9 Restaurants That Could Only Exist In Miami
photo credit: Tasty Planet
What were you expecting? A list of places where air horns announce the arrival of fire dancers and the menu just says, “Pay us $1,000 and DJ Khaled will whisper his name into your ear at random intervals throughout the night.” Although intriguing, that’s not really Miami. This is a city where cuisines from different cultures T-bone each other to create the beautiful rubber-necking traffic jam that is so specifically Miami. And the restaurants on this guide all represent that in some delicious way.
We’re not saying these places literally couldn’t exist outside of this city—many could. These are just the ones that use Miami as a main ingredient. And this is not a comprehensive list of every one of those restaurants either—just some we’ve recently visited and want to celebrate the Miami-ness of.
If Sarussi Subs are the rings of Miami’s metaphorical tree, they can tell you a pretty accurate story about the city. The first one started as an Italian restaurant in 1964 and was later bought by a Cuban immigrant who added Cuban dishes to the menu. The restaurant invented a unique version of a Cuban sandwich by taking what it had available: a pizza oven, mozzarella, and sweet Italian bread. Eventually, Sarussi stopped serving Italian food altogether. Now, there are three locations—but the one on Bird Road has a Nicaraguan owner who (in keeping with tradition) is putting their own spin on the menu with a fritanga burrito and other Nicaraguan inventions. Sararussi won Miami’s evolution lottery by continuing to adapt its food to growing immigrant populations. Which is why this restaurant is the perfect embodiment of the city we live in today.
Smoke & Dough brings a lot of different Miami cultures together under what (sure looks to us) like an entirely new local cuisine: Miami-style barbecue. Some have tried similar things, but no one is pulling it off like this West Kendall spot. The tapas section is where you’ll find Venezuelan tequeños filled with pastrami, empanadas stuffed with brisket burnt ends, and Cuban croquetas with smoked ham. But what also makes Smoke & Dough so uniquely Miami is that it understands this city because it is a product of it. We don’t like standing in line for ribs (they take reservations). We like to sit, talk, sip wine, and share tapas. Smoke & Dough is not only making the best barbecue in Miami, it’s making it accessible to so many generations and cultures of this city.
Being a Miami Cuban-American outside of this city is like living in limbo—where kissing someone hello in Titusville might get you a galleta (not the cookie). But for many Cuban-Americans born here, Chug’s feels like home. It’s a place where both cultures and cuisines meet to create dishes like malanga latkes and arroz con leche blintzes. At Chug’s, you can dip your tostada in cafe con leche without getting any funny looks before biting into a frita with blue cheese. This restaurant is the very specific but shared story of millennial Cuban-Americans born in Miami who grew up eating croquetas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Chug’s is the place that asked, “Why not combine the two?” (with onions and a fried egg on top). Dishes rotate frequently, so you might not always find that croqueta grilled cheese, but you’re guaranteed to enjoy something that feels both familiar and completely new: Cuban-American food.
It’s a Coral Gables restaurant serving Asian food influenced by Italian and French techniques, cooked by a Colombian chef. This is the kind of dizzying ingenuity that produces the creative dishes you’ll find at Zitz Sum. The menu changes often, but there’s always some Miami throughline with entrees featuring guava hoisin and a coconut ginger sorbet with flan for dessert. Zitz is the first of its kind. And yet, it works here because if we can merge six lanes in 10 seconds for the 4B exit on I-95, who are we to draw the line at an aligot-filled donut with caviar?
La Fresa Francesa seems designed to trigger core memories for anyone who’s ever been overfed while getting their cheeks pinched in a grandparent's cluttered living room. So, just about every major culture on the Miami pie chart. This is a romantic restaurant filtered through a Hialeah aesthetic, with straightforward French dishes. But La Fresa's location in one of Miami’s most Cuban neighborhoods does peek through in dishes like the pastelito de foie gras and guayaba. There aren’t many restaurants left that appeal to several different generations of Miamians. But here you’ll see abuelas on date night next to two 20-somethings unloading gossip between bites of steak frites—and every one of them is grateful to live in a city where this kind of place just makes sense.
Ghee is where India’s subtropical cuisine combines with Miami’s. It’s a place where the samosas look more like empanadas, and a bhel puri chaat is served with local avocados and ceviche. But this restaurant in Downtown Dadeland goes beyond regional sourcing and Indian-Miami mashups. It grows much of its own ingredients straight from the restaurant’s Homestead farm. That’s what makes it feel so Miami. Eating here means you’re actually tasting the restaurant’s own soil and land through mangoes, coconuts, and papayas. It’s the restaurant equivalent to returning from the beach, cracking a plump leaf from the aloe plant in your backyard, and rubbing that soothing gel on your horrifically burnt shoulders.
Caribbean food is not unique to Miami. But finding a Haitian/Jamaican restaurant as good as this Homestead spot feels pretty special. The marriage of these two cuisines is quite literally the outcome of a real marriage between the Haitian husband and Jamaican wife who run the place. Make sure you order the conch fritters, which are huge, made with malanga batter, and stuffed with scotch bonnet peppers. This restaurant is the very definition of a local mom-and-pop shop. There are just a handful of tables and a mix of very lucky tourists who found Yardie Spice on their way to Key West, plus a couple regulars chatting it up with the owners who won’t let you leave without a slice of Maimi’s best rum cake.
Zak The Baker is a certified kosher bakery and cafe in Wynwood. But what makes it unique to this city isn’t its commitment to making sure Miami’s Jewish community has the best challah for Shabbat. It’s the way this restaurant pulls things from the oven that feel uniquely ours. Sometimes, this is literally because we’re asked to participate. During summer, Zak trades backyard mangoes for a loaf of sourdough, and then turns those mangoes into things like mango cheesecake. But this is also the only kosher bakery we know that’s pumping out excellent guava and queso pastelitos and mamey conchas. And instead of outsourcing apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, Zak The Baker pivots to local bananas and makes a banana honey custard pie for the holiday.
Like a lot of locals, the frita wasn’t born in Miami—but it grew up here. And good luck finding one like El Rey’s outside of this city. Seriously: name one American city with a frita like this. El Rey makes our favorite version in town, and it’s also the restaurant that really introduced Miami to the frita: a delicious combination of spiced ground beef, sauteed onions, and shoestring fries between Cuban bread. But El Rey took this Cuban burger and embraced the American tradition of throwing all sorts of toppings at it. You can order your frita with cheese, fried eggs, bacon, sweet plantains, or all of the above.