September is not the month this Iowa girl would pick for a trip to Miami. Cooler temps and turning leaves typically have me pulling out flannel shirts and making chili and molasses cookies. However, when an opportunity to spend a few days in southern Florida presented itself, I pulled out my swimsuit and sunscreen and started planning a foodventure.
There were two culinary boxes I wanted to check during my stay: seafood and Cuban food. The best way to find the most authentic, fresh and unique offerings?
Ask the locals.
In this case, “the locals” just happen to be my relatives.
When my mom and aunt said they wanted to visit their older brother and sister-in-law in Miami and wanted someone act as their tour director, they didn’t have to twist my arm … at all. When my cousin offered to go along and be my copilot, I knew we were in for a great time. We would be visiting the family who introduced us to Cuban foods like picadillo, arroz con pollo, café con leche, and flan. Four generations now live in the Miami Springs/Hialeah area so other than booking a flight and a hotel, I quickly handed over the “tour director” responsibilities to my cousins and followed them wherever they wanted to take us.
signature Cuban meal
The debate began simply with the common question, “Where should we go to eat?” Knowing how much I wanted to experience Cuban meals, several places were proposed. When asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to try, I shook my head and said, “something traditional”.
The answer was unanimous. Molinas.
Spend one minute inside Molinas Ranch Restaurant in Hialeah and the word “eclectic” comes to mind. Diner-style seating, 80’s classic music, big screen televisions broadcasting soccer/baseball games and even a John Deere toothpick dispenser (which made my uncle smile like he was back on the farm) work together to give this place a comfortable and casual vibe.
Spend one minute looking at the menu and you will need more time. We non-Floridians looked up with lost and confused expressions. Only one question was asked: “Beef, chicken or fish?” My response: “what’s the most traditional dish on the menu?”
Close the menu.
What does ropa vieja mean? Literally, it means “old clothes”. Technically, it means shredded beef but my taste buds will always translate it: the best tasting shredded beef I’ve ever had. It is not a complicated dish. It is slow-cooked beef with deep flavor from onions, peppers, roasted red peppers, olives, tomato and paprika (among other things) and served with peas, white rice, black beans and sweet plantains.
If you are not familiar with plantains, Molina’s would be the perfect place to get acquainted. Similar to bananas in appearance, plantains are starchy and require cooking. As plantains ripen, like bananas, the peel turns from green to yellow to brown. “Green” plantains are used for savory preparations and ripe plantains for sweet. At Molinas, we tried three different, but equally delicious side dishes.
As pictured above with the Ropa Vieja, these caramelized, ripe plantains, or maduros, are soft and sweet and buttery. Tostones are made by frying thick slices of a green plantain, smashing each and frying again. Apologies for eating the subject before photographing it for you.
Frying very thinly sliced, green plantains creates the Cuban version of chips and salsa, where the “salsa” is a very light and flavorful combination of oil, vinegar and garlic. Trust me, they are every bit as addicting as the Mexican counterpart.
Like most people, I judge a restaurant by the quality of the food and the atmosphere. However, I will elevate a restaurant to a dining experience when I leave with increased food knowledge and the inspiration to create something new in my own kitchen. Molinas was a most enjoyable dining experience. Time to start searching for Ropa Vieja recipes!
One of the most underutilized dining experiences in any community is the local bakery. Often the word “bakery” brings to mind doughnuts and bread and is considered a place to stop for a coffee break. I love that but I want people to consider it to be an opportunity to try some regional and cultural specialties, both sweet and savory.
Vicky Bakery is the perfect example. Family-owned, this bakery, or panaderia, has been making Cuban pastries and specialty items in Miami for almost 50 years. They are now a chain of more than 20 locations using family recipes that “have been passed down from Abuelito to Abuelo”, or generation to generation.
To say we had a “sampling” of Vicky’s menu would be a complete lie. We bought a large amount of a wide variety of their offerings and loved every bite. It’s called research.
On the sweet side, we highly recommend the Guava and Cream Cheese Pastries (pictured above) and the Caramel Coconut Balls (pictured here on the left). For all of you who know my affinity for bread pudding, there was an ever-so-tempting tray of that too but I stuck to my plan to try new things.
I think the thing that impressed me most about this bakery was the selection of savory items. I am now officially infatuated with Croquetas de Jamon (ham croquettes) and Papa Rellenas (meat-filled mashed potato croquettes). Oh how I wish I had a picture of these! It’s probably a good thing we don’t have them around here. If we do, please don’t tell me … on second thought … please tell me!
This pizza pastry also caught my eye but didn’t make it into our box. Add it to the list for the next trip!
When I tell people that local grocery stores are on my agenda for any trip, I’m pretty sure they refrain from putting the back of their hand to my forehead to make sure I’m not ill. Like bakeries, grocery stores vary greatly from region to region and country to country. The produce isle is the perfect example. Those plantains we ate at Molinas?
And the guava from the pastry at Vicky’s?
Ever seen an avocado as big as your hand?
What do you call groceries bought on a foodventure? Souveniers. Cannot wait to take these home to add to my Cuban-inspired meals.
Pizza? How does that fit into the Cuban/seafood agenda of this trip? It doesn’t. But when your cousin says “you have to try this pizza!”, you try it!
Meet Nic. Born in Italy, learned to make pizza from his father, achieved Maestro Pizzaiolo status (like his father), moved to New York City and refined his skills as a chef, Nic knows what he’s doing. Now, in Hialeah, he is making some pretty awesome pizza in his own pizzeria. While our pizza was in the oven, my cousin told me that when he was a kid and other kids were hosting lemonade stands, Nic was making and selling pizza. That’s one way to make a lot of friends fast.
If there is one pizza on the Nic’s New York Pizza menu that you must try, it is the Black Truffle. The only reason to skip this pizza is if you really don’t like mushrooms. Even then, I think you should try it. Black truffle cream, mushrooms, ham, mozzarella and white truffle oil … not your traditional toppings but completely unforgettable!
We thought we should take a variety back to the family waiting for us so we also got the BBQ and the Hawaiian. They all disappeared but it was the Black Truffle that got the most compliments.
Now it’s time for me to confess. While waiting for our pizza, my cousin and I shared an appetizer.
Only, it wasn’t an appetizer … it was dessert. Nutella Tiramisu.
Thanks, Nic, for brining your craft to Hialeah. Any interest in opening a satellite in Des Moines??
On one of our drives between my aunt and uncle’s house and our hotel, I noticed a small place called Ceviches By Divino. Having only recently discovered how much I love ceviche, I had to ask my cousins about it. After getting the thumbs up from them and having a break in one of our days, I asked my travel partners if they wanted to try something very different. They surprised me and said they wanted to go along even if they chose not to be too adventurous.
Ceviche is a style of cooking where the acid from citrus fruit cures the fish and/or seafood that is added to it. It is served cold with a variety of sauces and fruits (e.g. mango or pineapple) and vegetables (frequently onion, avocado and peppers). Since we happened to stop during a quiet time for the restaurant, we were given the full attention of the staff. They answered all of our questions and helped us choose the Trio de Ceviches pictured above. My travel partners were totally curious and tried some bites of each preparation, preferring the one with avocado and mango.
The real surprise for me was a traditional Peruvian drink called Chicha Morada, or purple corn juice.
This is a non-alcoholic drink made by boiling and straining dried purple corn in water with cinnamon and adding sugar and lime. It was the most unusual thing I had encountered on this trip and I enjoyed every sip.
My request for fresh seafood spurred an offer to spend an afternoon and evening on Key Largo. My cousin, Gloria, has a stunning home in Tavernier. The last time I visited, this home was still in the construction stages. Having followed the progress via Facebook over the years, the opportunity to see it completed sounded perfect. Getting a boat ride around the island and spending a few hours lounging by the pool was priceless.
Salt water and sunshine … is there a better way to prepare for an ocean-front seafood dinner? Don’t think so. Before leaving Key Largo, we stopped at Sundowners. We missed the sunset by about 20 minutes but were still rewarded with a beautiful view from the patio and live music.
Always looking to try something new, I saw one fish selection that I did not recognize: hogfish. Among the preparation options for this entree was a key lime and caper sauce … yes, please.
I may not be able to find hogfish in any midwestern grocery store, but I sure will be trying to recreate that key lime and caper sauce!
While we’re talking about key limes …
… let’s close this day with a slice of Key Lime Pie.
Every bite of this pie was infused with lime: the meringue, the custard-style filling and even the crust. Perfect meringue peaks look like the waves of the ocean.
Don’t mind me … I’m just having a kumbaya moment here.
family dining – Miami Style
As I sit here looking at all of these pictures and remembering all the amazing places we visited and food we ate, I still have one more favorite to share: family dinners. There is nothing better than gathering around my aunt and uncle’s table … actually, there were enough of us that it was two tables put together … and sharing home-cooked meals.
One meal in particular was an exceptional treat for us midwesterners. Several members of our Miami family are quite talented and adventurous fishermen (and women). They were willing to share some of their catch with us in the form of creole.
Yes, they caught the lobster (snorkeling). Yes, they caught the snapper (deep-sea under a full moon using live lobster as bait). Yes, they made the creole themselves. Yes, they are pretty cool people! Served with white rice, avocado salad and a guava/lime/vodka or gin drink we created ourselves.
I know this post is about my foodventure in Miami but it is also about my family reunion. While food always seems to be the centerpiece of our gatherings, prayer and love nourish us most. We hold hands and thank God for His blessings. We sing the songs that unite us across the miles. We laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.
And every single time I make Picadillo, or attempt to make Ropa Vieja, I will remember this reunion.
Til We Meet Again!
This experience and could not have been so successful without the guidance and encouragement of my mom, aunt and cousin who were amazing “foodventurers” and my aunt, uncle and many cousins who live in Miami Springs/Hialeah. Love you all!