Florida Cuisine Sizzles with Latin Flavors
By Janet K. Keeler
Latin flavors are so ingrained in Florida’s culinary landscape that cooling down with an icy Mexican paleta or celebrating the weekend with a Cuban mojito is standard procedure.
For generations, immigrants from Latin America have flocked to the state, followed by restaurants featuring their native dishes and traditions. Diners all across Florida have benefited.
Cuban café con leche, Puerto Rican pastelillos, Jamaican jerked chicken, Haitian curry goat, and Argentinian chimichurri are all common finds in the Sunshine State.
Visitors to Florida can sample Latin cuisine all over the state, especially in South Florida where many residents speak Spanish. Along Miami’s Calle Ocho, restaurant servers usually speak to patrons first in Spanish. That’s a sign that the food you’ll be enjoying soon is authentic. The predominant Latin food in South Florida is Cuban.
The following roundup highlights some of Florida’s best Latin food. It’s just a starting place because there literally are thousands of restaurants where you can enjoy such fare.
Whatever you eat, don’t go home without sampling a tropical-flavored, chili-spiked Mexican paleta (ice pop) from places such as The Hyppo in St. Augustine and other locations, La Michoacana Paleteria in Homestead, and Morelia Gourmet Paletas in various South Florida locations.
Every visitor to Miami should eat at the iconic and vast Versailles on Calle Ocho, the city’s “Little Havana.” For a true Miami experience, head to Versailles’ walk-up window and order a sweet café con leche. The menu is as expansive as the restaurant. At first blush, Versailles may seem like a tourist trap but the tables of local families celebrating special occasions or couples on first (or 100th) dates vouch for its place as a locals’ favorite. Versailles is open until 1 a.m. weekdays and 2:30 a.m. on the weekends. Don’t be surprised to wait in line outside any time day or night. The picadillo, roast pork, Cuban sandwich, black beans and rice, and tostones (smashed and twice-fried plantains) are that good.
There are plenty of other Cuban restaurants along Calle Ocho, including El Mago de Las Fritas. El Mago’s specialty is the frita, a Cuban burger of sorts. It’s a seasoned beef patty, something like chorizo, that’s topped with fried shoestring potatoes and sliced raw onions served on a Cuban bun. The secret is in the spicy ketchup-based sauce. Variations at El Mago include chicken and vegetarian plus doubles and triples topped with tostones, a fried egg or Swiss cheese and ham. Watermelon juice is a refreshing accompaniment.
Tucked into a Key West neighborhood far away from the Duval Street revelry is El Siboney, a family-run Cuban restaurant. It’s not much to look at from the outside but the long line of patrons waiting for tables tells a different tale. (There’s a second location on nearby Stock Island.) Diners are so close to the azure water surrounding the Florida Keys that it’s smart to order seafood such as yellowtail snapper, grouper, mahi-mahi and local shrimp, prepared Cuban-style. Mango cheesecake or key lime pie is the perfect ending.
For big-budget Argentinian – and that means tons of grilled meats – head to Graziano’s in Coral Gables (there are other locations). Wear your stretchy pants because the portions are huge. If you have to wait for a table because you haven’t smartly made a reservation, hang out in the front and watch the meat cooked over an open flame. It’s behind glass so don’t worry. Beef, chicken, pork and huge Madagascar prawns are among the offerings.
A more low-key Argentinian spot is tucked into a small mall on Key Biscayne. Milanezza Restaurant & Bar is named for the traditional open-face sandwich on toasted bread and is an Argentinian art here. Its influences come from France and Italy, but the portion size is all Argentina. Don’t pass up dessert, especially the Chocotorta Argentina, a cake made with cookies, dulce de leche and cream cheese.
A large Haitian community has brought many restaurants to Miami, clustered in the area known as “Little Haiti” and expanding into neighboring cities. Haitian cuisine is a melting pot mix of European, African and Middle Eastern flavors, making it a bit different from the food of neighboring countries. You’ll find spiced meatballs and black mushroom rice at Nani’s Haitian Cuisine in Hollywood. Get oxtail stew with a side of colorful arts and crafts at Le Belle Jacmelienne in Miramar. The chef at Ivan’s Cookhouse in North Miami was on the Food Network’s Chopped and he shows off his cooking chops in Tasso flashed fried goat meat and island pumpkin soup. Alberte’s Restaurant in Oakland Park serves a sampler of everything Haitian. Ask the server for suggestions but think about ordering one of the fritaille (fried) platters, especially the goat or conch.
The discussion continues to rage over the geographic origin of the Cuban sandwich. Miami claims it came from Cuba to South Florida but many culinary historians say it was first served at Tampa’s Columbia Restaurant in 1905. There are some differences in the way the sandwich is prepared in Tampa than in Miami, the biggest being the Tampa Cuban includes salami and is usually pressed so that the Swiss cheese melts. It should never have mayo, lettuce or tomato and claim to be authentic. The Tampa Cuban is salami, roast pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, thinly sliced dill pickle and mustard on Cuban bread. That’s it, but that’s never the end of the discussion.
Arguments aside, the good news is that the Columbia restaurant is still in business in the original Ybor City location and has others around the state. The Spanish influences here are with a Cuban accent. One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the Columbia 1905 Salad that can easily be a full meal with its strips of ham and Swiss cheese, plus green olives and tomatoes over iceberg lettuce. Sangria is also a big draw.
More good news about the Cuban sandwich is that there are plenty of places to sample one all around the Tampa Bay Area, including the Columbia. Also in Tampa, are La Teresita, Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, anf West Tampa Sandwich Shop. Across the bay in St. Petersburg, the lines wait down the sidewalk for the Cuban sandwiches at Bodega, which specializes in Latin street food. Another hot spot for a Cuban in The Floridian on Treasure Island, whose sign claims that the authentic Cuban sandwich is made there.
WEPA! Cocina de Puerto Rico in St. Petersburg is serving food of the island made with the recipes from the owner’s mother. The restaurant specializes in Puerto Rican street food plus traditional dishes such as mofongo, paella and chicharrones de pollo. For dessert? Flan of course. After dinner, saunter (or roll?) across the parking to 3 Daughters Brewing for craft beer or hard cider and a game of checkers.
Back in Tampa, Terra Sur Cafe is a well-kept secret in a strip mall in a northern suburb. It is worth the drive and easy with the assistance of GPS. The traditional Peruvian menu is served in white-table cloth elegance. That doesn’t mean it’s fancy but it does promise a memorable meal. A large variety of ceviche is available but you might head straight for the “chaufa” section of the menu. This is Peruvian fried rice influenced by the Chinese immigrants who made the South American country their home.
Orlando is a hotbed of Hispanic restaurants, Cuban and Puerto Rican of course, but the Mexican food game is strong in The City Beautiful. The Mexican Consulate helps throw the annual Mexican Food Festival each August around Lake Eola. There are plenty of big-name Mexican restaurants and chains, including Bartaco, Uncle Julio’s and Chicago Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Cocina at Walt Disney World. The big guys are enticing, but don’t overlook the independents, including the mom-and-pop eateries in small strip malls.
Worth a try is El Patron Restaurante Mexicano that offers brunch and a whole slew of artisan tacos. Soft shell crab in a Dos Equis XX beer batter with a chipotle-cucumber sauce? That’s putting a spin on the taco. Online reviewers proclaim El Molcajete Mexican Restaurant a hidden gem. Behind its simple sign is a menu that has lots of fans, and the tacos are just $1.75 each. Reyes Mezcalaria is a critics’ darling and gets high marks from patrons, too. Think about margaritas and apps here, including elote (Mexican street corn), tamales, fundido and charred octopus.
The empanada, described simply as a turnover most often filled with meat, is the quintessential Latin fusion nosh. It is served all over South America, possibly originating in Argentina and introduced by the Spanish.
Empanada’s Factory in Jacksonville celebrates the empanada with a variety of fillings but the menu is full of other Latin food specialties, such as Colombian arepas and Peruvian chaufa (fried rice). They put their spin on common American dishes, such as the grilled cheese sandwich. Theirs is filled with provolone and topped with chimichurri cradled in Cuban bread.
Also in Jacksonville, Beignets Caribbean Café is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurants. It serves food of the islands, mostly Haiti and Jamaica, and patrons can bank on the authentic taste of jerk chicken and oxtail soup. The Burrito Gallery downtown bills itself as “Jaxmex” and has a creative and long list of burrito fillings including curry chicken, teriyaki tofu and Cajun shrimp. Not exactly old school but the modern twist brings a young crowd. Lola’s Burrito & Burger Joint is also an homage to both the old and the new in Mexican-inspired cuisine. The restaurant in the Riverside neighborhood is adorned with Day of the Dead art and full of millennials itching to eat a burrito stuffed with chorizo and fried plantains.
South of St. Augustine on A1A, the road that takes travelers all the way to Key West, is Llama Restaurant, featuring updated classic Peruvian cuisine. Its menu exemplifies the way that cuisines cross borders in Latin America. The Latin food – ceviche, octopus, even crispy fried plantains – is art on a plate. Smart travelers will call ahead for reservations.
Also along A1A in the Guy Harvey St. Augustine Resort, is another restaurant that pays homage to Florida’s Spanish roots. Santiago’s Florida Kitchen and Bar’s menu is a virtual tour of Latin cuisine: Banana coconut fritters, ropa vieja, Minorcan clam chowder, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, Baja-style street tacos and tropical tossed salad.
In Gainesville, home of the University of Florida and a football-crazed community, you’ll find plenty of sports bars serving the usual fare to accompany a game on TV. Mi Apa Latin is a departure from the usual bar food, serving authentic Cuban dishes “with a smile.” Breakfast is served all day and that’s a beautiful thing when you wake up late with a hankering for ropa vieja y huevos (shredded beef and eggs with Cuban toast).
Food trucks are a common sight on city streets and many of them serve Latin food, especially tacos and burritos. A number of these food trucks roam Pensacola, gathering devoted diners along the way. Among them are El Coqui serving Puerto Rican food, and Joe’s Caribe, the truck to find when you’re craving relleno de papa (fried dough balls stuffed with beef) or pasteles (Puerto Rican style tamales).
Speaking of tamales, Pensacola seems to have more than its fair share of restaurants that serve these packets of masa filled with all sorts of savory stuffings. Restaurants and small Mexican markets sell tamales, making this traditional Christmas treat available year-round. Check them out at Rio Brava, Casa Ole, Lupita’s Mexican Fast Food and Taco Rock 29.
Florida’s Panhandle is blessed with some of the country’s most beautiful beaches. And all along them are restaurants to feed hungry travelers and locals. Burrito Del Sol with locations in Fort Walton Beach and Destin is one of those places, specializing in hearty hand-held burritos. Billed as coastal Mexican, diners can get shrimp and fish in a rolled in a flour tortilla, pressed in a quesadilla, scattered on top of a salad or nestled in a taco.
Like Gainesville, Tallahassee is also a college town but with the addition of being the state capital. You’ll find plenty of Florida State University students dining at Gordo’s, a Cuban joint not far from campus. Gordo’s offers a variety of Cuban sandwiches, including the Cuban and media noche. They put another spin on the Cuban, making a veggie version and one with turkey. El Jalisco is another popular spot for students, locals and legislators. This is one big restaurant and a go-to spot for fajitas and margaritas. Super Perros serves Colombian specialties in a big corner location that is easy to drive by on the way to somewhere else. Don’t let the lack of windows put you off. Inside is comfortable and well-lit, with a bank of TVs to watch those college football games. Grilled meats, ceviche and Colombian-style hot dogs topped with coleslaw and crushed potato chips are all on the menu.