Miami vs. Seattle Food Scenes: The Magic City Falls Short
Seattle and Miami are the odd couple of American cities. The former is hilly, its Scandinavian influence as supersonic cool as its metallic-gray skies. Our town lies flat on its back, its Hispanic influence burning as white a heat as the sunshine above. There's a 16-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. We have a 16.9-foot sculpture of oranges at Government Center.
Residents of the Emerald City are for the most part civic-minded, politically conscientious, and literate enough to require quite a few enormous, nonchain bookstores. Folks in the Magic City are, um, less so.
Happy hour is a big deal there; even coffee shops and retail stores run specials during this time. The result: By midnight, that West Coast hamlet snores — just about the hour Miami wakes up.
The two cities really are like Oscar and Felix. Thank God we don't have to live together. In fact, it's likely the reason we're separated by just about as many miles as possible — a diagonal line across the map from extreme south and east to extreme north and west. I recently spent a week in Washington's biggest city, which gave me the perfect chance to see how our budding culinary scenes stack up.
So how do these polar opposites rate as food destinations? In short: The edge goes to Seattle.
Miami's gastronomic environment has come so far that it's easy to ignore its deficiencies. But a week in Seattle illuminates just how glaring those weaknesses are. Take Pike Place Market.
Like Bayside Marketplace, Pike Place is located on the waterfront, close to the city's downtown area, and draws a daily deluge of tourists. Unlike Bayside, and unlike the other shoreline spots along Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne, and elsewhere in Miami-Dade County, Pike Place is an impressive showcase for the bounty of Seattle's fresh seafood (and its other culinary products). The venue isn't all dolled-up, but retains its original gritty, fish-market ambiance — to the delight of tourists and to the convenience of locals, who can pick up fresh fish for dinner as well as a gorgeously arranged floral bouquet for a total of $10.
Most important, there are affordable, affable, everyday eateries in and around Pike Place. Strollers are privy to grab-and-go seafood snacks such as smoked-salmon-on-a-stick and cups of shrimp cocktail, ceviche, oyster chowder, and so forth. Across the street, folks line up for warm, homemade piroshky at Piroshky Piroshky, or for grilled cheese on artisan bread ($7) and mac 'n' cheese ($5.50) at Beecher's Handmade Cheese, where you can watch the curds get separated from the whey through a glass partition between factory and store.
Contrast that scene with restaurants at Miami's aforementioned waterfront locales (plus those along Ocean Drive): The overwhelming majority of them exist only to soak tourists to the bone. There is no place to get great homemade ethnic food for a few bucks. There are precious few places to eat affordably priced fish fleshed from the water (Garcia's Seafood Market & Grill being an exception). Our coastline is reserved for the privileged.
Even our stone crab is pricier than their Dungeness — but also sweeter. The latter crab, however, is more versatile, showing up in BLTs, eggs Benedict, omelets, ceviche, and so forth. Local seafood in Seattle is far more accessible to the public. The streets are bolstered by boisterous oyster bars — such as Taylor Shellfish, a retail oyster market where you can choose from a variety of species served in ice-filled trays, grab a stool at a high-top table, and slurp your shellfish with a baguette, white wine, craft beer, or whatever. No fuss, no pretense. Well, maybe a little pretense among the clientele — this is, after all, a big city.
Seattle has salmon, halibut, and plenty more, but it's not as though South Florida isn't swimming with grouper, yellowtail, and other great fish too. Thing is, a lot fewer tourists come here with a meal of grouper on their to-do list than visitors go to Seattle with salmon dinner in mind. It's a matter not only of marketing but also of markets.
Markets and bakeries are the nuts and bolts of a food community, and Miami still lags behind other cities on both counts. There are bakeries galore in Seattle, and absolutely fantastic bread is served at restaurants (usually with a $2 or $3 surcharge). The superiority of fish markets has already been implied; meats too,are of higher quality. Because of demand among South Americans, we have more steak houses, and probably better ones. But seemingly every marketplace in Seattle — and there are many — sells house-cured sausages and charcuterie, aged cuts of beef, and fresh farm-raised chicken and pork. Matt's in the Market makes its own headcheese. Revel, a hip and hot Pacific Rim-influenced restaurant, runs a "Summer Grill" menu in which whole animals are fabricated daily into various cuts for the dinner plate; the night we dined, a pig from Pure Country Farm in Washington was served as sausage, pork belly, smoked ham steak, etc.
Salumi, owned and operated by Mario Batali's family, produces its own charcuterie too (such as Tuscan finocchiona salami and a kick-ass sopressata). And they make sensational salumi sandwiches on fresh focaccia for around $10. A brisket sandwich at the Boar's Nest goes for $7. You can get a Cheez Whiz-smeared Philly cheesesteak at Tat's Deli. A grilled Reuben sandwich at the Market House (since 1948) features corned beef cured in-house and piled high on marbled rye with sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and Swiss cheese, along with a fiery side of horseradish, potato salad, a pickle spear, and a chocolate chip cookie — for $8.95.
Only Cuban sandwiches and medianoches save Miami from faring poorly in the sandwich comparison. Other than those signature sammies, we basically have La Sandwicherie and loads of Subway shops.
If I say the Seattle resident's palate is more sophisticated than that of the average Miamian, it's mostly because a local food critic there recently complained about those darn "ubiquitous foie gras torchons" all over town. The only dishes so ubiquitous in Miami are fried calamari and French onion soup.
Speaking of which, we have more French bistros and Italian restaurants. Otherwise, the breadth of dining options runs deeper up there. Heck, Tom Douglas — recent winner of the James Beard Award for the nation's outstanding restaurateur — alone owns places serving seafood (Seatown and Etta's), roasting meats (Palace Kitchen), Greek (Lola), rotisserie chicken and barbecue (Rub With Love Shack), German (Brave Horse Tavern), pizza (Serious Pie), and Tibetan dumplings (Ting Momo). There are numerous souvlaki joints, lots of Mexican food (and Mexican food trucks), Asian and pan-Asian of all stripes, gastropubs, at least three authentic Cajun places (we have none), Polish food at Dom Polski, and even a Budapest Bistro.
The International District (AKA Chinatown) tenders yet more affordable fare via places such as the wonderful Mike's Noodle Shop. Pho shops abound, as do a number of Korean-influenced venues (Marination Station, Ma'Ono, Katsu Burger, Revel). An advertisement touts an eatery as being "one of Seattle's best vegan restaurants." Any vegan restaurant that opens in Miami more or less automatically becomes the best.
There are many Starbucks, but also a slew of independent coffeehouses. Once again, the Cuban community bails us out to some extent via café cubano and all its variations; plus Panther Coffee, Alaska Coffee Roasting Co., and Eternity Coffee Roasters have in recent years jump-started the coffee scene here. Theo organic chocolate is produced in a local Seattle factory, and Top Pot Doughnuts proffers better doughnuts than you can buy in the Magic City — but if it makes you feel any better, they're not nearly as good as Dynamo Donuts in San Francisco.
The locavore movement is widespread, with virtually every name Seattle chef operating in at least semisustainable fashion. Radishes were in season, and every place we went offered them in raw form as an appetizer: The Walrus and the Carpenter, an urbane oyster bar, slathered some foie gras butter for the humble vegetable to luxuriate in; Sitka & Spruce, a restaurant helmed by chef Matt Dillon (2012 James Beard winner for best chef in the Northwest), presented radishes in cold cumin water with lime and sea salt (eggs and produce coming from its own Vashon Island farm). Few Miami chefs would put out a plate of raw farm-picked vegetables; only Michael Schwartz, Giancarla Bodoni, and Giorgio Rapicavoli come to mind (the last does so with Homestead carrots at his pop-up Eating House).
Seasonality extends to seafood. The famed Copper River salmon season was just starting, and salmon, in general, wasn't at its peak. Halibut was, so that's what restaurants were serving. Sitka & Spruce plated a juicily seared wedge of it with wild leeks cooked in yogurt and a side of lentil pilaf and lavash bread.
Seattle's best chefs aren't better than Miami's best chefs, but there are many more of them. And they're spread out over the city, not congregated in just a few areas. Every neighborhood seems to have a few chef-driven establishments of note. We have wide swaths of land, even whole cities in Dade, devoid of any serious dining options.
Miami isn't without its gastronomic strengths: Argentine parrilladas, multinational empanadas, arepas, Cuban sandwiches and Cuban coffee, lechón asada, bátidos, Colombian perros, Jamaican beef patties and goat stew, alfajores dripping with dulce de leche, Peruvian ceviche, and grilled or fried grouper sandwiches at Garcia's Seafood Market & Grill. We grow great tropical fruit, which puts us on par with Washington's apples, pears, cherries, and berries. Our local farms produce all manner of tasty produce, and our markets are stocked with avocados, yuca, plantains, and other distinctive regional vegetables.
Seattle's soil yields more elite eats, particularly wonderful wild mushrooms such as morels, boletes (porcinis), and truffles. Grapes thrive in Washington too — wineries and distilleries dot the land. Seattle likewise boasts a banquet's worth of local draft craft beers, such as Manny's Pale Ale from the Georgetown Brewing Company.
And so the needle swings back to the west — but this contrasting of cities isn't meant as a put-down of Miami. Our town's dining scene has grown as quickly as a resident could hope for. It's possible our populace's tastes are such that we'll never quite match the demand for quality goods found in other locales. But as long as the culinary curve continues upward, it's reasonable to expect some rise of our collective palate.
In the meantime, we can enjoy what we have, which is plenty — and a lot more than what we used to have. Food cities such as Seattle are great for not only visiting but also setting a bar to aim for. Like, say, an oyster bar in a waterside market.
By the way, did I mention our baseball stadium is much nicer than theirs?
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