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Miami, a tough cookie ?

posted Jan 6, 2012, 12:06 AM by Web Admin   [ updated Jan 6, 2012, 8:52 AM ]

Friends often ask  what life is like for a food aficionado settling down in Miami.

Probably the first impressions of newbies to the city are not favorable. Apart from serving as a party place Miami has a high crime rate and Floribbean cuisine is not really well known in places like North Dakota.

One is tempted to come up with a few statistics like the one which attributes us with the highest amount of corrupt officials in the U.S.

or the most dangerous interstate section in this country, I- 95 in Dade county, comes to mind.  For foodies there is a restaurant scene which seems ever changing save for a few fixtures like Michael’s or Michy Bernstein. High end culture aficionados will miss the vast choice of outstanding venues in places like Chicago or New York.

When we arrived in this city almost three years ago in the dead hot air of summer all I did for the first weeks was sweat. The first few trips up to Sunny Isles and down to South Beach revealed a touristy area, densely packed with high rises housing visitors of every orientation and country. A second glimpse into Miami Beach resulted in bright pastel colored Art Deco buildings, low rises all of them, with an aura of melancholic happiness if this can ever make sense. 

Miami Modern on Biscayne Blvd. has its architectural gems, each with his own story. Art Deco has its highlight in the Bacardi building,  yet another great story about spectacular design involving a Cuban dynasty. 

Beaches, beaches and more beaches line Miami. To me it feels like once people have acquired a certain state of mind they don’t walk to the sea to bronzeate anymore. Other more blissful moments are to be had near the shoreline.

The sea is the great counselor, large parts of the globe could be saved just by sitting  in the sand around sunset watching the world go by. Nothing seems more fortifying for the body than a walk or run on the beach. During the week nobody is there anyway save for a few runners/walkers, or the hobby fisherman at Haulover jetty. At the other end of the Bal harbor bridge lays the marina for charter boats, 30 bucks for a few hours out on the ocean. Late afternoon the catch is laid out for sale, Bloody bonitos, long, elegant sailfish, enormous grouper, you name it.

Another option to explore the town in search of culinary truffles, retail stores, chocolate shops or restaurants, are bikes. Bicycles offer a great way to scout the environment, up close and personal, to traffic, nature and people. It also trains not only the gluteus maximus but also sharpens the senses cruising through town.

Caribbean bakeries with their dense breads dot corners in little Haiti, Virgin Mary statues stare at passers by from the window of a voodoo store, which doubles as a spiritual healing center. 

If I don’t speak Creole, then a little French will carry me a long way into getting the right treatment. 

South of downtown in Coral Gables, built by George Merrick, lays a Spanish inspired part of the city. It sure feels like a summer holiday driving under the enormous canopies. Down there the city seems to open up, relax from the hustle in the downtown area just a few miles North. The Venetian pool, a spring fed former coral rock quarry, next to the enormous and extremely  venerable Biltmore hotel add to the picture of an almost rural  enclave. I strongly recommend a breakfast at the Biltmore on a Sunday morning with someone you love.

Just a few blocks away Cubans play Dominos on Calle Ocho, street number eight, in Little Havana.

From one block to another, Nicaraguan style food joints change with eateries from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. People here often wear shirts in their national colors and they do so proudly.  Brazilians have their little niche near North Bay Village, just like Argentinians flock to Buenos Aires Bakery on Collins and 71st or get an empanada ( Bolivian, Venezuelan, Chilean or Argentinian style) down the street at Moises bakery, just opposite of Mr. Pasta, the best place in town to pick up homemade noodle merchandise.

If it took me a year to make friends back in good old Germany, here people smile at me just for saying “Hola”.

The number of immigrants without papers in this city must be exorbitant, but it seems like almost everyone here tries to achieve something. This city might not hum like New York but it surely sings songs from all over the world.

Its cuisine highlights the fare of an immigrant city, nothing fancy on the mainland, rice and beans, seafood, chicharron and fried plantains, green or sweet, Latin sausages and grilled meats prevail. Local chefs on the beach mostly cater to tourists, meaning lots of burgers, sandwiches and  baked Alaska, flourless chocolate cake or  flan for dessert. For foodies though there is hope:

A bunch of chefs turned in another direction, work their own style. Away from mainstream munchland, they carefully assemble new dishes, often using local ingredients which abound in this part of the world.

Hundreds of types of mango can be found here, along with dozens of different avocados, 

because there was this guy named David Fairchild, not one but THE horticultural expert in this country who introduced countless fruits to Florida. His home the Kampong is home to several hundred fruits most people have never heard of, me included.

At the moment candy cotton berries are ripe, they taste just like their name and come from a tree known as the strawberry tree. White Sapote are in peak season and  snake tree fruit, with mango coming up.

Aquatic life is still abundant, we all hope for the oil catastrophe to settle far offshore, so we at least don’t see it. Just kidding...

Yes, I shall continue: Because of the warm gulf stream this part of the world remains one if not the best spot for deep sea fishing, until further notice. The water temperature allows for all kinds of  aquatic life from conch, oysters and clams, to lobster and Florida’s own yellowtail snapper. A large variety of mostly endangered species in the tuna family has their home here as well as a ton of reef dwellers and pelagic sharks. From tame tarpons to wild wahoos, from turtles to dolphins they are all out there, in open waters.

Offshore from Key Biscayne, in the distance, lies a village of wooden buildings, Stiltsville. Long abandoned, it was was built in the 1930’s as a retreat for fisherman, businessman and others looking for fun. Some of its wooden structures served as fuel supplier, others as restaurants and clubs for those who prefered a more secluded kind of fun.

Key Biscayne and Virginia Key like so many other islands in Miami are connected to the mainland by a bridge, which among cyclists, is known as the Miami mountain.

The view from the Rickenbacher causeway bridge towards downtown, the banking area in Brickell and the docks of the port of Miami is incomparable.

I like this view best when as many cruise ships as possible are docked to take up loads of supplies or when they make their way out to the open sea. They glide by the newly designed South Point Park and the container terminal making their way one or ten day cruises.

The other end of Miami in the south, the Redlands couldn’t be further away. This is farm country, hot, mosquito ridden and rural. Trees are planted by drilling holes into the coral, the fertile soil forms just a thin layer over the rocks, but the subtropical climate promotes plant life and with the help of countless workers miracles happen year after year.  Coming from a northern world I first was incredulous when someone told me that during the paralyzing South Florida summer mostly tropical fruit are ripening, because it is too hot for a lot of veggies. Only later I discovered that during the northern winter  a great variety of locally produced vegetables and fruits is to be had, often straight from a farm. 

Just like getting to know nature,it often takes newcomers a while to find their niches in Miami. 

Maybe because the city is so diverse, one has to look for the favorite hang out, the best baker, the bar that fits one’s taste just right. But these places can be found where a novice feels at home, others share the same interests and help discover the new life in a new city. For me this search also took its time, but the rewards are well worth the peeking around corners and the bike rides.

Miami with its several million people is just over a hundred years old but is home to an array of ethnicities who all want three things: Eat, drink and sleep. They strive to do so, but they also laugh and sing together, and sometimes cry.

A thing called life, set under 91 degrees with a 70% humidity. Nothing could stay tough here.