Updated 10 months ago
Once upon a time, dining on Latin American food in Florida meant Cuban and Mexican. Frijoles negros or rojos.
Today, the Latin table stretches all the way down the Southern Hemisphere. The cooking of South America, from the bright taste of marinated seafood in Peruvian ceviche to robust gaucho steaks on skewers, has spread throughout Florida and across the price spectrum. Locales range from strip mall storefronts and food trucks to thoroughly modern corporate operations.
South American cuisines combine familiar flavors of grilled meats and rotisserie chicken with intriguing surprises, combining indigenous foods, Iberian traditions and influences from other parts of Europe and Asia, from spaghetti marinara and fried rice to Parisian-style pastries.
Starch choices are more than mashed and fried, too. While many South Americans prefer yucca, Peru has potatoes in a rainbow of colors. And Brazilians like their churrasco beef with farofa, coarse cassava flour dolled up with parsley and a bigger load of extras than a 1-pound baked potato.
Center of the plate in South American dining is not surprisingly the continent’s biggest country, Brazil, with dozens of churrascarias, chain and independent, serving up fire-cooked meats to carnivores from Pensacola and Jacksonville to Miami Beach. Brazilian entrepreneurs exported the idea two decades ago to Texas and soon conquered the U.S. steakscape. Today, Fogo de Chao has two restaurants in the state (Orlando and Miami), Rodizio Grill one (Pensacola) and Texas de Brazil seven (south Florida, Tampa and Orlando).
For all the gaucho cowboy mystique and the all-you-can-eat format (approximately $40 including massive salad bars), most are multimillion-dollar locations, smart and low key in service and gracefully contemporary in decor, with occasional Carnival-style plumage. That wows a mainstream audience much larger than the estimated 300,000 Brazilians in Florida.
At Boizao, an independent in Tampa, meat on vertical spits rotates before a log fire, but the mood is set more by polished modern wood, high ceilings and a gleaming wine room. Servers bring an endless choice of beef, lamb, pork and chicken to the table, sliced with delicacy and grace, nothing gluttonous about it. Brazilians are right to prize picanha. It’s the best top sirloin can be.
With Giraffas, Brazilian food has also entered the fast casual category. Originally a fast-food chain with 400 units in Brazil. Giraffas opened its first U.S. stores in south Florida and soon Orlando and Tampa. The Florida menu is bigger, serving under-$15 entrees as well as burgers, targeted at Brazilians who know the brand and the general public. Picanha beef is used in premium burgers and dinners. One of its most truly Brazilian items is surprisingly familiar: Stroganoff, introduced by immigrants long ago.
The greatest culinary range is at SushiSamba in South Beach, where sushi and Japanese Wagyu beef dance with linguica sausage and caipirinha cocktails.
Peruvian cuisine, the most exotic on the continent, has established cold fish ceviche as a fashionable cocktail across Florida. Peru’s blend of native, Spanish and Pacific flavors has made it a gourmet leader and ideal for small plates — with tiraditos, jalea and ancient amaranth, quinoa, blue potatoes and Andean music.
You can sample Peruvian widely in Florida, especially in downtown Sarasota and extensively in Miami. They range from roadside cevicherias to the most elegant and artful restaurants in South Beach and Coral Gables. Two of the sharpest in Miami are chef Juan Chipoco’s upscale downtown ventures, Cvi.Che 105 and now Pollos & Jarras.
The Argentine appetite for beef has produced its own Florida steakhouses and parrilladas, from wood-fired asadors to tableside parrillas. Their mixed grill of beef cuts, blood sausage and organ meats such as sweetbreads and kidneys and appetizers of grilled provolone can go beyond standard steak, but the settings are as rich and polished as classic American steakhouses. Plus fine Argentina red wines to match.
For more than a decade, Miami has supported two chains, Novecento, with branches in New York and Argentina, and Graziano’s, with four Miami restaurants. Three Graziano’s have markets to sell other Argentine favorites, such as European pastries and Italian tomato sauces.
And now, Argentina has a place on Miami’s flashiest address, Lincoln Road, where Baires Grill has its sleek new address.
The Venezuelan exodus in the last decade has expanded Florida’s menu. They include Don Pan, a Caracas chain that now has 30 bakeries from Miami to Tampa serving both fine French-style tarts, eclairs and napoleons and the national sandwiches made in arepa patties of yellow corn meal.
At the very high end, eight stories up above Lincoln Road, Venezuelan entrepreneurs have opened the stunning Juvia, with a global menu that includes French and Japanese as well as Latin dishes.
Colombian restaurants have become staple sources of Latin eating in hundreds of spots in Orlando, Tampa and Miami. The fare is substantial, from white corn arepas to rotisserie steaks and the generous bandeja paisa of rice, red beans, plantains, sausage, pork skin and steak with fried egg and avocado garnish. It’s part of the successful Colombian/Peruvian menu of Pio-Pio, a smart modern operation with white tablecloths and fiery brasas in Orlando. Colombian food goes further uptown at Bolivar, a Latin fusion spot in South Beach, where the broad bandeja platter is stacked into tall food and the simplest soups are handsomely plated. El Corral is targeting the fast casual niche in Miami.
You can now get a taste of Chilean white bean porotos and stuffed palta avocados at Viva Chile in Davie.
At Renzo’s, a small steakhouse in Tampa, the sign outside says Argentine style. The owners are from Uruguay and Venezuela, and the steaks include a Brazilian picanha plus Uruguay’s beloved short ribs and the chivito monster sandwich of steak, ham, bacon, cheese, fried egg and olives.
And there’s more to come. South America is big place and closer than ever.