Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I was working -REALLY!

Don't worry about any personal transgressions. My daughter, Brittany, is on my left and her girlfriend, Michelle, is on my right. I know what you were thinking though.

Miami really is another world. It feels like its own country; more of a Latin, Caribbean, and South American fusion rich in culture, tradition and architecture. English is the second language as most strangers will begin a conversation in Spanish. Calling one business, I got the message, “For instructions in English, press 1 now.” Usually it’s the other way around. If the US is the “melting pot”, the spoon that stirs in the hot spice is found here. In particular, South Beach lives up to all of the hype that it gets. Beautiful people, sparkling pools, art deco hotels, ever flowing drinks and, yes, even the white retro Don Johnson blazers are abound. I’ve been here a dozen times in my life and I’m amazed during every visit.

I’ve had a pretty packed schedule the past couple of weeks and even my weekends had been consumed with chores. I was feeling a bit stressed with no free time on my hands. When the call came asking me to head to Miami on no notice, it just totally fit in to the hectic time I was experiencing. What I was unaware of, though, was that for the next 3 days, I would only work till noon. With every afternoon to myself, it was the perfect recipe for decompressing. I stayed at a small hotel on Collins Avenue just a few blocks from Ocean Drive, the proverbial strip. Much like New York, every walk of life is well represented from affluent to modest.

It was hot. Really hot. The kind of hot they make movies about. But the pool water was cool and refreshing so that’s where I spent most of my free time. I’ve walked the streets many times before, just people watching and exploring, but I stayed very close to the hotel this time and I have no regrets about that. The food on South Beach is hip and trendy and often a bit on the expensive side. If you know where to look though (and ask the right people) you’ll find lesser known gems that will knock your socks off. If you wish to dine poolside at The Fountainbleau or at one of their 8 restaurants, that is a respectable choice, but on the first day I chose the Anthony Bourdain approach of finding the local haunt. A bit of research and I found what I was looking for. Puerta Sagua is a South Beach hole-in-the-wall filled with natives and few tourists. There is nothing fancy here and it even looks a bit out of place amid the neon hews and art deco buildings. The menu is full of classic and simply prepared Cuban dishes like Palomilla Steak (a thin pounded spiced skirt steak) with black beans and rice or Roasted Chicken. Everything is infused with citrus and Cilantro. The tables are a bit wobbly and the silverware is direct from your high school cafeteria. Perfect.

My daughter lives and works in Ft. Lauderdale so her and a friend met me for lunch. After finding a coveted parking spot right in front of Puerto Sagua we made our way in to the seat yourself dining room. They were busy on this weekday and service was slow but I didn’t expect anything different. Brit ordered the aforementioned Palomilla Steak while I settled for a Media Noche sandwich. This sandwich (meaning “Midnight” in English) gets its name because it’s traditionally eaten after an evening of dancing in the Cuban community. It’s much like a Cuban sandwich except it’s served on a sweet egg bread and is smaller than its more well known cousin.

Media Noche

On the side, I ordered some Yucca fries. Sweeter and less starchy than a French fry, Yucca is traditionally served with a cilantro, lime, garlic sauce for dipping. It’s on the thin side not resembling the westernized salsas that us gringos are more accustomed to.

This meal feels like a street market in Havana which may sound unappealing to some, but nirvana to me. After the meal, Cubans often finish with a Cuban coffee that is more like an espresso. Way more powerful than a regular coffee and perhaps stronger than espresso, its bitterness is an acquired taste to many. I enjoy it but I struggle to understand how on a hot, sticky south Florida day so many folks drink this very hot drink. It’s served in a small espresso paper cup and I’m guessing it’s just something to sip as warm conversation continues. I imagine the caffeine helps combat the post lunch lethargy as well. After the meal, I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon poolside sipping Mai Thai’s with the girls. Clad in their Bikinis and oversized sunglasses, I know folks were wondering what the old bald guy was doing with these beautiful young women. I really had a nice time and I enjoy Brittany’s company as much as I ever have.

I returned to my hotel after work the following day in the mood for something different. Filling my need for local fare, it was time to check out the internet for some cool places. I immediately ruled out anywhere I couldn’t walk. Like New York, there are great places everywhere so there was no need to drive. I decided on a Sushi place called Sushi Samba and headed out. Not realizing it was Cinco de Mayo, I was unprepared for the large street festivals I passes but I was thoroughly captivated.

Street food. Something we should all get behind.

Since I was alone, there was no street dancing for me, but watching the live music and smelling the smoke rising from the street vendor carts full of chicken, beef and fresh corn only produces a festive mood. I grabbed a $5 Margarita and just people watched for about an hour but then remembered I was kinda hungry.

Walking into Sushi Samba was like walking onto the set of Saturday Night Fever meets Miami Vice meets Rush Hour. The room was full of indirect lighting not a bit of which was white (although there was plenty of ambient light from the large windows). The neon orange glow from the bar in the back with artfully decorated liquor bottles on the shelves was a focal point and the oval shaped sushi bar in the middle of the room was a centerpiece.

Cool bar

I liked this place already. A look at the menu let me know this was no ordinary Sushi restaurant or even Japanese for that matter. I saw things I didn’t immediately recognize aside from the traditional sushi stuff. Things like sushi “taquitos” with an aji dipping sauce (aji is a Peruvian pepper) and organic chicken with aji amarillo, purple potato mash and crispy onion. Is this place really Japanese? Turns out, this restaurant is one of several Sushi Samba’s around the US. It was started based on the experiences of some Japanese migration to Latin America where a fusion of their cultures produces rich Latin dishes with a very Japanese influence. This unlikely combination of flavors is unbelievable and truly special. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have my arms around traditional Argentinean or Peruvian fare, but I can do generic Latin fare pretty well and it is abundant in the dishes. I stayed true to my desire for sushi but with a bit of a twist. Aside from the usual tuna and uni that I order regularly, I departed with tradition and ordered a house roll called the “Green Envy”. There was the rice filled with tuna, salmon and asparagus but then it was crusted in wasabi peas (one of my favorite snacks while I was in Asia) and topped with an aji amarillo-key lime mayo. Every time I think there can’t possibly be another original sushi creation, I am proved wrong.

An amzing plate of sushi

If you are in one of the cities that Sushi Samba occupies (New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami or Telaviv) and you are always on the hunt for a new and spectacular sushi experience, this is a must try. What a great business trip this was.

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