By the time Brazil and Croatia kicked off the World Cup, Boteco was bursting at the seams. Sweaty bodies in yellow and green jerseys were squeezed together inside the flag-draped Brazilian restaurant that thumped with samba. More were crammed on the covered patio, which opens onto Miami's sometimes-slummy NE 79th Street.
Fearing a fire department shutdown, managers locked the glass doors, leaving more than a dozen diehard fans stranded in the rain. They paid no attention to their hair and clothes, matted down long ago by the deluge. They pressed their faces against the glass, gazing hungrily at baskets of golden-brown orbs of the rich, chewy bread pastry called pão de queijo ($3.95) being passed around the room. They held their breath and covered their mouths with both hands when the soon-to-be-injured Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior took the ball. They let out a painful grunt when it was stripped away.
"I need a caipirinha bad," a man said to his friend, desperate for the sweet-tart Brazilian drink made of sugar, lime, and a sugarcane liquor called cachaça that is as suited for Miami as it is the beaches of Rio.
Boteco, among Miami's best Brazilian places, is not an aberration. The half-mile of NE 79th Street between Biscayne Boulevard and the bay includes a couple of bait shops, a boat dealership and repair shop, and a scooter store -- and it may be the next great dining district. During the past year, an array of varied, independently owned restaurants, including Tap 79 by Bin No. 18 owner Alfredo Patino, Choices Café, BarMeli, and Guarapo Organic Juice Bar, has moved into the area. With two 20-story towers soon to open on the bayfront, comparatively low rents, and wealthy neighborhoods with a few convenient eateries to the north and south, the area has potential, says Lori Zito, director of operations for Choices Café, which opened half a block east of Biscayne Boulevard earlier this year.
"We're a family-owned business without a huge budget to jump into those areas that are already developed," she adds.
Choices had a Brickell spot, where it earned ranks of dedicated followers with bright, filling vegan fare like the Mental Lentil wrap ($16). In it, a sprawling, verdant, collard-green leaf replaces the traditional tortilla and is stuffed fat with black beans, lentils, plantains, avocado, bell peppers, and vegan cheese.
But there was no room to grow -- only a cramped kitchen, a pair of tables, and few counter seats. They considered other spaces in Brickell, Zito says, but found only ones twice as expensive and without the kitchen equipment that could run into the hundred-thousand-dollar range. So owners Alex and Jorge Cuevas found a closed Cuban bakery on 79th Street that already had a kitchen and a small following. Their business has grown steadily since the vegan restaurant joined the neighborhood.
"For Sunday brunch, we get a lot of young couples," Zito says. "I looked around one day and saw ten kids in the room. So we've created a kids' menu."
Choices joined not only Boteco on the street but Schnitzelhaus, a German restaurant that has for years offered gut-busting classics like Bavarian sausage ($16), also called weisswurst, made from veal and the same fatty cut of pork as bacon, with sauerkraut, stewed red cabbage, and roasted potatoes. Another longtime 79th Street institution is Marky's -- Miami's go-to spot for home chefs who want to employ European foods like caviar and whole lobes of foie gras.
New restaurants in the area mostly turn out comforting, ethnic meals, as Schnitzelhaus and Boteco have done for years. BarMeli, which owner Liza Meli opened earlier this year after closing Ouzo's Greek Island Taverna nearby, serves balanced Mediterranean bites like a single, tender octopus tentacle ($14) and a pile of toothsome chickpeas doused in lemon juice and speckled with parsley. A thick, C-shaped link of juicy lamb merguez ($10) heavily spiced with cumin and chili is bold and smartly complemented with a zesty salad tossed in a sweet roasted-tomato sauce.
As one raucous, three-bottle-of-wine evening recently drew to a close at BarMeli, owner Liza Meli casually dropped a bottle of anise-flavored liquor and a half dozen shot glasses on the table. "Seventy-ninth Street is the new cool area," she says.
Tap 79 chef and owner Alfredo Patino, who lives in the neighborhood, leased a space down the road that once held Buddha Sushi. About two and a half months ago, he opened a small gastropub that is little more than a wide, U-shaped bar with shipping palettes hanging from the ceiling. He offers a short list of craft beers, including Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA and Ommegang's Hennepin Saison, and a predictable but well-executed gastropub menu with standouts like clams and chorizo ($12). Fatty strips of the smoky sausage, tinted bright red thanks to a bit of paprika, are rendered of their fat and simmered with clam broth and torn kale. A sprinkling of lemony, herby gremolata flares its sweet-saltiness and smartly cuts through the fatty sausage.
Patino says 79th Street is transforming the way Biscayne Boulevard did near downtown Miami a decade ago. "Biscayne was all prostitutes and crack, but those [condo] projects were approved by the city," he says.
The street is also a bargain compared to other areas. Yasmine Kobt, owner of Mina's Mediterraneo, grew up in Houston, where her parents owned a Mediterranean restaurant. She began looking for a spot in Wynwood more than three years ago, but landlords there had boosted prices as monthly art walks attracted thousands of people every second Saturday. "People were out of their minds with what they wanted," she says. "You can't run a business with one big night a month."
Her modestly priced restaurant opened in an easy-to-miss refurbished Haitian church and offers homey dishes plucked from a mismatched collection of countries along the Mediterranean. There is Moroccan beer by the bottle and a creamy lentil soup with pita chips ($5) that Kobt ate as a child. She offers paella ($22/$40) with fat shrimp and Prince Edward Island mussels alongside baked beef bourguignon and coq au vin, which her parents served as a nightly special in Houston.
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Schnitzelhaus owner Alex Richter says he's been waiting years for more restaurants to join him on 79th Street. The Munich native, who lived in London and Ibiza, opened the German restaurant and bier garden in 2004 after closing Edelweiss, a longstanding Biscayne Boulevard place. For years, he says, he felt like he was the only candle in a dark room. "This neighborhood was nowhere near as bad as Biscayne Boulevard was; there was no prostitution," he says. "It was a little dilapidated, a little forgotten, but now that's all changing."