Miami has tons of immigrants – mainly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Russia – and it's a sucker for food trends. Thus you get a good mix of cheap ethnic eateries and high-quality top-end cuisine, alongside some poor-value dross in touristy zones like Miami Beach. Downtown, Wynwood and Upper East Side have excellent offerings; for great classics, head to Coral Gables.

Bounty of the Sea

Florida has always fed itself from the sea, which lies within arm’s reach from nearly every point. If it swims or crawls in the ocean, you can bet some enterprising local has shelled or scaled it, battered it, dropped it in a fryer and put it on a menu.

Grouper is far and away the most popular fish. Grouper sandwiches are to Florida what the cheese-steak is to Philadelphia or pizza to Manhattan – a defining, iconic dish, and the standard by which many places are measured. Hunting the perfect grilled or fried grouper sandwich is an obsessive Floridian quest, as is finding the creamiest bowl of chowder.

Of course, a huge range of other fish are offered. Other popular species include snapper (with dozens of varieties), mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna.

Florida really shines when it comes to crustaceans: try pink shrimp and rock shrimp, and don’t miss soft-shell blue crab – Florida is the only place with blue-crab hatcheries, making them available fresh year-round. Winter (October to April) is the season for Florida spiny lobster and stone crab (out of season, both will be frozen). Florida lobster is all tail, without the large claws of its Maine cousin, and stone crab is heavenly sweet, served steamed with butter or the ubiquitous mustard sauce.

Cuban & Latin American Cuisine

Cuban food, once considered ‘exotic,’ is itself a mix of Caribbean, African and Latin American influences, and in Tampa and Miami, it’s a staple of everyday life. Sidle up to a Cuban lonchería (snack bar) and order a pan cubano: a buttered, grilled baguette stuffed with ham, roast pork, cheese, mustard and pickles.

Integral to many Cuban dishes are mojo (a garlicky vinaigrette, sprinkled on sandwiches), adobo (a meat marinade of garlic, salt, cumin, oregano and sour orange juice) and sofrito (a stew-starter mix of garlic, onion and chili peppers). Main-course meats are typically accompanied by rice and beans, and fried plantains.

With its large number of Central and Latin American immigrants, the Miami area offers plenty of authentic ethnic eateries. Seek out Haitian griots (marinated fried pork), Jamaican jerk chicken, Brazilian barbecue, Central American gallo pinto (red beans and rice) and Nicaraguan tres leches (‘three milks’ cake).

In the morning, try a Cuban coffee, also known as café cubano or cortadito. This hot shot of liquid gold is essentially sweetened espresso, while café con leche is just café au lait with a different accent: equal parts coffee and hot milk.

Another Cuban treat is guarapo, or fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice. Cuban snack bars serve the greenish liquid straight or poured over crushed ice, and it’s essential to an authentic mojito (rum, sugar, mint, lemon and club soda). It also sometimes finds its way into batidos, a milky, refreshing Latin American fruit smoothie.

Miami Specialties

While South Florida has an international palate, some dishes have been here long enough to constitute something like a local cuisine.

Building a Cuban Sandwich

The traditional Cuban sandwich, also known as a sandwich mixto, is not some slapdash creation. It’s a craft best left to the experts – but here’s some insight into how they do it. Correct bread is crucial – it should be Cuban white bread: fresh, soft and easy to press. The insides (both sides) should be buttered and layered (in the following order) with sliced pickles, slices of roast Cuban pork, ham (preferably sweet-cured ham) and baby Swiss cheese. Then it all gets pressed in a hot plancha (sandwich press) until the cheese melts. Mmmm.

Arepas

The greatness of a city can be measured by many yardsticks. The arts. Civic involvement. Infrastructure. What you eat when you’re plowed at 3am. In Miami, the answer is often enough arepas, delicious South American corn cakes that can be stuffed (Venezuelan-style) or topped (Colombian-style) with any manner of deliciousness; generally, you can’t go wrong with cheese.

Stone Crabs

The first reusable crustacean: only one claw is taken from a stone crab – the rest is tossed back in the sea (the claw regrows in 12 to 18 months, and crabs plucked again are called ‘retreads’). The claws are so perishable that they’re always cooked before selling. Mid-October through mid-May is less a ‘season’ than a stone-crab frenzy. Joe Weiss of Miami Beach is credited with starting it all. For straight-out-of-the ocean freshness, try them in Everglades City.

Self-Catering

If you can tear yourself away from the Cuban sandwiches, celebrity hot spots and farm-to-table gems, Miami has a decent selection of options for self-caterers offering fresh produce and obscure ingredients aplenty.

Epicure Market, a gourmet food shop just off Lincoln Rd in South Beach, has a beautiful selection of international cheeses and wines, fresh produce, baked goods and prepared dishes. Many of the more than 25 Publix supermarkets throughout Miami are quite upscale, and the Whole Foods Market is the biggest high-end grocery store around, with an excellent produce department, pretty good deli and so-so salad bar; its biggest draw is for vegetarians (not so well catered for by markets in these parts) or health nuts who are seeking a particular brand of soy milk or wheat-free pasta.

Market Madness

A bounty of great fruit and vegetables are grown right here in South Florida. To see some of these agricultural riches and meet some of the farmers, you can join locals at one of the many farmers markets happening around town. Aside from fresh produce, most markets also have breads, cheeses, spreads, juices and sometimes vendors selling freshly cooked items like tamales.

For the freshest picnic items around, hit one of the following farmers markets:

  • Lincoln Rd, between Washington and Meridian, 9am to 6:30pm Sunday
  • South Pointe Triangle Park, Alton Rd between 1st and 2nd, 9am to 2pm Saturday
  • Normandy Village Fountain, 7892 Rue Vendome, 9am to 4pm Saturday
  • Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, 4pm to 8:30pm Monday
  • Brickell Center, between 7th and 8th Sts under the Metromover tracks, 11am to 6pm Sunday
  • The Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd, two weekends a month mid-February to October
  • Coconut Grove, 3300 Grand Ave at Margaret St, 11am to 7pm Saturday
  • Coral Gables City Hall, 405 Biltmore Way, 8am to 2pm Saturday mid-January to March

Need to Know

Tipping

Tipping is standard practice across America. In restaurants, for satisfactory to excellent service, tipping 15% to 20% of the bill is expected. You should only tip below this (not tipping at all is a very drastic move in American restaurants) if the service was exceptionally bad.

Reservations

Most places in Miami accept reservations. Give the restaurant a call or book via Open Table (www.opentable.com). For the most popular dining rooms, you may need to reserve a few weeks out.

Useful Resources

Edible Communities (www.ediblecommunities.com) is a regional magazine series (print and online) that celebrates and supports local, sustainable farming, culinary artisans and seasonal produce of South Florida.

In-the-Know Foodie Sites

Short Order (www.miaminewtimes.com/restaurants)

Eater Miami (www.miami.eater.com)

Food for Thought (www.foodforthoughtmiami.com)

Miami Food Pug (www.miamifoodpug.com)