Call me an eternal optimist, but I see sunshine even where the sun don’t shine. And believe me, here in the Sunshine State, there are places in the shadows that never gleam in the spotlight. The best discoveries are the ones you don’t expect — the accidental surprises along the journey.
For me, one of those journeys has been the adventure of relying almost exclusively on Miami-Dade public transportation to schlep around the city. The Miami Schlep saga, which is now a regular story line on my Twitter account, has become a living documentary of flowing through a city of many stops and starts, of infinite variety and, to be sure, annoyances — like the fact that bathrooms close at Downtown’s Government Center station on evenings and weekends. But along the way, I’ve made a few discoveries I would have never made driving around a one-ton moving piece of steel.
I’m not always on a bus or a train, though. My boyfriend, a former taxi driver who holds a master’s degree in Anthropology, is a master at schlepping in his four-door Honda. Since we’re both freelancers writing books, we sometimes find ourselves in between jobs, and, well, how should I put it? A little lean in the pocketbook. But one good thing about being broke at times is that we end up discovering what’s magical about living on a budget.
As a food writer, I’ve been wined and dined at some of the finest establishments in Miami. But Michelin star perfection — as exquisite as it is — gets boring if that’s all you’ve got on your plate. Give me the real, raw, meandering about on a shoestring budget day, too.
Even though my wallet may not be that of a baller, I consider myself far from broke. I’m rich with experiences that for some of my fellow Miamians are part of daily life. If I had to choose between a $9 arepa in trendy Brickell or a $4 arepa in working-class Hialeah, guess which one I would pick?
What I love about Miami’s working class mom-and-pop restaurants is that you do, in fact, walk into mami or papi’s kitchen, where rogue entrepreneurship is served warm with heaps of gratitude among the many terms of endearment bestowed freely to any stranger who eats at their table. I, for one, am a stranger no more.
Call it champagne tastes on a tap water budget. So loosen your belts and get your schlep on. Feel free to share discoveries of your own, too. The world’s your oyster. And it’s delicious.
360 W. 29th St.
Hialeah, FL 33012
Why it’s called “Vegetable” escapes me, although they do serve carrot juice. The humble storefront sign at this Hialeah “shake shack” doesn’t do justice to its claim as having the best fruit milkshake in Hialeah. It should be proclaiming it in bright, flashing neon lights. For about $6, enjoy a thick, rich shake and a sandwich while standing up at a counter. Vegetarians can try a hearty Spanish-style egg tortilla sandwich cooked to order. For meat eaters, there’s roast pork and other Cuban classics, like pan con bistec. Established in 1979 by a Cuban immigrant family with just one blender, Hialeah’s finest batido joint (with the ubiquitous window bars, of course) also features the city’s equally ubiquitous Cuban coffee ventanita. If you go, observe the ordering process, which entails yelling orders in what I now affectionately call La Opera del Sanguish — the guy taking orders belts them out in a glorious, deep baritone that sweeps over the seamlessly organized chaos behind the counter.
66 W. 29th St.
Hialeah, FL 33012
Crammed between a little neighborhood market and a dollar store, Habana Fusion replaces La Esquina Boriqua Cubana, although the signage still bears the former name. A sign inside the restaurant reads “Capacity 30,” although upon my reconnaissance of the property’s square footage, it should probably read cuatro gatos — it’s that small. But the owner, a Venezuelan expat, has a big heart. She serves Cuban dishes alongside Venezuelan ones, which are scrawled out daily on a dry-erase board.
During my first visit, we chatted about our favorite dishes from Venezuela, where I lived for a spell when I was a kid. Vegetarians will enjoy the arepa de choclo, made to order in Cuban time. No rushing here. The arepas are piping-hot fresh, redolent of the earthy scent of corn, brimming with heaps of lightly-salted queso blanco, which reminds me of food I ate when visiting street-side vendors in the mountains surrounding Caracas. When food is so simple and good that it brings back memories, you know a $4 arepa is worth the schlep.
North Miami Beach
16752 N. Miami Ave.
North Miami Beach, FL 33169
Tucked away in a little side street off 163rd street sits Little Saigon, a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall with an utterly nondescript storefront. We typically order the small pho with shrimp or beef and two rice paper spring rolls for about $10. Both are prepared fresh. The scent from the squeezed lime and heaps of basil wafts into my face when I add them to the pho’s clear, steaming broth.
B & M Market
219 N.E. 79th St.
Miami, FL 33138
I discovered this spot while stuck at a light on a Miami-Dade bus. Its exterior walls are painted brightly in the colors of the Guyanese flag — red, black, green, and yellow — so it’s hard to miss on this otherwise drab section of the street. A menu of traditional Caribbean dishes such as ackee and salt fish, jerk chicken, callaloo, and more beckons hungry folks. The vegetarian roti, a flatbread stuffed with curry chickpeas, potatoes, and vegetables and served with a side of nuclear-strength hot sauce, costs under $10 and is filling enough for two. It’s easy to give my compliments to the chef. “Mom” cooks in a kitchen that’s visible from a small seating area inside the market, which sells Caribbean foodstuffs and boasts an impressive selection of bottled hot sauces. The owners, a husband and wife team from Guyana, opened the market over 30 years ago. Every local I talk to says, “Yeah, I’ve eaten there,” or “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go there.”
1643 S.W. 1st St.
Miami, FL 33135
When we first entered brightly lit Yambo, my first thought was, “Behold the palace of kitsch.” But upon closer inspection, the kitsch transformed into a hodgepodge of every imaginable artisanal object from Nicaragua attached to every possible surface. While quaint, the effect is also dazzling at this 24-hour budget fritanga, where meat rules the menu. One night, my meat-eating man and I enjoyed a late supper for under $10. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we looked at the bill.
We shared an appetizer of pezcozón de cahayote – a large fried breaded chayote smothered in queso fresco. While he opted for empanadas stuffed with beef, I ordered a dish of red beans and rice, fresh white corn tortillas, more cheese in the form of quajada, and a crisp, tart slaw of raw cabbage — all of which turned out to be huge, shareable portions.
119 N.W. 12th Ave
Miami, FL 33128
This take-out Nicaraguan fritanga, with several locations in South Florida, serves up food buffet-style from behind the counter. During the day on weekends, expect long lines and limited seating. Late night, however, is another story. One late Sunday evening, we ate outdoors next to a mural of tropical plants and birds. About $10 buys a supersize portion of shrimp in a flavorful tomato creole sauce, rice and beans, sweet fried plantains and cabbage slaw.
1380 S.W. 8th St.
Miami, FL 33135
Beny Moré, the legendary crooner of Cuba, once penned a song about how Mexican women could dance the mambo just as deliciously as any Cubana. He certainly didn’t have food in mind when he was thinking of swaying, curvy waistlines.
The Cuban-American in me loves that Little Havana has evolved into Little Central America. One late night we were craving Mexican and found El Taquito, where diners can order from a budget-conscious menu while seated in a small patio. Three generously filled beef tacos cost under $4. I enjoyed a vegetarian quesadilla verde for about $6, licking up every forkful of the tangy tomatillo sauce, and even had enough left over for lunch the next day.
1952 W. Flagler St.
Miami, FL 33135
I remember when this joint was a packed, standing room only hole-in-the-wall and shrimp sandwiches were about $5. But after more than 45 years, the Garcia Brothers’ fish market has expanded and gracias a Dios for that. The restaurant has grown into a small sit-down eatery with contemporary decor. Two shrimp sandwiches and a side of fried tostones go for about $20. The $8 sandwich is ridiculously simple in construction, yet every bite is bursting with stick-to-your-ribs yumminess. The deep-fried, breaded shrimp is juicy and slightly briny with just the right crunch, sandwiched between two thick pieces of soft Cuban bread and seasoned only with diced raw onion, mayonnaise, and ketchup.
209 11th St.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Washington Avenue in South Beach is as real as it gets for an urban thoroughfare filled with tattoo and smoke shops, liquor stores, convenience markets, cheap touristy t-shirt vendors, and fried food joints. One of its side streets discreetly hides one of Miami Beach’s best Middle Eastern restaurants, a tiny joint that’s open late. The beau and I come here not just because it’s affordable, but also because it’s just damn good food. Two can enjoy the appetizer sampler platter for under $15 — a perfect light supper before or after a movie.
I frequently crave the roasted vegetable sandwich filled with cooked-to-order marinated vegetables, drizzled with fresh yogurt sauce and served in a warm pita — a filling meal for under $10. The falafel is fried to perfection: crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, never greasy, and actually tasting like chickpeas. The hummus is silky to the tongue, and the lentil soup is homemade. No bean is wasted here — frugal and flavorful at its best.
667 Lincoln Rd.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
For our buck, nothing beats ordering a slice at Pizza Rustica and enjoying not one, but two, excellent and free entertainment options. We love sitting at The Oval (an elevated, grassy area in the middle of Lincoln Road) and engaging in some of the city’s best people-watching.
Or even better, grabbing our pizza boxes and heading just around the corner to listen to the New World Symphony’s free WALLCAST at Soundscape, where picnic-goers can delight in seeing and hearing an indoor concert projected outdoors on the exterior of the building with flawless sound quality.
Even if we had a million bucks, this would still be one of our favorite things to do on date night.
At $5.95 a slice, Pizza Rustica’s vegetarian options are budget friendly and mouthwateringly tasty. Order a slice and add a custom-designed salad for under $10, with gobs of whatever you like — greens, cheeses, vegetables — and you’ve got a feast for two under $20.