You know, I get a lot of odd requests in life. One of the odder ones in recent history was, “Hey, can you send me a bunch of photos I can use for a training funeral?”. Since yes, among the various colorful people I know are not only legislators, lawyers, professors, Lords, and actual rocket scientists, but funeral home directors as well. My answer was, of course, sure. I assembled an eclectic selection of photos of myself (you know, like the one with the horse mask, or the bathtub one, or the creepy cowboy one) and thus, the legend of Paul Crawford was born, a man who bears a shocking resemblance to myself, but, alas, departed this world late last year. Sniff. It’s like I know the guy. In any case, part of the deal was that I would get pie (dutifully delivered via Fedex), and, if I found myself in Florida, dinner. Thus, on a somewhat recent trip to Daytona for testing at Embry-Riddle, I found myself with an opportunity to meet up with my friend Leslie, have a nice dinner at De La Vega with her and her husband, and raise a glass in memory of poor Paul Crawford.
If there’s one good piece of advice about dining in the greater Miami area, it’s “you can’t have too much Cuban food.” While previously dining on Cuban food twice this trip at Latin American Bayside Cafe and Puerto Sagua, I was still craving one of the classic Cuban dishes: Vaca Frita (literally “fried cow”, it’s a shredded twice-cooked flank steak heavily marinated with citrus and cooked to a crisp). However, one of the better places for a good vaca frita is Versailles Cuban, on 8th Street (Calle Ocho) in Little Habana, which was, unfortunately, a bit of a haul from our hotel in Miami Beach. Luckily, TivoCommunity.com’s EddyJ (a genuine Cuban!) and Hot4Bo agreed that this was a great excuse for a mini-gathering, and EddyJ graciously offered to drive us to Versailles.
Like any good vacation, ours needed at least one seriously righteous breakfast. After consulting several online sources (Chowhound, Yelp, etc), we decided that Front Porch Cafe was a good place to try (and it had looked good as we passed it the day before). I’m glad we did. Situated on the north end of South Beach (i.e. the mellower and more-relaxed end of the beach), inside the Penguin Hotel (one of the apparently older Art Deco boutique hotels, albeit one that’s obviously been refurbished recently), the Front Porch is well named, since the vast majority of their seating is, well, on the front porch, or the sidewalk in front.
Cuban food has several signature dishes. In addition to the previously discussed Ropa Vieja, plantains, puerco, and such that we had at Latin American Bayside cafe, both roasted pork and ham served on a Cuban-style French roll (slightly more airy and less crusty than a traditional French baquette), served with cheese and, most importantly, pickle, all pressed and toasted to perfection. Unfortunately, while South Beach used to be a pretty good area for Cuban Sandwiches, most of the Cuban places I used to frequent in the early 90s are gone. However, Puerto Sagua is still there, and still good, so while enjoying the sites and sounds of a friday night in South Beach, we stopped by Puerto Sagua for a late-night snack…
he one thing about getting back from a 4-day cruise is that you’re not terribly hungry. After several days of heavy dinners and the like, Carol and I were ready to tone it down a little bit, and go explore South Beach while finding a nice snack to tide us over to dinner. Luckily, South Beach has no shortage of restaurants, pizza joints, and food stands, so it was mostly a matter of wandering around until we found something that tickled our fancy. What we found was Mattarello Bakery Cafe…
It’s hard to find a good Key Lime pie. Seriously, while the city of Key West is choc-a-bloc with stores making and selling key lime pie, often with “factory” in the name, there’s a lot of bad pie out there. A lot of it is chalky. The crusty is soggy (although that is a well-known hazard of the climate). The lime and sugar levels are off, leaving you with something that’s acidic and metallic, or sticky sweet. Really, the best key-lime pies aren’t the ones the tourists easily find, they are made by local residents in their own kitchens, for their own consumption. However, there are a number of places that do decent mass-produced pies. One I found (on a recommendation from a local kayak guide) was the Key West Key Lime Shoppe, which was recommended with a simple “There are better pies, but this is one of the best ones on the tourist strip.” Located across from Conch Republic’s bar, it’s pretty much one of those “all things Key Lime and/or lime green” stores, but they do have good pie.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the problems with cruise ship tourism is that you get off the ship with several thousand other people, which really tends to swamp the local economy. And it also allows all sorts of lousy t-shirt shops, bad bars, and really bad restaurants to flourish. We were looking for a place to eat that (a) wouldn’t be overly busy, and was (b) good. We asked a few locals, including our kayaking tour guide, and they recommended Conch Republic.
Before our cruise, we spent a few nights at the Doubletree Grand Biscayne Bay Hotel, which is located just north of the Venetian Causeway. However, this part of town is being redeveloped, and there just aren’t a lot of restaurants. However, one notable place we did find was The Daily Creative Food Co on Biscayne Avenue, about two blocks from the apartment. The Daily is a breakfast and lunch joint that sports an exhaustively large menu of sandwiches, salads, and breakfast items, most named after various newspapers. They also have a nice assortment of juices, smoothies, and coffee drinks.
One of the highlights of a trip to southern Florida is the ability to get some good Cuban food. Up here in cold New England, Cuban food is so far off the culinary radar (Boston proper doesn’t even have a vaguely authentic Cuban restaurant for example) that most people up here are of the mistaken impression that Cuban food is like Mexican food, which is really unfortunate, since Cuban food is very distinctive, and very delicious in it’s own right. Indeed, if I had to characterize Cuban food in terms of other cuisines, it’s basically a fusion of Spanish, French, African and Caribbean cuisines, drawing many distinctive flavors from each of these, with heavy influences of garlic, citrus, and sugar cane. Unfortunately, the downtown tourist areas (Port of Miami, Bayside, etc) are definitely not the center of Cuban cuisine in Miami, for that sort of action, you’re best heading to Calle Ocho and Little Habana. But in Bayside Marketplace (the big outdoor mall right on the Bay) is one little gem of a Cuban place, Latin American Bayside Cuban Cafe.