Cruising through Florida on Latin Cuisine

    By Hilda Mitrani

    Homestyle cooking takes on a new meaning in Florida, where the Spanish first arrived in 1513.

    For many of us, Latin food conjures up visions of flavorful black beans and rice, rich plantains, tacos and fresh guacamole. Even a cup of coffee, better known in Miami as ‘un cafécito,’ carries rich aromas.

    Latin cuisine is tasty and typically uses fresh seasonings and an olive-oil base called sofrito, which is made with lots of onions, garlic and parsley. Other hallmarks of Latin cuisine are generous portions and a family atmosphere.

    Although we have the Spanish to thank for starting off our gastronomic adventures, today we can find Cuban, Colombian, Argentinian and Brazilian restaurants in many corners of the state. Now when you have that craving for Latin flavor, you can find delicious ‘palomilla’ steaks, tropical fruit juices and flan just about anywhere you go in Florida.

    Travel with me as we explore the many flavors of Florida, Latin-style! (And no passport needed!)

    Let’s start in Cape Coral, where the aptly named Azúcar Restaurant & Bakery is the source for fresh pastelitos, flaky Cuban pastries filled with tropical jams like guava, or sometimes, cheese. Azúcar, which means sugar in Spanish, follows the Cuban tradition of bakery/cafés as neighborhood watering holes. The freshly made food on the restaurant side will have you setting the spot as a favorite on your GPS.

    The Wave Kitchen and Bar, located at the Costa d’Este resort in Vero Beach, is owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Latin food connoisseurs themselves. This restaurant gets more adventurous with its cuisine and locale. Try the acclaimed salmon ceviche, which is served in a savory handheld cone, or choose from the tapas (appetizer-sized dishes meant to be shared). The fries made from yuca, a starchy tuberous root sometimes called cassava, are a tasty treat. If kids are in your party, order palomilla steak sliders for them. (And definitely sneak a bite for yourself, too.)

    In Hallandale Beach, Plantation, Orlando and Boca Raton, Padrino’s is a fixture for hearty family meals. Staples like grilled breast of chicken and steak sandwiches are served hot and dripping with mojito, a condiment sauce with a sour orange base. I’ve had many family meals there that are just like those my mother serves (but no one has clean-up duty!)

    Fernandina Beach gourmands talk glowingly about España Restaurant’s seafood delicacy, Cazuela de Mariscos, which is served like a bouillabaisse and overflows with clams, shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari, and lobster. Another popular dish is the Ensalada Andalusian, which is topped with Serrano ham. Here in northeast Florida, where balmy breezes are evident year-round, reserve your table on the outside patio for a romantic meal.

    A little less glamorous but no less delicious is Super Perro (loosely translated as ‘Big Dog’), a place frequented by Latin politicians longing for homestyle cooking. This Tallahassee spot is owned by a Colombian couple serving their unique cuisine plus delicious fast food like burgers, hot dogs and over-stuffed sandwiches called gorditas (chubby ones). If you like sausage, ask for the salchipapa.

    The venerable Columbia Restaurant that has been in Ybor City since 1905 is now duplicated in Sarasota, Clearwater Beach, St. Petersburg, St. Augustine, Celebration and Tampa. Ask for”Paella a la Valencia," and you’ll have a mound of rice with shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, chicken and pork. For a side dish, try the tostones, fried green plantains that have been pounded flat prior to cooking. And save room for their signature dessert, flan, a custard which is incomparable.

    Brazilians love their soccer, and Gol! The Taste of Brazil in Delray Beach plays on the passion this country has for grilled meat. Gol! serves a tremendous variety of high quality meats and chicken, plus grilled shrimp and salmon. That’s just one of the treats. The salad bar seems as big as a stadium and carries many vegetarian items such as a butternut squash soup, grilled tofu and a memorable hearts of palm salad. After dinner, you can take a heart-healthy walk along the Delray waterfront just down the block.

    Eating Spanish food means discovering a world of delicious flavors and unique culinary treats throughout Florida. And like all dedicated foodies, Latin folks can argue the relative merits of black beans and rice for hours.

    Try some of these wonderful restaurants and let us know about your favorites!

    Additional Restaurants:

    Acacias Colombian Delights and Restaurant - Colombian
    2469 U.S. Hwy. 98 N., Lakeland

    El Bohío – Puerto Rican Casual
    4651 Babcock St. N.E., Palm Bay 
    La Antioqueña Restaurant – Colombian Casual
    3861 Lake Emma Road, Lake Mary

    Places to Remember