After a recent mini getaway to Miami with some old college friends, I’ve decided to run down some things that might be useful for visits to this sunny city.
As a starter, what’s a visit to Miami without having Cuban food?!? To start with, I have recently experienced Bongo’s Cafe (by the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami, there is another location at the Airport as well), owned by none other than Emilio and Gloria Estefan. I always regretted not making it to Bongo’s during my last visit so this time, it was a must. We went on a late Thursday night, the place was pretty much ‘dead’ as can be expected but maybe I was expecting more (only half of the place was occupied, dance floor empty). The place was well decorated with attentive servers. Decorated by the drums along the restaurant aisles and on the walls, the place certainly had a dance-y Cuban vibe. There’s even the large projection screen in the middle of the restaurant playing clips of the owner herself during her many performances. Drinks were great; I tried the white sangria and the Mojito. As far as food, it was good but nothing spectacular. I had the Bongo’s Famous Fried Shredded Beef; the steak was dry and stringy and was accompanied by a mojo rice (bean and rice, Cuban style) as well as a not-so impressive fried sweet plantain. My friends felt the same way about their food: good, mostly dried, and overpriced. Maybe I shouldn’t have been adamant about making it to Bongo’s, but at least maybe I can give a fair warning to others!
The next evening, we took a drive to Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, in the heart of Little Havana. I had previously been here before and enjoyed everything I’ve tasted. And I mean EVERYTHING. No disappointed diner here! The food was as I expected and all of us had a great time. I had the same thing I ate the last time that I was here, which was the fried whole snapper or if you want, the Cuban sandwich is filling enough, and neither will disappoint. The restaurant recently celebrated its 40 yrs in operation and rightly so. Cubans in Miami swear by it! If you have time, stop by the sweet shop next to the restaurant to have a ‘cafecito’ with your dessert.
In terms of light snacks, there are a variety to choose from all over Miami/Miami Beach. On this recent trip, I tried Shake Shack, located by the shops on Lincoln Road. I have heard of the one that recently opened in DC and I have been curious to try it ever since…I found the food at Shake Shack to be tasty but the portions were definitely small relative to the price. Also worth trying are the sweet and savory empanadas at Half Moon Empanadas right on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. There, you will find an array of empanada fillings that are prepared piping hot. I suggest trying the Spicy Beef or Chicken among others and top it off with a Dulce de Leche pastelito.
Other areas to eat in are right along Washington (which is like a main strip for the Miami beach night life (besides Ocean Drive of course). But if you are more along the types of “see and be seen,” you can try one of the eateries right along the Lincoln Road shops where you can enjoy your meal as you watch shoppers pass you by. Also worth trying, if you are in the mood for Thai, is Tamarind Thai in Miami Beach but towards the North Bay Area. We had dinner here one evening, after we longed to taste non-Cuban food. Simply put, the food and service were utterly superb.
WARNING: The beaches, if you are a local Marylander and swear by your local beaches (think OC and the likes), well, expect nothing like the murky cold waters that you are accustomed to! In South Beach, you will be met by a very well-kept beach complemented by clean blue waters. I would go as far as compare the blue waters to that of the beaches in the Caribbean. On the beach, frolic and play as the waves crash ashore or spread your towel down and soak up the sun. What a prime spot to people watch as well. Miami Beach attracts tourists from all over the world so you will find yourself running into as many foreigners as there are Americans.
Miami nightlife is as lively as you make it to be; from the super posh to the super casual and everything in between. The venues along Washington Avenue house clubs such as Mansion and Set (right around the corner on Lincoln Rd) or find yourself in one of the lively venues right along Ocean Drive. Beware of Mango’s by the way. The $5 cover charge says it all, or if you haven’t seen a peek of what goes on inside; but then again, it could be a ‘Miami Beach Night Life Rite of Passage’ of some sort!
Another must-do is an everglades tour. You can’t expect to visit Miami and not see an alligator, or two or three…dozen! This time around was the Everglades Alligator Farm, located in Homestead, FL which is about an hour south of Miami. The drive itself was not bad considering the roads looked pretty much empty. This tour was better than my previous one as the airboat operator pretty much livened up the tour, eliciting laughs at his jokes and intentionally maneuvering the boat to splash the passengers. We saw over half a dozen alligators in the wild but were met with dozens more during the alligator feeding at their farm.
About 10 minutes from the alligator farm sits a local winery, specializing in tropical fruit wines including mango, lychees, guava, carambola (star fruit), and passion fruit. The wine tasting at Schnebly Redland’s Winery is about $8 for sparkling wines and $11 for table wines and what’s even better is you get to keep the engraved wine glass! Definitely well worth tasting the non-grape wine selection that they have and there is even a winery tour, if you are up for it.
Certainly, there are a lot more to do such as visiting the local museums (think South Beach style with the art deco…), nature adventures abound as well, and countless shops to peruse. Miami is your playground, so go ahead, EXPLORE!