The temperature was already a roasting 90F when I met our guide, Cristina, at the ever-popular Books and Books on Lincoln Road.
I was in Miami on a work/family celebration trip and knew nothing about the city other than its well-deserved South Beach party scene. As always, I wanted to find things to do outside the usual glossy tourist mags you find in the airport (not that there’s anything wrong with those). I reached out to Miami Food Tours to see if they could show me some of their favorite, locally-owned spots in the city because I believe that food is the soul of a city. There, I said it and I bet you agree.
Miami Food Tours promised me good food, local color and a little Miami history, a perfect combo.
We met the other members of our tour at a table in the restaurant breezeway. We spent a few minutes looking over our walk itinerary and waited for the chef to deliver our first taste of Miami: a glorious platter of tropical ceviche, grilled corn salad, fresh hummus and lovely crisps. While we stuffed our faces, Cristina told us about the history of Lincoln Road, a mangrove swamp turned luxury shopping destination by the visionary Carl Fisher.
As much as we wanted to linger over our starters in the cool shade of Books and Books, we had an eating agenda to maintain. Our next stop was a cuban bakery, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be late to a bakery. That wouldn’t be like me at all.
Cristina led us along Lincoln Road, a pedestrianized shopping area that survived Miami’s boom and bust cycles with a few bumps and bruises. The area’s good years were anchored by high-end shopping and lux hotels, the bad years were marred by gang wars and drug violence. The area recovered and evolved. Chain stores took the place of independent shops and the area’s bohemian feel softened a bit, but the cafe culture and beautiful outdoor spaces are intact and thriving. The people-watching is unbeatable.
We stopped periodically to admire what’s left of Miami’s art deco past as Cristina shared the history and legends of South Beach’s most famous visionaries and colorful characters.
We turned off the main road and found ourselves standing in front of a small, walk-up window. Cristina did the ordering and handed each of us Pastelitos de Guayaba, heavenly pastries of guava and sweet cream best washed down with good cuban coffee. Turns out the little paper cups that come with a cuban coffee aren’t tiny party hats and you aren’t expected to drink it all in one go like an espresso. I wish I had known that the day before when I ordered one and tried my best to gulp down the entire, sweet cup on my own. Who knew?
Cristina guided us through residential areas that had the old Florida, Miami Beach vibe of the 1950s. If you closed your eyes, you could picture handsome men in crisp white shirts and Panama hats, suntanned women in cat-eye sunglasses, hair wrapped in brightly-colored scarves packing the convertible for a day at the beach.
I asked how much it cost to rent one of the little flats with a balcony and imagined mornings spent drinking cuban coffee and eating guava pastries in the glorious, year-round Miami sun. It’s expensive, by the way.
Our next stop ended up being a favorite on the tour, a family-owned Peruvian restaurant well-known for its excellent, authentic food and warm welcome. I’m not sure how, but we effortlessly polished off a huge platter of Lomo Saltado, a traditional Peruvian beef dish. The owner stopped by the table to say hello and answer questions about the menu and the meal. I made sure to tuck the offered coupon in my pocket for a return visit.
Thankfully there was a bit of a walk between our Peruvian meal and our next tasting. A second guide, Juanita, joined us to explain the history behind the art deco buildings around Ocean Avenue before taking us through streets made famous by the 1980s Miami Vice television show and infamous by the real-life 1980s drug wars that brought South Beach to its knees.
Our next stop was a little Brazilian cafe. We sat outside under the fairy lights and strings of flapping Brazilian flags as music drifted down the road from neighboring cafes. We drank cold, fresh cashew juice, ate a delicious, cheesy something I can’t remember the name of (food stupor) and grilled Cristina and Juanita about the best spot to watch the World Cup.
We ended our tour close to where we started, sitting in a little-family owned ice cream shop, sampling different flavors and slurping champagne sorbet. Funny how you always have room for ice cream.
Could I wander the streets of Miami on my own, read the guidebooks, check out Trip-Advisor for restaurant tips and call it a day? Yes, but I wouldn’t know the owner of the Peruvian restaurant was a neighborhood philanthropist. I wouldn’t know the racy details of Carl Fisher’s marriage to Jane and I certainly wouldn’t know where to get the best Cuban sandwich in Miami.
Things to Know
Miami Food Tours offers a South Beach Tour des Forks, a 3 hour, 1.5 mile architecture, food, and history walking tour (I took this one) and a Swooped With Forks Tour, an all-city culinary tour by golf cart (next time). The SoBe tour is $53 for adults. Discounts are available for 12 and unders. The Swooped tour is $110 for adults, with discounts for the 8 – 15 year old set. Book here.
Food portions are generous and easily replace a meal. Your mileage and appetite may vary, but I was stuffed by the end of the tour.
Participating restaurants offer Miami Food Tour participants coupons and discounts for a future visit, a nice gesture.
Cristina was well-qualified as our guide, a pastry chef by trade and talent behind Petite Tartine.
This tour concentrated on the South Beach area of Miami. As you know (or maybe you don’t), there is life on the other side of the causeway…and some darn good eating. Stay tuned for more good eats.
In the interest of full disclosure, I paid a reduced press rate for this tour. As always, my opinions are my own and my assessments accurate. My opinions and affections cannot be bought. Just ask my husband.