It's 11:30 a.m., and the last crumbs of Cuban toast and coffee cups with traces of café con leche are cleared from the lunch counter at Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop (305.573.4681), a freshly painted, two-story corner building with tidy black awnings in Miami. Sisters Belkis and Leidys Pla chat in Spanish as they anticipate the noontime deluge. Their father, Jose Pla, has everything under control in the kitchen, where loaves of bakery-fresh Cuban bread stand two feet high, poised to be hot-pressed into a sándwich Cubano (ham, cheese and pork with pickles and mustard). From my red vinyl stool, I take in the scene, but it's obvious that my face isn't one of the regular's. A salesman from the neighboring car dealership sitting at the end of the counter knows it. Leaning towards me, he volunteers, "The food is great. I've been coming here since 2002. Try the lechon asado (roast pork) special." Just then, Edwin Gonzalez, who owns Tremont Towing down the street and has been eating here for some 20 years, pipes in with his suggestion, the breaded chicken with rice. "What runs this place is the family," he says. "Enriqueta's has had three owners, all Latin families, but the two daughters and their father who own it now are by far the best. Oh, heck, order anything. It's all good."
The recommended roast pork with moros (black beans and rice) and a tamale isn't today's special, so I go with Wednesday's arroz con pollo (rice with chicken). "Sweet or green plantains—" Belkis asks, switching from Spanish to English as she multitasks between taking phone orders and serving. Dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt with her blond locks tied back, Belkis moves swiftly between the cash register and the takeout window as she tells me the restaurant's history.
The Pla family left Cuba in 1981. Belkis was 10 years old, and her sister, Leidys, was 8. "Dad was a baker back in Cuba. We bought this restaurant from an Argentine lady eight years ago," she says. "We began with salads and sandwiches, then added Spanish platters, rice and beans." She deposits a bowl overflowing with creamy yellow rice dotted with bright green peas and red roasted peppers in front of me; alongside sit tostones (fried green plantains). I dig in, picking up a piece of chicken along with a green olive both buried under the mountain of rice. The forkful of the thick arroz con pollo has a classic, well-seasoned flavor. The texture is smooth on my tongue, and the yellow color from the saffron makes it pop visually.
By now, the lunch hour is picking up. From my perch, I can see a line forming at the takeout window, which also serves as the local Cuban coffee stop. Alan Solis, an attractive young man with thick dark hair, a striped dress shirt and sunglasses, leans on the counter to check his cell phone while he waits for his Cuban sandwich to go. Drawing ice water from the big orange cooler on the counter's edge, he sips from a small paper cone and high-fives Leidys' 10-year-old son, Juan Carlos, who's cleaning the spout on the coffee maker. Alan tells me he's president of Urban Icons, a marketing company in the neighboring Wynwood Art District. Besides his sandwich, he always gets a colada (a Styrofoam cup holding four to six sugar-laden espresso shots meant to be shared) and a few super-tiny plastic demitasse cups. "The coffee is for my staff." It's a nice gesture, he explains, "to share a shot of strong coffee."
Of course, I too indulge in a café Cubano, nicely served in a ceramic demitasse with a saucer instead of the usual paper thimble. Sinfully sweet, it satisfies both my cravings for dessert and caffeine.
As I walk out of Enriqueta's, a white sedan pulls into the lot alongside Hummers, work vans and Mercedes. Rolling down her window, the female driver asks, "Excuse me. Is this Enriqueta's—" Despite all the regulars who've kept this place going for 20-plus years and the dozens of other Cuban restaurants in town, newcomers still flock here for real Cuban food.
DINNER WITH A COLOMBIAN
I wasn't really looking for a Colombian restaurant until my longtime pal, Miguel Pena, a seasoned concierge who knows Miami well, told me to check out the place across the street from the rising Trump Grande towers in Sunny Isles. In an aging strip mall undergoing a face-lift to match Sunny Isles' new image, I find Patacón (305.931.3001) ? and Gabriel Naranjo. The energetic Colombian owner speaks very little English, but when it comes to food, taste speaks volumes.
At a table surrounded by ceramic village scenes on the wall and a television broadcasting the latest telenovela, Gabriel insists I try the patacón. He shows me photos that depict him rolling the green plantains into a thin, 12-inch, pancake-like shape before he deep-fries it. When he brings the crispy tropical fruit on a banana-leaf-designed platter along with small bowls of toppings like shredded beef and guacamole, my taste buds applaud. Gabriel quickly shows me how to eat it: Break off a piece and top it with the light, creamy guacamole. I ravenously follow his instructions. Every calorie is worth it.
Proud of his country's culinary contributions, Gabriel follows his performance with a large terracotta plate filled with finely flaked beef, chicharron (fried pork skins), red beans and white rice carefully arranged. A fried egg, a slice of fresh avocado, three medallion-shaped sweet plantains and an arepa (corn pancake) rest on the rice. "Bandeja paisa," he announces. No doubt, it's one of Colombia's most famous regional dishes.
He disappears into the kitchen only to re-emerge with a tumbler of thick green juice made from lulo or naranjilla. Refreshingly sweet and tart, the drink has just enough pucker power to make you take notice. Resembling a little orange, lulo is green inside, hence the juice's funky green color. I take my lulo to go, along with a clear understanding of why Miguel so highly recommends this place.
On a tip that a Bahamian-born chef with Haitian parents runs a place on the corner of N.W. 54th Street and N.W. Second Avenue, I head out in search of great conch. After battling Miami traffic, I finally arrive at Chef Creole (305.754.2223, chefcreole.com), a vibrant blue-and-yellow alfresco "shack" with a thatched-roof outdoor dining room, palm trees and a big black smoker out front that looks like it's been plucked straight from the Caribbean. I find the owner, Wilkinson Sejour, dressed in a "Chef Creole" signature navy polo shirt, denim shorts and sneakers, hosing down pans outside as I pull into the lot. He tells me to go order and meet him under the tiki hut.
Numbered photos of lambi (conch) prepared as a stew, fried, grilled or as conch fritters are posted above the counter along with a few of ribs, fried shrimp and whole fried fish. In a glass display case, fresh conch and lobsters sit on ice. Johnny, a smiling lady in charge of taking orders, suggests the conch stew as the most authentic Haitian dish. It comes in a Styrofoam container tucked into a securely tied plastic bag. Crossing over the takeout driveway where Miami squad cars line up with others for their to-go lunches, I settle onto a picnic bench under a ceiling fan. As I lift the lid of my plate, white rice trails off the heaping serving. Thick slices of sweet plantain are so appealing, I can't resist sampling them first. The stew's chewy conch has a hint of heat. Wilkinson sits down and tells me what's in it: "Scotch bonnet pepper, fresh garlic and a tiny bit of coconut flakes," he says. "Everything has to be like music when you cook. Don't hear all the notes, don't taste all the ingredients." Wilkinson and his parents migrated to the United States in 1975. His dad was among the first to open a Creole fish market in Miami, where Wilkinson worked for $5 a day cleaning the store before being promoted to cleaning fish. Years later, he and his brother, Pierre, would take their grill to festivals and sell fried conch. "Haitians don't fry their conch; they do stews and sauces," he explains. But the brothers prepared it American-style with Creole flavors, pairing it with picklese, a basic Haitian sauce of cabbage, carrot, vinegar, onion, green pepper and Scotch bonnet pepper. Their cooking caught on, and in 1992, they opened Chef Creole. "Place has a laid-back feel, but food has a gourmet taste," he says. Wilkinson claims it's the traditional dishes like griot (chunks of seasoned pork) that keep customers coming back. First, you season the pork, he explains, and then you boil in the flavors before cutting the meat in chunks and frying them in oil. His eyes light up as his smile reveals a gold bling, hinting this just might be his favorite dish.
A FLAVORFUL HELLENIC HUB
On the Gulf of Mexico, just north of Tampa, is Tarpon Springs, a town settled by Greeks back in 1936. Tarpon Springs never really lost its Greek roots, and restaurateur Andreas Salivaras likes it that way. "Tarpon Springs has the same layout as the streets in Greece. It reminds me of Greece; it's on the water like in Greece," says the man who hails from the small island of Kimolos. Some 17 years ago, he and his Greek-American wife, Renee, moved here from the Midwest to open Mykonos (727.934.4306). The restaurant is perfectly located on Dodecanese Boulevard across from the sponge docks where shrimp boats with names like Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas, patron of seamen) bob in the waters of the Anclote River. Greek bouzouki music is heard as you amble from souvenir shops overflowing with sponges (a proud symbol of the town's sponge-diving heritage) past Greek restaurants and bakeries. So it's no surprise that Mykonos is painted in the national colors of blue and white and boasts murals with scenes of the Greek Isles.
Walking in, I notice octopus with plump tentacles on the grill and the flaming saganaki (kefalograviera cheese set aflame with brandy) being served to a table of four with all the drama the dish deserves. Andreas' daughter, Sofia Zaronias, decides to join me for lunch. Remembering my meals enjoyed in the tavernas of Athens, where I lived for a year, I order retzina. The wine known for its distinct pine-tree resin flavor arrives in the traditional small orange tin. Per Sofia, a basket of pita hot off the grill and three spreads appear. Tzatziki (yogurt with fresh minced garlic and cucumbers), tirosalata (whipped feta cheese) and melitzanosalata (chopped eggplant, with onion, garlic and tomato) are all delicious, but it's the tirosalata's tangy flavor that stands out. When the grainy feta cheese is whipped, it transforms into a velvety, light and pleasing spread. The Greeks love fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and dill, and Andreas' Kalymnian salad that follows has them all, plus mixed greens and big croutons made from yesterday's bread. Sofia explains that on the island of Kalymnos, food is never wasted, including day-old bread. When I ask Andreas where he gets such flavorful tomatoes, he responds with a smile. "Tomatoes are not supposed to be stored in the cooler," he says matter-of-factly. "They lose their flavor."
The dish I'm most excited about is the lamb fricassee with egg lemon dill sauce. My Greek mother-in-law taught me how to make it many years ago, and it's been quite some time since I've eaten it. When it arrives, all I want to do is inhale the aroma. The slowly simmered meat slips easily from the bone, and the sauce is slightly tart, just as I remember it. "You have to know how to break the egg so it doesn't scramble [when making the egg lemon sauce]," Andreas says, and I instantly envision Mama vigorously swirling the sauce in a hot pan so the egg doesn't cook.
At the end of the meal, Renee graciously asks if I would like Greek coffee. "Metrios (with one teaspoon of sugar) or sketo (strong, bitter and black)—" Sketo is just fine, I tell her. I need to clear my palate for my next stop.
Strolling down Dodecanese Boulevard, I reach Hellas Bakery (727.934.8400, hellasbakery.com). The mirrored café with white patio chairs and tables is attached to its parent restaurant. It's designed for lingering over coffee, sweets and good conversation ? a favorite pastime in Greece. Syrupy phyllo pastries fill the display case, and the traditional baklava, kataifi (shredded phyllo with nuts inside), flogeres (a spinoff of baklava topped with chocolate) and galaktoburiko (phyllo filled with custard) compete with decorative Napoleans, éclairs and fruit tarts. The traditional Greek cookies catch my eye. After sampling, I buy a bag of koulouria (twisted butter cookies) and two kourambiethes (1/2-inch-high powdered-sugar-covered butter cookies) to take home.
Turning off Dodecanese Boulevard, I find Mama's (mamasgreekcuisine.net), where a terrace overlooking the quaint streets makes a nice alfresco perch for ouzo memeze (glasses of ouzo enjoyed with appetizers). Here I meet my friend, Dori Bryant, an expert on spirits who organizes tastings and seminars around the country. She's already consulted with owner Angelo Memisakis on the choices and has settled on a Plomari ouzo. A small bottle of the anis-flavored liqueur sits on the table. Angelo brings me a glass with ice, and as he pours the clear ouzo, it clouds up. Next he presents a plate of his homemade hummus and fried pita chips. The flavor of the chickpeas easily comes through, and the consistency ? thick and smooth ? contrasts with the crunchy chips, but Angelo will say no more as to what else is in there. Hours later, Dori and I are still sipping ouzo, just like the Greeks.
WAY MORE THAN NOODLES
Florida may not boast a China Town, but the Vietnamese hub on the edge of downtown Orlando definitely bustles with that same sort of energy. In order to avoid large ethnic enclaves, the U.S. government scattered the new immigrants throughout the country. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, a small pioneering group of refugees came to Orlando. A glance at the noodle shops with their neon lights, posters promoting Vietnamese rock stars and supermarket signs reading, "Fresh seafood. We clean fish," indicates the culture is alive and well here.
Peeking into Vinh Restaurant (407.894.5007), my friend, Ira, and I see a family of three generations congregated around a table. The young girls with chopsticks in hand are eating rice from bowls, and the grandfather is stirring a pot of fish soup on the table. Taking this as a sign that the food here is authentic, we decide to give it a try.
The dining room is simple, with paintings of traditionally dressed Vietnamese women adorning the walls. Vinh's owner, Nam Nguyen, comes out of the kitchen. A pretty woman with dark wavy hair wearing a pink blouse and white pants, she has a warm smile and a welcoming laugh. Together with her 23-year-old nephew, Son Dinh, who works as the manager, we sit down to chat. Son helps translate as she tells me that she emigrated from Saigon after the Vietnam War 22 years ago. She chose Florida for its warm weather and as a good place "to introduce Vietnamese food to Americans ? authentic Vietnamese food," she emphasizes. Today Nam, her husband, Ky Le, and Son work the restaurant. Her menu has more than 170 items, all numbered and written in both Vietnamese and English for easy ordering. I learn pho (beef noodle soup) is the most authentic, a staple in any Vietnamese home. "We eat it every day in Vietnam," Nam volunteers. With its broth base, she creates 13 versions, varying and mixing the meat from round-eye steak and brisket to flank steak and meatballs. "I don't skimp. I use a lot of beef and beef bone to make it taste better, no MSG," she explains. A walk through the kitchen reveals huge pots of soup simmering, and a sample confirms its nice meaty flavor.
Back at the table, our slender, dark-haired waiter, Trung, a GI kid who came to the States in the 1980s, encourages us to eat Vietnamese style. "Vietnamese people eat with their hands," he says. "Go ahead; you can pick up the shrimp cake and roll it in the lettuce, take some fresh basil and parsley and put it in the roll."
Taking Nam's advice, we begin with #10, the shrimp cake. It looks like an omelet, but Trung insists it has no egg. It's made with rice liquid, coconut, curry powder and shrimp. A bowl of rice vermicelli soup with curry chicken, #73, follows. The soft thin noodles pool at the bottom of the big round bowl. Using chopsticks, we dig them out along with chunks of chicken before scooping up spoonfuls of the yellow curry-laced broth. Curries are always interestingly spicy, and each seems to have its own DNA. Nam's is mildly hot, with hints of sweetness to mellow it out. We savor citrusy bites of the lemongrass charbroiled chicken, #151, and the slightly smoky flavor of the barbecue pork with steamed rice, #140, before tackling dessert.
Trung brings us a glass of sweet coconut milk. Resting on the bottom are pieces of mushy beans, and hugging the sides are julienne strips of Vietnamese jelly, a thicker version of American jello. Trung seems amused as he waits for our reaction. I happen to love #173, Vietnamese jelly with coconut milk, but Ira is cautious; he insists it's an acquired taste.
Leaving Vinh, we walk a couple of blocks to the Dong-A Supermarket (407.898.9227). An elderly Asian man sits quietly at the entrance, nodding as we enter. Unfolding before us are nine aisles overflowing with Asian food products. The stylized Chinese and Japanese characters colorfully printed on packages of noodles, rice and sesame candies vie for attention. At the butcher counter, slightly translucent, boneless duck feet intrigue us almost as much as the tilapia swimming in a neighboring tank. You can't get much fresher than that. I'm thrilled to find a few (now) familiar Vietnamese products: a six pack of Vietnam's 33 Export beer and a can of Tay Nguyen Café Huong Vi Phap coffee from HCM City. But the most unexpected discovery is by far the "fragrant" durian fruit. A pile of the thorn-covered, oblong fruit rests in a cart. No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain has been known to eat the delicacy's stinky yellow pulp, while Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods spits it out. Do I try it or not? Hmm, I'll have to think about that.