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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Things to Do in South Florida: Miami Culinary Tours Review

If you live in the South Florida area, or are headed there on vacation, you probably already know that the Miami area has a lot to offer. Whether you're a local or just passing through, it can be hard to decide what to do for fun. After all, not everyone has unlimited funds, and you want to get the most out of your dollar.

Since I've moved to this area, I've really tried to focus hard on making the most of my time here. The funny thing about living in one place for too long (no matter where you are) is that you tend to ignore the interesting events and activities that are all around you. Luckily, moving to Florida from Indiana gave me a new perspective on all of this. I realized that I wanted to go back to Indiana to do some of the cool stuff that I heard my friends talking about - and yet while I was there, I took it for granted and never did any of those things! Even as I was pining away for the activities in my home-state, I realized that I was visiting the beach here less and less, and the things that seemed amazing and tropical to me when I first moved here (oooh palm trees!) now seemed mundane and usual. So I did what any sensible person would do - I tried to pretend I was just visiting. I made myself see the blue sky, the beaches, the palm trees, the people in shorts, the colorful houses - after a while I even picked up a travel guide from the local airport and started browsing through some of the unique activities South Florida has to offer.

It's hard to be able to do everything, see everything, afford everything, and still keep up on the day to day tasks though. After all, I'm not really vacationing, I'm just trying to give myself that mind-set. So when I was asked by Miami Culinary Tours if I would like to come and review their South Beach Food Tour, I was all for it! Not only do I love to try new places, but I absolutely adore being able to try new and interesting foods. One of my favorite things to do when I go to a restaurant is order the chef's special, whatever the waiter recommends, or the most outrageous thing I can find. If I think I won't get a chance to eat it again at another restaurant (grilled Tilapia with peach relish anyone?), I'm definitely going to try it.

Miami Culinary Tours was kind enough to give me and my husband tickets to go on their South Beach Food Tour in exchange for this review, and I hope that you'll give them a try based on my recommendation! (For more information on my disclosure policy, please see the tab at the top of the page entitled "Let me disclose to you".)

When we first knew we'd be going on the tour, our initial concern was finding parking. Miami is a big city (and can be a bit daunting for out of towners), and we weren't sure about the area we'd be leaving our car, the type of parking there was available, and how far we'd have to walk to get to our destination. We went on a Wednesday, and there was a surprising amount of parking spaces available on the street, even though it was nearly 6 o'clock. That's prime-time to be out and about in South Beach, regardless of what day it is. Not only did we find great parking (it was literally in front of the meeting spot), but the area was nice and we had no worries whatsoever about leaving our car or walking back to it. We were able to pay for the parking with our debit card or cash by utilizing automated machines that are stationed on the sidewalk.

With that out of the way, we headed towards our meeting spot. Almost immediately, a fellow tour-goer came up to me to introduce himself as Curt, which really helped to kick the whole tour off nicely. I wasn't sure if traveling along and dining with a group of strangers would be awkward or not, but any doubts that I had about it before this experience are now in the past. Everyone in the tour really meshed together well and we had lots of opportunities at the different spots to get to know one another and have bits of conversation. While this may be attributed to the outgoing personalities of those in our particular group, I like to think it has a lot to do with the feel of South Beach, the way our tour guide helped us to get to know one another at the beginning of the tour, and how incredible food always tends to pull people together.

Our tour guide's name was Anna, and she was spectacular. Not only did she know her stuff when it came to the local restaurants and the food being served there, but she really has her South Beach history down. She told us about events that happened along Ocean Drive, the movies that had been filmed there, the tale of the Versace mansion, and even more about the art and culture of the people living in and around the area.

Our first stop on the South Beach Food Tour was the 660 restaurant at The Angler's Resort, where my husband and I sipped freshly-made Mojitos as Anna conducted the introductory portion of our tour. It wasn't long before a waiter came out to the beautiful outdoor patio area carrying trays filled with our first sampling. I was a bit put off when I heard the name of the dish we'd be trying though: Scallop Tiradito. For whatever reason, I've always had a bit of trouble when it comes to seafood. I love it, I really do. I just don't like the smell of it. If it smells fishy or ocean-y, I usually want nothing to do with it. This, of course, clashes horribly with my love of trying new foods, and since we were in a tour group, I really didn't want to have one of my spit-it-in-the-napkin moments. Luckily, the dish itself looked A-M-A-Z-I-N-G, and with Anna's voice in the background cheerfully telling us about the ingredients and the juices that were accumulating under the scallops, I just had to try it. It was delicious. I've only had scallops a couple of times that I really loved them, and this was one of those times. Check out my mini-review of 660 at The Angler's Resort here for more on this stop.

With our first stop and my seafood surprise out of the way, we were ready to head to the 2nd location, which happened to be just across the street. The restaurant's name was Bolivar, and we were able to sit down and kick back to enjoy some of the neat artwork on the walls as we waited for the presentation of this stop's sampling. Anna told us about the restaurant and the food served there while a waiter served everyone a glass of refajo, a mix of Columbiana soda and beer. My husband and I were amazed at the unique taste, and thought it went perfectly with the empanada and patacon that was served with it. Check out my mini-review of Bolivar here for more on this stop.

We headed out, and to my surprise, we didn't go into any of the restaurants immediately nearby. Instead, we went for a walk along Ocean Drive with a great view of the beach and the fascinating art-deco seen prominently in the area. As we walked along, Anna told us all about the movement of art-deco, how it was started by a woman named Barbara Baer Captiman who realized the value of these buildings in the 1970's, and pointed out some of the interesting characteristics of art-deco; such as eyebrows on the buildings to add shade, or the perfectly-centered marquees allowing for building symmetry.

After we had walked a few blocks, we took a detour to stop at the outdoor-counter for David's Café, a popular place for locals to get café cubano. The coffee was poured, still warm, into small cups that our group drank down quickly. It was sweet and rich, and made me want some cuban toast to go with it. Check out my mini-review of David's Café here for more on this stop.

We walked back the way we had come, my husband and I pointing to the interesting things we could see through the shop windows of a local store. A row of t-shirts with funny phrases caught our attention and we laughed as we walked along. Our group headed along Ocean Drive once more, and Anna pointed out buildings such as The Carlyle, which was used for one of my favorite movies, "The Birdcage".

Our next food sampling was provided by Larios On The Beach, and we were glad to sit down for a while as we chatted with our fellow tour-goers. The fare consisted of ropa vieja, rice and beans, sweet plaintains, and crunchy cuban bread. Check out my mini-review of Larios On The Beach here for more on this stop.

When we came back out, the sun was beginning to set and the air was starting to cool down. Our walk became a bit more leisurely, and my husband and I held hands as we walked along. The buildings began to light up as strolled down Ocean Drive once more, and by the time we reached our next stop at Jerry's Famous Deli, the city was lit up with the colors of a million neon lights. Once in the deli, we began looking through large glass displays at the assortment of freshly baked goods. Before long one of the servers came out with a platter of rugelach (which is prounouced rug-ah-lock) for us to taste. After a bit of confusion and some laughing (some of our group thought we were tasting arugula!) we all were handed a piece of the tasty pastry to try. We took a group photo while in the deli, then headed out into the night for our last two stops. Click here for a mini-review of Jerry's Deli.

Our second to last stop was Blocks, and it became a new favorite place for my husband and I not only because of the widely advertised use of natural ingredients (I'm a sucker for organic), but because this is the only place that has ever made a vegetarian dish my husband adored. We aren't vegetarians, but we like to throw meatless lunches or dinners into our diet now and again to work towards greater health. The problem is that we don't usually like the same meatless option and end up going for fast food after we've spent an hour debating recipes. So much for trying to be healthy, right? The item we tried was called the Sun-Dried Hippie, a delicious pita filled with some of my favorite non-meat items such as feta cheese, kalamata olives and baby spinach leaves. Click here for my mini-review of Blocks Pizza Deli.

By this time, we were wonderfully satisfied, and I wouldn't have minded the tour ending at this point - I was amazed at how long the tour was and how filling the portions were! But, what would a food tour be without dessert? Our guide led us down Espanola Way, a beautiful walk meant to mimic the villages of Spain and France. I nearly smacked my husband as I gaped at the gorgeous entrance-ways, the flower-sellers, the couples dancing to live music in the street - how had he not taken me here for some romantic evening before now?!? I listened to Anna, fascinated as she told us the story of the man who had wanted to create a piece of Europe right here in Miami, and so began the construction of this little street.

By the time we reached our last stop, Milani Gelateria, I had secured a promise from my husband that he would take me on a date (soon) to one of the wonderful little eateries we had passed. The night air was cool, and music was playing as we went into the shop and looked at the gorgeous swirl of colors in the refrigerated cooler holding the gelato. Anna explained how the gelato was made, and what made it different from our typical American ice cream. My husband chose chocolate, and I chose lemon. The chocolate was good, but after tasting the lemon flavor I'd picked, my husband ordered a cup of it to go. Click here for my mini-review of Milani Gelateria.

After thanking our tour guide and wishing everyone a safe and happy trip home, we began our walk back to the car. Although it was dark out, we didn't have a moment of worry about the safety of the area, our ability to find our vehicle again, or the distance we needed to walk back. As a matter of fact, the only two moments that gave me pause throughout the entire evening were when I passed the t-shirt shop (some of the phrases wouldn't have been suitable for some children), and when we were on our way back to the car and had the unfortunate chance to see a man (who had obviously had too much to drink) relieving himself in an alley!

Would I do this again? Absolutely! This is a great activity, whether visiting or whether you're a local looking for something to do with friends. Even if you don't have friends to go with, don't pass up the chance! Our guide knew how to get us to mix with one another, and even though we all started out as strangers, we were quickly exchanging ideas, stories and interests with one another. The best part about the tours? I found out that every few months, the tour is changed up a bit to include different restaurants. This means you can go once, and then go again sometime later for a new and fantastic experience!

There are two standard tours to choose from, the South Beach Food Tour and the Little Havana Tour. For those looking for a more personal experience, private tours are available. I imagine that this is the sort of thing that would be perfect for a birthday party or for a pre-wedding get-together for those involved in the wedding party. Nothing says "thanks for being a part of my big day" like taking your friends to a night out on the town in Miami!

Children are allowed on the tour, but I would probably not bring mine until they were closer to 15 or 16. This is mainly because I feel that most children don't have a splendid appreciation for the foods they eat (thus their infatuation with chicken nuggets), and because I would worry about their attention and energy level waning as the tour went on. This is just from my view though. If you have a curious, attentive, full-of-energy youngster who you think would adore the new tastes that are in store for them, and the history behind the city and the food, go for it!

For more information on the tours and how to get tickets, please check out their website at www.miamiculinarytours.com. Or, you can connect with them through social media on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or Google+! See you in Miami!

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