The Restaurant Industry is Doubling Down on Miami

By David Rosendorf | Briana Balducci, Jaclyn Warren, Will Blunt

By

David Rosendorf
Briana Balducci, Jaclyn Warren, Will Blunt
Smoked Mahi Mahi Dip, Saltines, Pickled Chiles, Lime, Tabasco | Chef James McNeal of Over/Under
Smoked Mahi Mahi Dip, Saltines, Pickled Chiles, Lime, Tabasco | Chef James McNeal of Over/Under

The Miami restaurant world is used to waves. We’ve seen our Mango Gang wave, our Nueva Latina wave, our farm-to-table wave, and wave after wave of out-of-town, big-name chefs with their tourist-friendly steakhouses and big-box concepts. But this latest wave seems different. Call it a rogue wave. A new generation of chefs—some locally born and bred, others who worked at top spots around the country before finding their ways here—are doubling down on Miami. 

There isn’t necessarily a unifying theme or style: Some tap South Florida’s culture and ingredients for inspiration, while others find different ways to connect with the community. And many are looking away from the high rents of South Beach and Brickell, instead finding more opportunities in less touristy neighborhoods. What they share is a confidence that Miami is ready to embrace their diverse viewpoints, a confidence the city has eagerly rewarded.

 

Born and Raised

You can taste local flavors at many of these new places but not in the ways that outsiders might expect. There’s no mango salsa at Rising Star Chef Michael Beltran’s Ariete, but you might find crema de malanga—a tuber that’s a staple in Latin American supermarkets—or a local snapper ceviche with papaya leche de tigre. A Cuban-American Miamian, Beltran is as 305 as they come. After working with two of the city’s culinary godfathers, Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz, his goal is “to be as Miami as possible.”

Beltran explains: “We serve a lot of things that in Miami are not common. When people say the food culture here is bad, I disagree. The food culture is young.” 

He wants to be the chef who brings Michelin stars to Miami, but if Michelin never comes, that’s OK, too: “The community is why we do this. Miami is why we do this. The independent restaurant thing is tough, but it feels so good when it works.”

What chefs like Beltran do with food, Restaurateur Matt Kuscher does with decor and vibe. “I want people to know they’re in Miami,” he says. But not the tourists’ version of Miami: “It’s like Times Square. That’s what South Beach is to us.”

His places are all about the detailsLa Cocina, “Hialeah’s First Cocktail Bar,” is attached to Stephen’s Deli, a Jewish landmark that dates back to the 1950s. References to local lore like the Ñooo Que Barato discount store and the Hialeah Spider-Man might charm or confound the tourists. “I want people from other places to know they’re in Miami and to not understand the references and to know we have our own language,” Kuscher says. But it’s not really for them anyway. Kuscher’s playing the long game: “I don’t want to be the hot spot. I want to be the place you go for Tuesday dinner for 20 years.”

Over/Under, a self-described “subtropical honky-tonk” is another place made by and for locals. South Florida native James McNeal’s menu might sound like simple bar food, but there’s a lot going on underneath the surface, and the local presence is stealthy but pervasive: local mahi mahi smoked in-house for fish dip and sour orange pie. 

Amanda Fraga, director of beverage and social media for The Genuine Hospitality Group, grew up in Hialeah and Kendall and has seen the restaurant community become more interactive with professionals hosting events at one another’s restaurants, for example. “I love what's happening in Miami right now,” she says. “People have really come together, so distributors are also coming together. It’s not about grabbing sales from each other anymore.”

When Pedro Mederos of E&P DMPLNGS pop-up left his home of Miami, he learned about how lacking Miami was in terms of sustainability. (It broke his heart when his niece said that apples come from the grocery store.) 

“I know Miami, and I love Miami,” he says. “It hurt that I had to leave Miami to find extraordinary food and extraordinary food systems to learn.”

But now, Mederos is back, and he and his fiancée, Pastry Chef Katherine Randolph, want to play a role in creating sustainable food systems here. He says, “I don’t want to be one of those people from Miami that left and then never came back.”

 

Moving to Miami

The “local flavor” here in Miami can be an amorphous concept. We’re a city of immigrants—not just from Cuba but from all over the Caribbean, Latin America, and beyond. So it makes sense that many of the recent contributions to Miami’s dining culture are by chefs from other places.

Many of these transplants actually want to stay, make Miami their homes, and set up businesses that will carry them to retirement. We no longer consider Miami a stomping ground for new talent, a place to slap together fish tacos and club sandwiches for a couple of years before moving on at the first opportunity. Chefs are staying to build something that Miami can be proud of. 

Coming from Chicago, Jaguar Sun’s Chef Carey Hynes says that the Miami dining scene is rapidly evolving, and despite the challenge of this, he plans to stay for a long time: “It does feel good to be part of something from the ground floor.”

Chef Pedro Lara immigrated to Miami and found ways to show off the area’s mostly untapped produce. At Palmar, a hot spot that meshes Chinese food with tropical flavors and decor, Lara makes a shrimp dumpling feel Floridian with the additions of local scallops, dill, and avocado mousse.

When Pastry Chef John Maieli’s local ice cream business closed, he debated whether to settle in Miami or New York, where he’s from. He picked Miami, landed the executive pastry chef gig at Beaker & Gray, and saw the local dessert scene expand with more cookie and ice cream shops opening. 

“Miami's food scene is young and energetic with exciting new concepts opening all the

time,” he says. “Growing up in New York felt like such exposure to food culture. Then you come to Miami, and there is all of this totally different food culture, and it’s just amazing.”

 

Keeping Up the Neighborhood

With Miami’s metamorphosis has come a reinvigoration of neighborhoods that don’t usually attract tourists: Little River, Little Haiti, and Overtown, to name a few. The Citadel, for example, essentially serves as a business incubator for Little River food stalls such as Lil’ Laos and Frice Cream, and the hall has attracted more residential customers during COVID-19.

Despite their amazing collective resume (Scarpetta, Carbone, The NoMad, Eleven Madison Park), Rising Star Chefs Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer opened a taco truck inside a garden center and an Italian restaurant between a coin laundry and a walk-in medical center. Away from the beach, happily in a strip mall, and the furthest thing from a tourist trap, Little Haiti’s Boia De can go old-school with a Tuscan pappardelle alla lepre but also do things more tailored to Miami’s climate like kampachi aglio e olio. 

“We put a lot of effort into this and want to make this as good as it can be,” Meyer says. “We want to be part of the community; we want to support other people who want to have restaurants.” And they have high hopes for that community. Giangrandi says: “In Miami, there’s a lot of room for growth. In Miami, you can have a bigger impact.”

Rising Star Chef Jon Nguyen has worked both sides of the bay; he came down from New York to consult for Mondrian South Beach and stuck around to start Tran An in a Design District food hall. It’s now become a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Little Haiti. 

He’s integrated his restaurant into the local community, a neighborhood of predominantly Haitian immigrants that’s now experiencing rapid gentrification. “I didn’t want the community to feel like they weren’t accepted here and that we were running them out,” Nguyen says. “I want to take care of them for letting us in.” 

Tran An started giving out free food to passersby every Sunday during COVID-19 as a thank you. Nguyen says he never would have been able to afford to open Tran An in New York and appreciates the opportunity.

“I hope people come to Miami and respect the talent that’s here. I don’t think culinary talent is the first thing that comes to mind here, but there is so much freedom to express yourself here,” he says. “Miami has given talented people a platform to do what they love to do.”

 
Share on: