Hit List - Miami

30 May 2016
by Jordana Rothman • In partnership with FOOD & WINE


Miami native and chef Michelle Bernstein of Cena by Michy remembers the local restaurants that first shaped her palate.

 

Miami has been a magnet for out-of-town chefs in recent years, with blockbuster names like New York’s Andrew Carmellini and Francis Mallmann of Argentina setting up satellite shops along the beach. But Michelle takes special pride in the fact that she is one of the city’s few home-grown talents. “I was born in Miami. Not a lot of chefs in this city can say that,” she says. “Food was everything for my family growing up. I would wake up in the morning and mom would be cooking oxtail stew. That’s really how I remember my life here—filled with sweet smells and vibrancy; great music and a loving, tight-knit family.”

 

Michelle has spent her entire career exploring and interpreting the area’s culture, indigenous flavors and ingredients. And even as the city has grown as a restaurant capital, she still prefers to visit the places that influenced her taste when she was young. Here, Miami’s native daughter reveals the formative bites that helped make her the cook she is today.

 

Strawberries at Knaus Berry Farm

A pair of Missouri brothers, Jess and Harley Knaus, first founded this Southern Florida farm in the 1920s; it was Jess’s sons Ray and Russell who narrowed its focus to strawberries in the fifties, launching a bakery and u-pick fields that continue to operate in the same location today. Michelle has been visiting the farm since she was a child. “I wrote my first food love story about Knaus when I was 10. My parents would taking us picking and we would be rewarded with treats from the bakery afterwards. That is my most memorable of all food memories,” she says. Even now Michelle contends that “it’s worth the sometimes hour-long lines for sun-kissed, just-picked strawberries, strawberry milkshakes and freshly baked warm sticky buns.”

Knaus Berry Farm: 15980 SW 248th St, Homestead; 305-247-0668; knausberryfarm.com

 

Fried shrimp and pan con minuta at La Camaronera

Another fraternal operation, La Camaronera began life as a fish wholesale operation in 1966. The Garcia brothers—Cuban émigrés fleeing Castro—added cafe operations in the seventies and a Miami classic was born. The pan con minuta offers a whole boned fried snapper, seasoned with lemon and cumin, on a squishy roll with diced onions, ketchup and hot sauce. “I’ve been eating there since before I could reach the counter. They have an expansive menu, but in the 30-some years I’ve been going, I’ve never eaten anything but fried shrimp and pan con minuta,” says Michelle. “Every time I return I say to my husband ‘vuelve la vida’—this brings me back to life.”

La Camaronera: 1952 W Flagler St, Miami; 305-642-3322; lacamaronera.com

 

Medianoche sandwich at Islas Canarias

Family-run since the seventies, Michelle grew up dining at this Cuban institution with her parents, who would order paella and whole-fried fish to share. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that Michelle got wise to the griddled medianoche—a cousin of the Cuban sandwich, made with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickles and served on soft, eggy bread. “As a kid, I thought Islas was the fancy restaurant—we would never get sandwiches there. In high school I went back with friends who convinced me they had the best medianoche in town,” she says. “I don’t know what it is—maybe it’s the plancha, or that they use the perfect amount of butter and cheese. But even today it is the only place in Miami I will actually eat a medianoche.”

Islas Canarias: 13695 SW 26th St, Miami; 305-559-6666; islascanariasrestaurant.com

 

Roti from L C Roti Shop

One of Michelle’s first professional mentors was a cook named Nevil, who she encountered early in her career while working the line at Mark Militello’s long-defunct Mark’s Place. “Nevil taught me how to break down a chicken, how to crack an egg, use a knife, make a brunoise, eat a grapefruit properly,” remembers Michelle. He also introduced her to the flavors of his native Jamaica, teaching her how to work with ingredients like breadfruit and tipping her off to the best places to eat Caribbean food around Miami, like L C Roti. “Whenever I want a taste of my past I will go and have a roti at L C. There is something very soul-fulfilling about it—a good roti is all about great texture, fragrance and flavor. It just makes me smile.”

L C Roti Shop: 19505 NW 2nd Ave, Miami; 305-651-8924

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