Vicky Baker tours the kitchens of Latin America and the Caribbean - without leaving Miami.
With a counter loaded with empanadas, it looks just like a typical Argentinian bakery. The sugar-glazed, vanilla-tinged medialunas taste just like a typical Argentinian croissant. In fact, I only become sure that I haven't been transported to the shores of the River Plate when the owner's daughter, Gabriela, starts telling me about their clientele.
"Our regulars? Well, they tend to come from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela ..." Her list trails on.
This isn't Buenos Aires, Argentina; this is Little Buenos Aires, Miami. This enclave in North Miami Beach is known for its Argentinian population and here, among the steakhouses, Buenos Aires Bakery (7134 Collins Avenue) has become a neighbourhood favourite. Gabriela's parents set up the business in the 1970s, working so hard they sometimes slept on the bakery floor, and 40 years later, they have just opened their second branch. "And in this current economy!" Gabriela says proudly.
In Miami, everyone has a story. It's small wonder that author Tom Wolfe has chosen it as the setting for his next epic, Back to Blood. Due out next year, the novel is already hyped as the country's ultimate 21st-century portrait, with publishers billing Miami as the place "where America's future has arrived first".
If Wolfe can claim Miami's multicultural immigration is "exciting" for literature then it's certainly exciting for travellers. Where else can you travel the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean in one place and get near-year-round sunshine to boot?
I was told Buenos Aires Bakery is a fruitful place to start exploring Miami's Latin cultures and, true enough, this stretch of palm-lined Collins Avenue is packed with restaurants representing many of the city's key groups. Within minutes I've ticked off Brazil, Peru, Cuba and Mexico, while a cop in sunglasses driving past on a motorbike plants us firmly in the US.
Without a Taco Bell in sight, this is the place to find real Latin American fast food. With walls lined with Montevideo memorabilia, El Rey del Chivito (6987 Collins Avenue, elreydelchivito.com) is a Uruguayan restaurant that pays homage to the country's ability to pack steak, ham, fried egg, cheese, tomato, lettuce and mayo into one sandwich: the famous and belt-busting chivito.
A couple of doors down and styled like a cartoon diner, La Perrada de Edgar (6976 Collins Avenue) celebrates the Colombian love of multiple hot-dog toppings.
The next day, something lighter is definitely required so I hop over the causeway that separates Miami Beach and Miami. In Miami you find the downtown skyscrapers that are home to the Latin American banks, plus new condo buildings to entice people to live as well as work here.
Championing the bid to inject more life into downtown is the Peruvian restaurant Cvi.Che 105 (105 NE 3rd Avenue, ceviche105.com), which has an interesting mix of a slick, industrial interior and one of the most enthusiastically composed menus I've ever seen. Raw fish in a huancaina sauce (chilli, cream and cheese) promises to "take you to ecstasy" and the virginal corvina in "holy cream" will put "nirvana on the palate".
Unsure I can take this much enlightenment on a Monday afternoon, I stick with a ceviche, a traditional mix of raw fish marinated in citrus. It has a split of tomato- and cream-based sauces to make it look like the Peruvian flag. Well, I'd expect nothing less.
The head chef, Juan Chipoco, tells me how his father died when he was five and left him heading the household as the eldest of four brothers. After moving to Miami, he worked his way up from the role of busboy. A group of chefs known as the Mango Gang first brought the idea of upmarket nuevo Latino cuisine to Miami tables in the 1980s. These unstoppable welders of fusion food did such a convincing job that today you can barely see where one cuisine ends and the other begins.
"The ingredients and dishes have just worked themselves into the general restaurant vocabulary," says a blogger known as Frodnesor, who writes foodforthoughtmiami.com. He cites the new restaurant by Mango Gang co-founder Norman Van Aken as the perfect example. "Norman's 180 [180 Aragon Avenue] has an arepa with chicharrones and Salvadoran crema on the menu amid pizzas and burgers. It's all just part of the culinary lexicon now."
Indeed, Miami's identity is an increasingly complex one. Earlier this year, The Miami Herald reported that many of the old-guard Cuban places were being sold to new Central American migrants, who were mixing their own influences into well-worn recipes.
The Cubans remain the dominant migrant group here and they are the only ones who have really managed to make their mark on tourism. I complete the typical circuit before deciding to move on to a migrant community that gets far less attention: Little Haiti.
Miami has the biggest Haitian community outside the island itself. As you move into their neighbourhood, billboards suddenly start appearing with Creole slogans and the mini high street is dotted with botanicas (voodoo shops). An insight into all aspects of the culture can be found at the Haitian Heritage Museum (haitianheritage museum.org) or, for informal education, there's nowhere better than Tap Tap restaurant (819 5th Street, taptaprestaurant.com).
Tap Tap is just a few minutes' walk from South Beach but has more personality than most of the beachfront bars put together. Along with its brightly coloured murals, mosaics and flags, which were created by invited Haitian artists, it is renowned for its goat and marinades.
The Haitian-American co-owner, Gary Sanon-Jules, says the 16-year-old restaurant has "really exposed a culture" in these parts. After last January's earthquake, patrons raised $50,000 and since then Sanon-Jules has noticed a 40 per cent increase in custom, suggesting people's heightened awareness of the island didn't vanish along with the news crews.
Word has also spread about its live music. I arrive to catch Manno Charlemagne, one of the country's most popular political-folk musicians, who was once mayor of Port-au-Prince.
"I was put into power by my guitar," he says.
As Charlemagne makes his way to the mic and Sanon-Jules mingles with the regulars (a third of whom are Haitian), I sit back and take a sip of my mojito. Sanon-Jules has already informed me that this is not just any mojito but one made from Haitian Barbancourt rum, which was voted the best in Miami by the NBC TV network. A perfect Cuban cocktail with a Haitian twist? This could be seamless fusion culture at its smoothest. In the interests of cross-cultural relations, I might just have to order another.
Qantas has a fare to Miami for about $1720 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. You fly non-stop to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then on American Airlines to Miami (5hr). Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
- Guardian News & Media