed into an explosion of Latin flavors from all over Central and South America. Cuban cuisine is still prevalent but definitely sharing the spotlight with Argentina, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and many other countries as well.

So in essence, Miami could be considered a culinary mecca of diverse Latin American cuisine, and that’s what’s interesting about sampling food from all these nations. Although they all have their versions of empanadas (a small flour- or corn-based little pie stuffed with meats, veggies or a combo of both), rice, beans and meats, it’s interesting how each country has its own take on what’s traditional to them.

Let’s start with Cuban food, where the staples on the menu include black beans and rice, either mixed (moros y cristianos) or served as white rice with a bowl of black beans on the side, sweet plantains (maduros), green fried plantains (tostones), roast pork (as chunks or shredded), picadillo (seasoned ground beef), and paella (borrowed from the Spanish it’s yellow rice filled withchicken and shellfish seasoned with saffron and containing green olives, green bell peppers, and pimento, to name a few – it’s one colorful dish!).

Here’s some great places to try some of the best Cuban around in Miami:

Sergio’s Restaurant, 3252 Coral Way, Miami, FL 305-529-0047. There are other locations but this one’s the original and it’s the best.

El Exquisito Restaurant, 1510 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 305-643-0227. In the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, nothing fancy here, decor is simple and food is just downhome good, owner learned all the recipes from abuela and his family members.

La Carreta Restaurant, 3632 SW 8thStreet, Miami, FL 305-444-7501. There are tons of these around the city and they all serve incredible Cuban food but this one’s got the wagon wheel with twinkling lights out front and is still after more than 30 years, the location to go to. Food’s consistently great.

Versailles Restaurant, 3501 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 305-441-2500. Can’t visit Miami without eating at this legendary spot, modeled after France’s Versailles but serving traditional Cuban food at all hours. This is the place to grab a late-night dinner after partying.

The Colombian presence in Miami has skyrocketed over the past decade, and with that growth in population, restaurants serving up authentic Colombian fare have popped up everywhere, sometimes in the most unlikely of neighborhoods. There are many good ones in the Little Havana area, which has slowly become more of an “international” street, but western Miami neighborhood of Doral is also a great spot for good Colombian food. Colombians love to use cilantro as a garnish in many of their dishes, and their arepas (or corn cakes) are mainly made with white corn and stuffed withall kinds of savory fillings as well as with egg and cheese for breakfast. One of the most popular Colombian dishes is the bandeja paisa, which could easily be called a sampler platter because it has red beans and rice, crispy patacones (green plantains), maduros (sweet plantains), chicharron (crispy fried pork), chorizo (cured sausage), carne asada (beef), a piece of avocado, an arepa and an egg. Their sancocho soup is similar to the hearty soups of other Latin American countries but this one contains a piece of chicken, a potato, a piece of corn on the cob, a piece of yuca (root vegetable common as a side in Cuban restaurants but not in soups), a green and a ripe plantain, and it is garnished with cilantro.

Here are some Colombian restaurants around town:

San Pocho Restaurant, 901 SW 8th St., Miami, FL 305-854-5954

Pueblito Viejo Restaurant, 8285 SW 40th St., Miami, FL 305-551-4650

Raspaos Restaurant, 18641 NW 67 Ave., Miami Lakes, FL 305-623-2233

Mondongo’s Restaurant, 3500 NW 87th Ave., Doral, FL 305-718-4977

La Ventana Restaurant, 710 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL 305-673-0912

Nany’s Cafe Restaurant, 710 Washington Ave., #13, Miami Beach, FL 305-538-1227

Restaurante Monserrate, 3399 NW 72 Ave., Airport Business Center, Miami, FL 305-599-8536

Argentinians and Nicaraguans share a love of grilled meats, they each has perfected the art of juicy, flavorful cuts of steak – churrasco style in Nicaragua and a la parilla in Argentina with their special green chimichurri sauce over the top, a dark green vinegar-based sauce made with tons of parsley and garlic. Argentinians actually love to use it on their empanadas as well and here’s where the two differ. Their empanadas are very similar on the outside but inside are stuffed with different types of meats or veggies, prepared to their country’s liking. Argentinians often include hard-cooked eggs in their fillings.

Try these specialties at:

Rincon Argentino, 2345 SW 37th Ave., Miami, FL 305-444-2494

El Novillo, 6830 Bird Road, Miami, FL 305-284-8417

Los Ranchos Steakhouse, in Bayside Marketplace, 401 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 305-375-8188

Zuperpollo Restaurant, 1247 Coral Way, Miami, FL 305-477-6556

Novecento Restaurant, 1414 Brickell Ave., Miami, FL 305-403-0900

Peruvian cuisine is getting a twist around Miami lately, with some folks blending their country’s traditional fare with Japanese, after all, the Japanese presence is historic in Peru (remember president Alberto Fujimori?), and so now more than ever that presence is being felt in Miami. For the purists, there are still plenty of straight-ahead great Peruvian spots, but for those looking for something different some places where there’s sushi as well. Seafood is one of the highlights of Peruvian food, ceviche being one of the standards on every menu and prepared many different ways. Ceviche is fish or seafood marinated in lime juice until it cooks, mixed with red onions, Peruvian corn nuts, and other spices and veggies. What’s unique about Nicaraguan ceviche is the type of corn they use – instead of traditional yellow corn you’ll find elsewhere, the corn is much larger, lighter in color and not the same soft texture.

Here are some great spots to sample this type of food:

Suviche, 49 SW 11 Street, Miami, FL 305-960-7097 where they’ve got ceviches galore served up alongside fresh sushi favorites

Sabor a Peru, 2923 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL, 305-573-9637

D’Lima Peruvian Cafe, 27 North Miami Ave., Miami, FL 305-374-5153

Farolito Restaurant, 2885 Coral Way, Miami, FL 305-446-4122

Finally, there’s El Salvador, where again, empanadas reign supreme except they call them pupusas and they’re actually closer to a Colombian arepa, except the corn that’s used to prepare them is somewhat more bland. These are usually stuffed with cheese, beans (a traditional Salvadoran bean which is green, instead of red or black), chicharron (the aforementioned crispy pork) or revueltas which include two of these ingredients in combination. They also eat plenty of seafood, particularly shrimp and its prepared similar to other Latin American countries and fried and sweet plantains are a staple side dish as well.

Find good Salvadoran eats at:

El Atlakat, 9425 SW 40 St., Miami, FL 305-552-9090

El Atlacatl, 3199 SW 8th St., Miami, FL 305-649-8000

La Pupusa Factory, 1804 W 68th St., Hialeah, FL 305-826-6444

One thing to remember when visiting any of these places, there’s nothing fancy about the decor, that’s not what they’re about. What’s important to remember is that at these restaurants, the food is authentic and it’s being served up with all the traditions that diners would expect to find when looking for Latin American cuisine. Buen provecho!

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