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America’s Next Major Food Destination Is Not Where You Think

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 10/4/2019 Eliza Dumais

While the shiny, lauded food scenes in cities like Portland, Austin, and L.A. continue to inflate, another, quieter culinary movement also thrives, likely unbeknownst to you. That movement lives in Florida

Beyond the scenic beaches, the Miami-bound bachelor parties, and the hordes of families fraternizing with life-size versions of their favorite cartoon characters, new, eclectic kitchens and classic haunts across the state are expanding the scope of Florida’s reputation. 

With the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic on the other, fresh seafood in Florida is a given — but landscape aside, the real reason for the state’s culinary prominence lies with its people. One in every five Florida residents is an immigrant, the vast majority of whom hail from Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and Colombia, bringing with them rich culture, history, and of course, flavor. The state’s population continues to grow larger and more eclectic by the day — and as a result, so too does its food scene. 

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Florida has always had a pretty impressive roster of iconic, staple dishes: stone crab, key-lime pie, fried gator. And perhaps most prolific among them is the Cuban sandwich — a delicacy that is, counterintuitively, native to Florida rather than Cuba. The riff on your classic ham and cheese has been popular since the mid 1800s, when they were crafted en masse to feed Cuban workers in Key West and Ybor City, Tampa — two of Florida’s largest Cuban immigrant communities. There are a number of variations, but the classic is a sub sandwich, grilled and stuffed with melted Swiss cheese, sliced ham, roast pork, mustard, and pickles. 

All across the state, beloved old-school haunts sling authentic Cuban fare — like Versaille, a local institution since 1971 in Miami’s Little Havana. By day, La Ventanita, the restaurant’s narrow take-out window, serves charred guava pastelitos and cafecitos — a popular order amongst regular patrons. Come evening, the eccentric, 275-seat dining room fills instantly: While popular among tourists, the place remains a community gathering space — an “unofficial town square” — for Cuban immigrants. At the same time, Florida’s Cuban food scene is not stagnant. New, experimental kitchens are constantly looking for contemporary, innovative ways to build on classic Cuban flavors — like Finka, where the menu is derived from a mélange of Peruvian, Korean, and Cuban influences.

While Florida is indisputably Southern in the geographic sense, it may not be the first spot that comes to mind when you think of classic Southern eats. That said, chefs across the state are bringing culinary influence from their Southern hometowns, and in the process, rethinking what Southern cooking even means. First, consider Cask & Larder, labeled one of the “best new restaurants in America” upon opening in Winter Park. From husband and wife duo James and Julie Petrakis — the recipients of many a James Beard Award nomination — the restaurant slings updates on classic Southern fare with dishes like fresh Key West shrimp in a spiced pepper relish with stone-ground grits, or corn fritters served with smoked honey aioli and micro cilantro. 

Following suit, Soco is yet another venue with a distinctly Southern accent. Located in Thornton Park, Orlando, the restaurant is helmed by exec chef Greg Richie, who cut his teeth cooking for two major celeb chefs, and here, serves dishes like chicken-fried cauliflower steak in vine-ripe tomato gravy, lobster dumplings with chicken breast and soy butter, and fried green tomatoes loaded with thin-cut country ham and drizzled in a horseradish remoulade. 

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This new wave of Floridian cooking is not all about the South, though. Miami in particular is also home to some wildly innovative, globally inspired, and locally sourced restaurants, like Ghee. Here, the creative Indian venue’s chef, Niven Patel, draws the majority of the menu’s ingredients from his own two-acre farm, Rancho Patel, located just south in the town of Homestead. “His Gujarati background penetrates through all of the flavors,” says Diana Garcia, the restaurant’s GM. “Dining here is sort of a culturally enriched experience.” From an open kitchen, the restaurant serves bold and eclectic dishes, utilizing the best of Florida’s local offerings — namely: Gulf Coast catch of the day, marinated in turmeric and served with coconut, fennel, and curry leaves.

Rooster & The Till, stationed in Tampa Heights, comes from another chef of note: Ferrell Alvarez, who was born to a Colombian immigrant father and a Long Island Italian mother — the influence of which can certainly be seen in his cooking. Alvarez was among 2017’s James Beard Foundation semi-finalists for Best Chef: South, and the restaurant itself has twice earned the top slot in the Tampa Bay Times’ restaurant rankings — along with the numerous mentions across notable food magazines highlighting the place for its innovative American cooking (think: foie gras with sous vide pear, house-made cashew butter, and local huckleberry). 

Alvarez and his team are long-time local residents — and rather than adhere to long-standing culinary tradition, they’ve made it a priority to maintain a kitchen far more focused on evolving along with Florida’s population. “We love this city,” says Rooster & The Till general manager Myles Gallagher, “and we’re so proud of our growing neighborhood.” Within the past year, the team has opened two other Tampa spots: a sprawling, fast casual venue with shuffleboard courts and room for bocce ball called Nebraska Mini-Mart, and a take on the classic taqueria called Gallito. And Gallagher says he doesn’t expect that growth to stop anytime soon — as the state’s lively, varied population expands, the food scene does too. 

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Finally, beyond the influx of newer craft kitchens, the state is still home to a number of what you might call “classically Florida” venues: Unassuming, old-school seafood spots, all of which have been dishing out fresh fish to Floridians for several decades. You’ve got The Back Porch in Destin, Stewby’s Seafood Shanty in Fort Walton Beach, Schooners Seafood House in St. Augustine, and perhaps most notably, Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab — a legendary local crustacean institution since 1913. Your order here is obvious: stone crab. Native to the area, it will arrive alongside a wedge of lime, hash browns, and creamed spinach. Naturally, this will be the best stone crab you’ve ever had.

As with its population, there is no one thing — or person, for that matter — that defines the Florida food scene. “The culinary scene in Florida is a perfect representation of the people that are here,” says Bradley Kilgore, foreman at Kilgore Culinary Group, one of the largest and most notable dining groups in South Florida. “It’s eclectic and electric, there is so much going on. The rapid growth of our culinary scene reflects the growth of the state, which keeps our company inspired.”

It’s not the Cuban sandwiches or the fresh fish or the swath of old-school haunts that make Florida’s dining scene so unique. It’s not the new, exciting roster of experimental kitchens. Instead, it’s the compound of everything at once: the ever-changing, ever-growing amalgam of cultural influences and advancements blending together in service of some truly remarkable plates of food.

Related video: Choose From 21 Different Chicken Milanesas at This Argentinian Restaurant in Miami [provided by Thrillist]

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