The best thing about Miami is how close it is to the rest of the USA. That’s only a slightly facetious statement. OK – Miami is obviously of America. But it’s of America, as in the entire Western Hemisphere, rather than just the USA. Immigrants from all of Latin America and the Caribbean call this home. Head south into South Florida and cultural values, use of space, colours, music, everything starts to shift until – well, you’re somewhere else.
It’s fun traversing a few continents while driving around Miami. We mentioned the Western Hemisphere above, but we’d like to start somewhere unexpected – the Old World shetls of Eastern Europe. In Mid Miami Beach, there’s an Orthodox Jewish Community based between 21st and 46th streets. Here you’ll see the usual flashes of Miami glitter and flair, SUVs and fake tans and condo canyons, but you’ll also spy thick bearded men in gabardine coats and head-scarved babushkas wandering around like lost extras from Fiddler on the Roof.
The toned and tanned children of Miami’s Mid-Beach Jewish enclaves are also decked out in conservative Jewish garment, but they flash blinged-out cell phones while grabbing latkes and pastrami sandwiches in places like Sam’s Deli. Sam’s is on Arthur Godfrey Rd, the heart of the local Jewish scene, a place that sort of resembles a Semitic corner of Brooklyn left to tan in the tropical sun with palm trees and a pair of Ray Bans.
In North Beach around Normandy Drive, many of Miami’s Colombians, Uruguayans and Argentines congregate. All of these nationalities have brought some form of South American epicurean excess to the Magic City (and somehow, despite said excess, they all maintain trim, svelte, beach-ready figures). The Colombians munch on dangerously strange hotdogs blanketed in French fries and mashed potatoes. The Argentines gorge on huge plates of pasta and steaks that would make a gaucho weep with pride. The Brazilians opt for their churrascaria, steakhouses where waiters essentially make a rude gesture towards vegetarianism with literal swords speared through slabs of beef, pork and chicken.
But it is the Uruguayan chivito, perhaps best served at El Rey del Chivito (6987 Collins Av, Miami Beach) that truly impresses with its sheer, mad capacity for overload. The chivito is, essentially, the sound your heart makes when it stops. More accurately, it is a mountain of French fries topped with a steak, an egg and a piece of ham rolled around a glob of melted cheese. It’s fiendishly delicious.
If you cross the Julia Tuttle Causeway that connects Miami Beach to Miami proper (they are, by the way, technically separate cities), you don’t have to proceed too far west and north to enter Little Haiti. One of the largest Haitian communities outside of Haiti itself, there is no place in Miami that feels as palpably of another world. The explosive colours, the botanicas shops selling spell components for use in vodoun (voodoo) – a real and important system of faith for millions of Caribbeans, Brazilians and Africans – the constant pulse of music and the muddy, rich tones of Ayisen Creole make this a Miami must-see, although be advised this area can be dodgy at night. During the day, pop into one of the most fascinating community museums in the city, the Haitian Heritage Museum (4141 NE 2 Av).
We’ll end…you know what? We’ll end back in Europe. If you want to hop back across the pond and see how South Florida’s surprisingly large British expat population parties, check into Churchill’s (5501 NE 2 Av) on the southern border of Little Haiti. Half soccer pub, half punk rock bar, Churchill’s is 100 percent one of the most interesting spots in the city, an establishment that straddles lines of income, race and nationality – in a lot of ways, a microcosm for Miami itself.