The aroma of jerk chicken, turkey stew, and fried fish wafts out of an open window on NW 71st Street, teasing passersby. By lunchtime they can’t resist, and hungry crowds encircle the restaurant’s mural-covered walls.
Perched at the edge of Liberty City, Naomi’s Garden Restaurant has been serving up some of Miami’s best Haitian food for three decades now. And while the food is pretty delicious, what’s more incredible is how the restaurant came to be.
It was all pretty much an “accident,” according to Yaron Yemini, the restaurant’s Israeli founder.
The story begins in Maryland in 1974, when Yemini moved from Israel to explore the United States. While in Maryland, Yemini met Shula and her daughter Liza.
In the dead of winter of 1980, the three took a trip to Miami, and it wasn’t long before they decided this would be their new home. The blue skies, warmth, and greenery reminded them of Tel Aviv.
“I said ‘Shula, I’m not going back. I’m staying right here’ and she said, ‘You know what, I’m not going either,’” Yaron remembers. With little more than the clothes in their suitcases, they settled down in Miami and started anew. Eventually the two fell in love and got married.
That year, the couple moved to Kendall. They soon met a group of workers at an aviation warehouse nearby who often complained that they had no healthy and affordable lunch options while on the job. Yaron and Shula thought they could help. They started cooking up what they knew — a mix of Middle Eastern and Indian food, like falafel, hummus, masala dosas, and samosas — in their kitchen and selling it to the workers.
The business got so popular that Yaron and Shula built a trailer and began delivering their home-cooked food all over the county. It was pretty much the original food truck.
But it wasn’t long before the health department caught a whiff of the business and promptly shut it down, rightfully noting that it was illegal to run an unregistered business out of a truck — especially in a residential area.
But business was booming, so they set out to find a place where they could cook. A year later, in 1981, they found themselves standing in a former restaurant junkyard in Liberty City, surrounded by rusted industrial-scale restaurant equipment. But it had a small kitchen, four walls, and most importantly, it was in their budget. So they set up shop and started cooking again, this time under the name Creative Kitchens.
As the business grew, they hired the women living nearby, many of whom were Haitian. The Yeminis taught their new employees how to make everything from samosas to wheat grass smoothies. It wasn’t long before other community members started smelling the falafel and masala dosas and began begging the Yeminis to stop driving all the delicious food away every day and serve them, too. Because the new staff and clientele were predominantly Haitian, it only made sense that they start cooking Haitian food as well.
Over the next decade or so, the restaurant transitioned from making Middle Eastern and Indian foods into cooking Haitian cuisine entirely — eventually changing its name from Creative Kitchen to Naomi’s, named after Yaron’s mother.
As the restaurant grew, so did the Yemini family. Shula gave birth to two sons, Noam and Omaar, who were both conceived and born in a tent in the restaurant’s massive backyard garden.
“I don’t know if it’s just because I was born here, but I really feel like this place has some soul to it,” said Noam, who is now 31 and works as the restaurant’s general manager.
That backyard became a gathering point for locals from all over Liberty City and Little Haiti. It gained picnic tables, an urban garden, and a stage where locals would hang out and perform. Artists painted massive murals along the walls and local musicians built two recording booths to record amateur albums. Yaron set up a pirate radio station from which he would broadcast talk shows about spirituality and enlightenment. Guest DJs came by to host their own shows, too.
But remember, this whole thing came together sort of by accident. So the pirate radio, the recording booths, the stage — nothing was actually approved by city permits. That proved a bit tricky to explain to the police who stopped by to quiet down a party in the garden last year.
When they showed up to find a community center of sorts — complete with an unregistered performance space, radio station, and art exhibits — the police had no choice but to shut it down.
To the community’s dismay, Naomi’s had to shut their window seven months ago.
“I was so angry,” said Malaikye Louis, who is of Haitian and French descent and has been coming to the restaurant for years.
“My brother loves good Haitian food, and when he finds something he likes, he sticks to it,” his sister, Nadeige Joulmiste added. “He really likes Naomi’s.”
Rather than closing up shop for good, the Yeminis set out to untangle the whole fiasco and reopen — this time in accordance with the law. For the past seven months they’ve been toiling away, knee deep in paperwork and city permits. Their window re-opened this March, and now the beloved garden is back, too.
“It was a sour situation, but we took the lemons and made lemonade,” Yaron said with a warm smile.