All-Time Greats

The 15 Most Essential Miami Food Experiences

Go big or go home.

In Miami, we’re good at new. New condos. New cars. New body parts. And, of course, our never-ending stream of new restaurants that have made us one of the best food cities in the world. But live here long enough, and you start to learn the eating experiences that give the city its soul are the ones that stick around forever. The thick grease and strong coffee at ventanillas. The slightly-fishy cold of Joe’s Stone Crab. The smell of grilling chicken and questionable sanitation while you shuffle in line for chop chop. These are the foods and restaurants that make Miami, well, Miami. And all of them need to be experienced before one can truly say they’ve eaten their way through this city.

Find Miami’s best Cuban sandwich

Multiple locations
It says a lot about Miami that discussions on where to find the best Cuban sandwich are more hotly debated than our local elections. But, in fairness, we’ve got a lot of great spots to get the classic sandwich stuffed with pork, ham, mustard, pickles, and swiss cheese. Enriqueta’s is often cited as the go-to for a Cubano, but there’s a large contingency that’ll tell you Sarussi is better. Sanguich, as the name might imply, does it exceptionally well. And even Pollo Tropical got in on the action this year with an entire menu of Cuban sandwiches.

Crack Stone Crab Claws at Joe’s Stone Crab

If for no other reason, Joe’s is worth a visit as the only living Miami restaurant to be mentioned on The Golden Girls. And if Blanche Devereaux’s endorsement isn’t enough, well, how dare you, but also take a look at the line that pours out of the place during stone crab season. Granted, there likely won’t be much of a line this year, but you still won’t get more classically Miami than Joe’s, with it’s bow-tied waiters, white table cloths, and four-digit bills. Hey, who said eating at a landmark ever came cheap?

Grab a Cuban coffee and croqueta from a ventanilla

Multiple locations
If you’ve never had Cuban coffee, it’s a little like pouring amphetamines in a bottle of rocket fuel, and dousing the whole thing with sugar. And while pretty much any restaurant in Miami will serve it to you, the best experience is ordering from a small window somewhere in Hialeah (or Little Havana, if you're scared of the Santeros) like Islas Canarias and accompanied by a nice, deep fried croqueta. But be prepared: If you don’t like ham, cheese, or bechamel sauce, just stick with the coffee.

Take in the view from the Rusty Pelican

Key Biscayne
No restaurant in Miami has seen more weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinces, and over-aggressive first dates than the venerable Rusty Pelican. Its spectacular view of the Miami skyline is unrivaled and, while it once had a fairly-dated menu a new chef brought the place new life about three years ago, and now it’s actually worth going to for the steaks as much as it is for the glittering downtown view.

Eat the best sandwich of your life at Hungry Bear

Before its recent food-and-entertainment renaissance, there were only three reasons anyone needed to go to Doral: Playing golf, bailing someone out of TGK, and getting sandwiches at the Hungry Bear. And while Doral is ripe with great restaurants now, those spots still pale in comparison to this legendary sub shop, where you can get a honey mustard chicken sub or Cuban sandwich that’ll feed you for three meals—typically for under $10.

Instagram the shit out of your dinner at Barton G

South Beach
There’s a better-than-average chance you’ll be the only local in the place when you go to Barton G. But you know what—who cares? Where else are you getting a filet mignon served in a Tonka truck? Or dessert served in a dollhouse? Or French fries served in a skull? Barton G is, hands down, the most ridiculous fun you can have eating dinner in Miami. And if you’re looking to splurge and give some out-of-towners a night they’ll never have at home, absolutely nowhere is topping Barton G.

Be part of the scene at Prime 112

The first time I went to Prime 112, I saw Bill Clinton and A-Rod photographed eating together at my same table. The last time I went, my friends got into a passive-aggressive shouting match with a table of Russian escorts. Neither of these is even remotely unusual at the sceniest of South Beach steakhouses where celebs, rich dudes, and the ladies they’ve hired for the weekend go to be seen. Is it the best steak in town? Actually, it might well be. If you’re looking for a great meal with a serious side of South Beach, absolutely nothing comes close to Prime 112.

Find your chop chop at Chicken Kitchen

Multiple locations
Ask anyone who’s left Miami the food they miss most, and the answer isn’t a fancy restaurant or a Cuban dive. It’s chop chop, the yellow-rice-and-mojo-chicken magic that’s the unofficial lunch food of Miami. It’s almost impossible to find outside South Florida, and the quintessential spot for it is Chicken Kitchen, where you can try Cuban Chops, Mexican Chops, Chinese Chops, or even wraps. But the real OGs know the only way to eat this stuff is ordering an original with pita and an uncomfortable amount of curry mustard sauce.

Cruise Calle Ocho looking for fritas

Multiple locations
The only thing debated nearly as hotly as the Cuban sandwich in Miami is the frita, the spicy hamburger made from beef—and sometimes chorizo—served at Cuban restaurants and lunch counters around the city. El Mago de Las Fritas gained great fame for the sandwich when former President Obama stopped in. But many will tell you El Rey de Las Fritas is better. Or even Luis Gallindo’s, if you ask the Burger Beast. No matter who you prefer, it’s hard to go wrong with this spicy little beef patty seasoned with paprika and topped with crispy onions.

Versailles Restaurant
Versailles Restaurant | Flickr/Eugene Kim

Immerse yourself in Little Havana at Versailles

Little Havana
Not many restaurants in America still offer waiters in white coats and paper placemats that double as menus. But such is the delightful contradiction that is Versailles, a maze of brass, mirrors, and sub-$10 Cuban entrees that’s the most Cuban-American food experience you can have. The restaurant served as ground zero for the Elián González human chain and protests in 1999, and is still as much of a social gathering place for the Cuban exile community as it is a restaurant and bakery. It might not be the best Cuban food in Miami, but it still never disappoints. And if you want an experience along with your Ropa Vieja, it’s worth braving the lines on weekends.

Make the trek to Tropical Chinese

Though Miami may have one of the most diverse and delicious food scenes in America, one cuisine we’re dreadfully lacking is Chinese. That is, unless you’re driving down Bird Road and stop into Tropical, which feels a little like it was dropped from San Francisco’s Chinatown two blocks west of the Palmetto. White tablecloths and epic portions of affordable, unctuous food await, with tables full of Chinese students from nearby University of Miami savoring the closest thing they can find to their home cuisine. It’s an institution the same way Versailles or Joe’s is—it’s nothing novel but so good people come back for generations.

Eat a slice the size of your head at Casola’s

Look, if you want wood-fired, Neapolitan, topped-with-oysters-and-golden-truffle pizza, Miami’s got plenty of options. But if you want pizza that’s the stuff you remember eating immediately after your little league games and tastes like a simpler time, there is only Cassola’s. And while those slices might have seemed monstrous when you were a kid, they still look gargantuan today, and a $5 cheese slice is enough for a full meal. Cassola’s is also the ideal pizza for parties, as its unmistakable extra large boxes tell the neighborhood, “Hey, I’m doing something fun over here, why weren’t you invited?”

Scarf wings at Sports Grill

Multiple locations
If you haven’t spent an entire Sunday drinking light domestic beer and dirtying yourself with Sports Grill wing sauce, you may as well turn in your 305 phone number. Because though many higher-end places have tried, no place in Miami makes wings quite like Sport Grill, who still routinely tops literally every list of best wings in the city. The go-to sauce here is the Dale sauce —pronounced like the famous racecar driver and not a Pitbull interjection—a spicy, smoky sauce named after a longtime regular.

Get romantic at Mandolin

Buena Vista
The story behind this candlelit outdoor spot in a 1940s bungalow is almost as charming as its setting. A Greek/Turkish couple who overcame historic differences recognized their lifelong dream of combining their culinary cultures, and opened the place in 2009. Since then, it’s seen thousands of first dates (and, we assume, even more third dates) and offers up a menu of grilled meats and savory spreads that would be phenomenal even if you weren’t dining under the stars.

Eat Indian food in a Scarface setting at Bombay Darbar

Coconut Grove
There’s nothing quite like delving into a spicy, steaming plate of chicken vindaloo in a mirrored space that could well have been the inspiration for the Babylon Club. But would you expect any less out of Miami’s most vaunted Indian restaurant, who moved into this massive Mayfair space after it outgrew its old digs on Commodore Plaza. Bombay Darbar plays the Indian classics better than anyone in Miami, and though it’s not as cutting edge as some of our more-celebrated Indian eateries it still packs ’em in night after night.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, former pageant judge in the Miss Florida America system, and past contributor to Cosmopolitan magazine. Matt graduated with a BBA from University of Miami and holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Florida. He currently lives in Miami with his Betta fish, Bob.
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