“Sure, it’s hurricane season” I pondered. “But what are the chances of actually encountering a hurricane….?”
Ever the optimist, my glass-half-full approach to life usually works in my favour. But on this occasion, I clearly underestimated the forces of nature. Specifically, the forces of Category 4 winds in the Caribbean in late September.
Carefully laid plans to explore Puerto Rico were smashed by Hurricane Fiona and any further ideas of heading west annihilated by Hurricane Ian. It was in fact a hurricane sandwich that left me with a week to play in Miami.
“Welcome to Miami, Bienvenidos a Miami” in the words of the Will Smith hit.
It wasn’t the plan… but a week in a new town with nothing booked but a ticket out is my favourite type of conundrum.
In truth I had never thought much about Miami or Florida. It’s Latin American that has beguiled me in recent years.
What I didn’t expect was that Miami IS Latin America. As one local put it so eloquently for me:
“Latin America runs up until Fort Lauderdale. That’s where the USA actually starts”.
Aha. Suddenly hurricane season was not so problematic.
I knew that thousands of Cubans fled to Miami when Castro came into power, congregating in what’s now Little Havana. I expected good coffee and a rocking salsa scene. What I didn’t expect was that Spanish would be the mother tongue of almost everyone I encountered, as a result of almost two thirds of Greater Miami’s population having Hispanic origin.
My taste buds got excited.
By the end of the week I had firm favourite Cuban restaurant and had eaten enough Puerto Rican food to feel like I had been there in spirit. This was interspersed with cuisine from Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.
When I wrote about the food in Cuba, I wrote largely about ham and cheese sandwiches coupled with cheese and guava paste. Cuba was sensational for many things but it’s not somewhere you go for the cuisine. A dictatorship communist regime will do that to an island.
Miami however, has the benefit of Cuban expertise and an unlimited supply of ingredients.
Our go-to restaurant was Puerto Sagua, a no frills diner a few blocks from the beach which has served comfort-food staples like Cuban sandwiches and ropa vieja since 1962.
Ropa Vieja translates to ‘old clothes’ because the shredded beef and vegetables seemingly resemble a heap of colourful rags. It’s one of Cuba’s designated national dishes.
I was very happy to see that the iconic guava and cheese combo was alive and well in Miami. I truly love the way the saltiness of the cheese enhances the sticky sweet guava – and I’ll never forget that way it concluded every meal I ate in Cuba. Here my favourite bedfellows were ensconced in a delicate croissant pastry.
It worked a treat with a Cuban coffee, which was everywhere you looked and tasted sharp and sweet.
Of course, nothing says Cuba like a Cuban sandwich. I tried a few and while the classic combo of ham, pulled pork, cheese and pickles is always a winner, I never quite found a version that was best-in-class – either it was too dry or the meat lacked flavour.
One of the things I was most looking forward to in Puerto Rico was visiting the legendary La Ruta del Lechón, or ‘Pork Highway’. Vegetarians look away now – I’m talking about long stretches of road packed with restaurants selling lechon, a whole pig that’s been marinating for hours, roasted over coals for several hours until it’s juicy and crisp. I’m salivating just at the thought…
In lieu of a dedicated highway we settled for Puerto Rican restaurants in Little Havana for our lechon and that other Puerto Rican stalwart – mofongo. It’s traditionally made from deep-fried green plantain pieces mashed with garlic and pork.
My favourite was a version with beef cheeks which was rich and moreish (slightly too much ballast for a night of salsa dancing as it transpired).
The other culinary hero of Puerto Rico is the piña colada – this heady mix of coconut, pineapple and rum was certainly created on the island but there is uncertainty by whom. I’m not sure how traditional this particular skyscraper of whipped cream is, but judging by the pace they were being made it seems no one cared.
There is of course, one other way to drink cocktails in Miami and that is illegally on the beach through a plastic pouch. The Latin tradition of mobile beach cocktail service is sadly not permitted in Miami but it doesn’t stop enterprising young off-season hospitality staff from making their own cocktails at home and selling them on the sly from cooler bags on their back. They are so subtle that you can barely hear them whisper ‘piña colada, margarita….’ as they stroll down South Beach. Once I cottoned onto the ruse I realised they were everywhere. And I wanted IN!
The pitches were creative. “I use Patron in my margarita mix” was my personal favourite.
I thinketh not my friend. But hey, I can report that every cocktail I tried (and there were many), tasted good and suitably boozy so I had no qualms with the tequila they were using. And several ‘beachtenders’ were happy to pull up for a lengthy chat as we plied them for local intel about the best (real) bars and destinations for salsa.
I still plan to get to Puerto Rico at some stage and relive my version of The Rum Diaries, but Miami and its Latin charms made for a damn fine Plan B.