Best Things to Eat in Miami

Miami is a dynamic, multicultural food city boasting one of the strongest Caribbean and Latin American culinary scenes in the country, with a tropical climate that allows year-round produce, not to mention abundant seafood from the surrounding waters. Here are the best local foods — and where to find each.

By: Lena Katz

Cubano — Havana 1957

Ham, Swiss cheese, sliced roast pork and pickle chips are heaped two inches thick between thin slices of fresh Cuban bread, spread with mustard and butter; then the sandwich is grilled in a press, so the outside is crisp-toasted and the inside gooey with cheese. The Cuban sandwich is the ultimate ham and cheese melt, although no one can agree on who does the very best version. (In fact, there’s an annual festival and statewide contest.) Havana 1957 does an Americanized portion — i.e. too big for one person to eat,— with a side of fritas that practically demand you slake their saltiness with sangria.

Paletas — Paletas Morelia

Prepare to love the frozen fruit pop like you haven’t loved it since you were four years old. Artisanal makers here have elevated it to a flavor-bursting edible art form that often manages to stay on the healthy side, but sometimes veers into super-chocolate fantasy land. The pops at Paletas Morelia are handmade with fresh fruit, ingeniously filled with creme or liqueur, often garnished with a slice of their main flavor ingredient — whether that be a Key lime slice or an Oreo. Varieties include strawberry cheesecake, pineapple-mint, mango, coconut and banana with Nutella inside. Oh, and there’s a Belgian chocolate pop filled with Irish creme, for when you want to act like a kid again but also keep your buzz going.

Ceviche in Leche de Tigre with Peruvian Corn — Pisco y Nazca

It’s not quite fair to claim ceviche as a Miami signature, but it is fair to say this city is the only one outside Peru to widely offer Peruvian-style ceviche in peppery "tiger’s milk" — a lime- and fish stock-based marinade. The ceviche can feature many kinds of seafood, often enhanced with chunks of yam and some choclo, or large-kernel white Peruvian corn, which is nutty and starchy. Authentic Peruvian restaurants such as South Miami favorite Pisco y Nazca usually kick off meals with another variety of corn called cancha; toasted or fried crunchy with plenty of salt, it’s addictive but only makes you thirstier and more ready for your leche de tigre.

Pastelitos — Pastelito Papi at Ariete and Chug’s

These flaky glazed Cuban puff pastries are a ubiquitous Magic City snack. Guava cream cheese is the standard, but they’re made with other sweet and savory fillings. They’re easily available at the airport, in Publix, in neighborhood bakeries all over the city and in their ultimate form at glossy New World restaurant Ariete for Sunday brunch. This last mention seems improbable, until you know that Ariete sous chef Giovanni Fesser has become so famous for his gourmet pastelitos that he now goes by the Miami superhero name Pastelito Papi. Since his pastelitos have outgrown their Sunday-only role, they’re also available all days at Ariete’s new offshoot Chugs, a Cuban diner in Coconut Grove. Try the PB&G, a clever mashup of guava and PB&J.

Tacos al Pastor — Taquiza

While this style of tacos originated in central Mexico, the flavor combination of grilled pineapple and achiote-marinated roast pork has been enthusiastically adopted by Miami’s taco-eating crowds for its Mexican-Caribbean and coastal South American flavor profiles. Rich and a little bit fatty and vinegary-peppery from the achiote, with pineapple sweetness, these tacos are wildly appealing. They’re almost always made on soft corn tortillas; Taquiza raises the bar with its specially light and chewy blue corn tortillas stone-ground from blue corn masa.

Stone Crab Claws — Monty’s

Ranging from large-ish to enormous, and so hardy that it takes a hammer to crack them, stone crab claws are a seasonal delicacy that seafood lovers never tire of. Most people never get their fill, perhaps because the price per claw is usually prohibitive, especially with the large ones. No matter the size, stone crab claws all have the same flaky but firm, salty-sweet meat, ideally with a creamy mustard dip to bring out that sweetness. The not-so-secret draw about Monty’s is that it serves a happy hour special of small claws for between $6 to $8 per piece, which is about half the market price, allowing seafood lovers to feast on stone crab without running up a restaurant bill higher than their car payments.

Patacon — LOBA

Ask anyone from outside Miami what fruit shows up most often in Miami meals, and they’ll say oranges or Key limes or maybe acai. All wrong. It’s the plantain. Thank the Caribbean, West Africa, Central America and coastal South America — their cultures eat plantains as a starchy veggie side and a syrupy, fruity side, and also sometimes as bread. Around Miami, try it as patacon — a plantain mashed, fried and eaten in place of toast. The patacon at Colombian restaurant Loba measures a full 11 inches and is the centerpiece of a meat-and-carbs extravaganza that can easily feed two.

Pasta — Macchialina

Pasta is the one main course wherein meat-eaters and vegetarians, North Eastern transplants and Europeans alike can find common ground. Whether in white tablecloth New York offshoots, neighborhood osterias or South Beach "date night" destinations, Miami’s Italian restaurants always make sure to have something vegetarian but still decadent in the pasta department. Macchialina is a New York-meets-South Beach date-night osteria all-in-one, with a managing partner born in Queens and raised in Italy. While it does offer a popular short rib lasagna, the star of the menu is the beet mezzaluna pasta in hazelnut brown butter. This longtime signature has avowed carnivores switching to the veggie side of life for the night, without hesitation.

Mofongo — La Placita

The US mainland is somewhat lacking in Puerto Rican food. Even Miami doesn’t have that many standout stops for mofongo (PR’s classic entrée: a mashed green plantain base topped with roast pork or other various proteins). So local gastronomes rejoiced when Jose Mendin, a Puerto Rico native and Miami star chef known for his PubBelly restaurants, turned a large, visible MiMo building into La Placita. Inspired by San Juan’s Mercado Santurce, the building is painted like the Puerto Rico flag, letting people know from a block away that the Mofongo Has Arrived. It can be ordered with every known protein variation: ropa vieja, carne frita, crab stew, lobster... And, the trifongo variety — a triple base of green plantain, sweet plantain and yuca — is available every day. That’s something you rarely see, even in San Juan.

Chicken and Waffles — The Social Club

The Southern influence isn’t as strong here as in the rest of Florida, but it definitely exists, and many of the restaurants in town nod to Southern flavors with chicken and waffles. In order to really stand out, though, chefs need to figure their twist on the dish. Social Club at the Surfcomber has two: First, the kitchen cooks the bird sous vide for four hours before bathing it in buttermilk, flour-dredging the bird and deep-frying it. As for the waffles, they’re cinnamon instead of ordinary buttermilk, and the syrup is maple-berry-mustard, further playing up the sweet-spicy-savory triumvirate.

Coconut Breakfast Cake — AD LIB

On weekends, when the morning meal can get the appropriate two-hour time window it deserves, Miami folks set aside their empanada-coffee routines for a leisurely boozy brunch outside. And on these weekend menus, the more creative multicultural chefs really let their fruit flags fly. With fresh mango, guava, pineapple, coconut, key lime, mamey and obscure fruits like guanabanas in abundance, offerings on the sweet side of the menu can be like nothing you’ve seen before. Case in point: this beautiful, puffy personal-sized coconut cake at Ad Lib, made with "first of the season" fresh Florida mangoes and a side flourish of pineapple. It’s not a pancake, nor a muffin, and it breaks the rule that says you can’t have cake for breakfast. Yet, it comes from the great minds behind Yardbird, and they pretty much wrote the rules on breakfast in this town.

Empanadas — CVLTVRA

These half-moon-shaped filled pastries are Miami’s essential quick bite. Getting a cup of coffee in the morning? Pair it with a couple empanadas. Buying groceries? Stop by the grocer’s bakery and get an empanada to nibble while you shop. Having pizza and wine? Why not start with an order of empanadas? They can be fried or baked, range in size from bite-sized to taco-sized, and can be stuffed with whatever the maker feels like — meat, cheese, mushrooms, spinach, potatoes or, on the sweet side, fruit, cream cheese, Nutella, and the list continues. Upscale pan-Latin restaurants like Cvltvra do a great job packing big Latin flavors into the crunchy confines of an empanada shell. Take, for example, the perfectly crimped crescents filled with Venezuelan asado negro — wine-braised beef or veal.

Fresh Fruit Ice Cream — Azucar

In a climate that has basically no cool seasons, ice cream is a treat with year-round appeal, not to mention the potential to create new flavors with whatever local fruit is plentiful at the moment. Even a random local yogurt shop might have housemade key lime or fresh mango on special, but the best ice cream shops in the city, like Azucar, get much more creative. Azucar’s seasonal flavors include rose petal, avocado ice cream and watermelon-mint sorbet. Azucar has a rotating list of Miami signature flavors such as the Cuatro Leches and the Abuela Maria — so popular they trademarked it — featuring guava chunks, cream cheese in homemade vanilla ice cream with galletas Maria wafers as a topping.

Whole Locally Caught Fish — Lobster Bar & Sea Grille

Fishing is still the second-largest industry just one county down from Miami-Dade, so any restaurateur that wants to serve local fresh catch can do so, as long as they understand the flavor profiles and how to serve the fish that are common in Miami waters. These include snapper, flounder, and — less commonly available, but such a part of regional heritage, there’s a town named after it up north — pompano. Moist and mild-flavored, semi-firm but not flaky, pompano is also known as butterfish, and it’s tasty with no sauce or marinade required Lobster Bar & Sea Grill often has pompano as one of its fresh whole fish of the day offerings. It’s salt-crusted and grilled, then gets a quick hit of olive oil and fresh lemon emulsion before going to the table whole, where it is filleted tableside.

Elote — Cracked by Chef Adrianne

A popular Mexican street food, elote is ears of corn that are roasted or grilled, then slathered in garlicky mayonnaise or crema, sprinkled with cotija cheese and cilantro, and finally seasoned with chile powder and salt. The only down side of this veggie-friendly, savory and inexpensive snack that’s beloved around Miami is that it’s very messy to eat with your hands, which is usually the only option. Local chef Adrianne Calvo serves up elote from her Wharf stationary truck, with a simple but genius twist: She serves the corn off the cob.

Tiradito — Toro Toro

Tiradito is a Peruvian raw fish dish that can take you on some unusual flavor adventures. Typically you find it in a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant. (There are many of these — Japanese immigration to Peru strongly influenced Peruvian food.) However, Miami is always game for a tasty culinary crossover, so tiradito has been embraced as sushi’s Latino cousin. It features sushi-grade raw fish cut like sashimi — thin slices, not chunks — and served in a sauce or dressing. It might be simply lime-based like ceviche, or it might be a pepper cream or include olive oil. Some of the most exquisite tiradito in Miami is at Richard Sandoval’s downtown stunner Toro Toro. He wraps hamachi around a little bundle of julienned peppers and other veg, then arranges the bundles in a marinade of habanero-passion fruit aguachile for a triple punch of sour, sweet and fiery — with cilantro oil for smoothness.

Argentine Steak — PM Buenos Aires Fish & Steak

When people from South America want a superior steak experience, they look to the Argentines. Even when they’re not working with beef from Argentina, Argentinian steakhouses still differentiate themselves from others because of the level of care they put into sourcing, and also the simplicity with which they prepare the meat. Letting the meat shine without a need for butter soaks or overpowering sauces. Att popular Brickell steakhouse PM Buenos Aires meat is the focus, minimally seasoned with only Argentinian grilling salt, and grilled over charcoal to give a distinctive flavor. A small dish of garlicky, herbaceous chimichurri arrives on the side, but you don’t need to use it on the steak — it goes just as well with bread or a salad.

Croquetas — Doce Provisions

These little oblong carbo-bomb bites are another obsession that Miami shares with other cultures around the world. The local style of croquetas comes from Cuba, not Europe — in fact, many Miami Cubans seem to believe that Cuba created the croqueta and bestowed them upon Miami. (Puerto Ricans and various other Latino nationalities will refute this, of course.) Croquetas are made of a mixture of ground beef or ham, potatoes or rice, possibly breading, maybe seafood, maybe vegetable paste, often a bechamel and/or white sauce. The ingredients are formed into balls or cylinders, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried. Doce Provisions, a Latin gastro-taverna in Little Havana, doesn’t do the most authentic croquetas (those would be ham and cheese for under $1 each) — but its chorizo version made with Miami Smokers’ spicy meat are a must on any croqueta tour of Miami. The rice ones are also delicious.

Tres Leches Donut — Salty Donut

Latin American pastries will always have a devoted following in the Magic City, but the small-batch doughnut craze caught on here a few years ago, and has proven wildly popular with Wynwood photo-snapping permanent vacation crowds. To cater to the local palate, doughnut shops typically offer some variations on the tropical fruity side. Salty Donut does this and also borrows flavors from the Latino pudding wheelhouse — luring pastelito eaters with a guava-cheese brioche doughnut; rumchata lovers with a white chocolate-coated tres leches doughnut (pictured); and the frosé-sipping brunchers with strawberry "mimosa-spiked" doughnut holes (no, they will not get you buzzed).

Tostones — Seek & Find

Fundamentally, tostones are just pressed, deep-fried green plantains — similar to a patacon, just made in smaller dimensions. It’s a common side starch, and not particularly flavorful. However, when chefs use tostones as a base or an edible vessel, like potato skins, snack magic happens. You might see them topped with shrimp and avocado, with pulled pork and pineapple, with vaca frita and beyond. At Coral Gables hot spot Seek & Find, tostones are on the appetizer menu topped with braised pork, mashed potato, black beans and an oniony salsa. They’re also served at brunch, replacing English muffins in the excellent Caribbean Benedict.

Florida Spiny Lobster — Michael’s Genuine

Cold-water lobster is flown into Miami year-round and available at most spendy steak and seafood houses. But the Florida lobster, cousin of the Caribbean lobster, is only available in season — starting in August, winding down in winter—and they’re getting harder and harder to find here, since the majority are shipped to China. A few local chefs have both the will and the fisherman connections to keep Florida lobster on the menu for at least a month or two — James Beard winner Michael Schwartz being one of them, of course. This South Florida icon always has local seafood on the menu at his flagship restaurant, Michael’s Genuine, whether it’s Florida shrimp, exotic lionfish, bycatch (lesser-known local fish that people wouldn’t normally think of eating), highly prized stone crab or, in the month of August, gorgeous wood-grilled Florida lobster over fresh veggies.

Griot — Ivan’s Cookhouse

With a sea of Cuban and South American restaurants, it can be easy to overlook Caribbean food, which is a mistake, because many islands have a culinary presence here. Haitian food, in particular, is a must-try. It’s got rich soups and sauces, sweet and sour contrasts, a touch of fire from Scotch bonnet peppers, and griot — a humble-looking yet addictive plate of flash-fried citrus-marinated pork chunks. Ivan’s Cookhouse, owned by Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Ivan Dorvil, is worth the drive to a North Miami shopping center for meltingly tender griot with a side of black mushroom rice. Also try the akra (malanga fritters) and fried green plantains with pikliz (peppery Haitian pickle-slaw).

A Meal in a Pineapple — The Spanglish Vegan

So mere slices of pineapple aren’t enough for you? That’s fine — they grow on trees here. Pineapple bowl meals tend to be more of an off-menu special of the day than a regular item, because it’s a pretty labor-intensive preparation that then requires finding usage for all the pineapple you just scooped out. But at popular new food truck the Spanglish Vegan, it’s the signature item on the menu. Stuffed with savory coconut rice and deep-fried cauliflower, this very healthy yet very extra meal is perfect for healthy days and Instagram photo sessions.

Lechon Asado — La Esquina del Lechon

Marinated overnight in a Cuban mojo, then slow-roasted whole for several hours in a caja china (a roasting box), so it comes out golden crackling, with tender meat falling off the bone onto a bed of onions and rice, this is Cuban-style lechon at its best. The suckling pig at this unassuming Doral spot is worth driving across the county if you’re a carnivore — it is pork at its most tender, flavorful and to quote the regulars, la mas rica. Not too many places in Miami do the whole hog, so to speak, but this restaurant does one every day, and usually two, so there’s enough for lunch and dinner. One version is spiced with habanero salsa, the other served simply atop a bed of onions.

Grilled Octopus — AQ Chophouse

In most American cities, calamari is a menu standby. Here, it’s octopus. Miamians love either the large tentacles or the entire octopus, served whole a la plancha, which means grilled or griddled over coals. It typically arrives on a cast-iron pan or a wooden plank. More elegant restaurants such as Sunny Isles’ haute Italian AQ Chop House will then plate it and cut it up for you, but in more casual restaurants, it’s you and a small knife versus those delicious but unwieldy tentacles.