A network of cafés in downtown Miami offers ethnic delicacies for cruise-line workers to enjoy a taste of home.
By Linda Bladholm
In downtown Miami, a network of cafés has grown to serve the Indians, Indonesians and Filipinos who are the backbone of cruise-line crews. When their ships dock at the Port of Miami, they flock downtown for a taste of home -- often served by ex-pats who once were cruise workers themselves. Seeing these hungry, homesick folks dig into favorite dishes makes you realize how food defines our identity as it fills our bellies. Follow their lead, and you can get an authentic meal without spending much more than $5 or $10. Go to graze, and you can cover a wide swath of Asia in just a few blocks.
Here's our insider's guide to this slice of downtown.
(Be sure to call before going; some eateries don't open if there's no ship in port. Plan on lunch or an early dinner; none stays open past 8 p.m. and some close as early as 3 p.m. And bring cash; half of them don't accept credit cards.)MATAHARI CAFE
Dibyo Kasiyadi, a former cruise worker from Jakarta, named his small, new spot for the Dutch dancer Mata Hari, who was executed for espionage during World War I. Indonesian cruise ship workers (and hotel staffers from The Setai) frequent Matahari for the nasi rames (combination rice platter). Most of the crewmen are from the island of Bali, and a Balinese specialty called lawar is also a draw.
The rice table consists of a molded mound of steamed rice circled by achar (carrot and cucumber pickle), oseng-oseng (stir-fried veggies with black bean paste), a hard-cooked, curried egg, beef rending (cooked in coconut milk and spices), a beef fritter in egg batter and shrimp crackers.
Lawar is traditionally made for special occasions. Some versions have pounded raw meat and fresh blood, but the one here is fairly tame, made from chopped green beans steamed with bits of pork belly, roasted coconut shreds, fried garlic and shallots, chiles, spices and lime juice, served with Balinese soup (pork on the bone with turmeric) and tum (spicy pork dumplings steamed in banana leaves). There's also mie ayam (chicken noodle soup), bakso (meatball soup) and tahu campur, fried bean curd served with vegetables and peanut sauce. Gule kaming is lamb and coconut milk curry with herbs topped with crispy fried shallots.
Dessert drinks include es cendol, a concoction of sticky rice and dark brown palm sugar over ice with green rice flour droplets scented with pandan leaf (adds a butterscotch flavor), diced jackfruit and coconut milk. Sushi and satay are coming soon.40 NE First Ave., Miami (Carrion Bldg), Ste 101; 305-379-3677; 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Thurs-Sun; cash onlyBALI CAFE
Sita Melaningsih and Nikolaas Lineleyan, who are also from Jakarta, have run this small, charming café for six years. You can spot it by the yellow payung (tiered ceremonial umbrella) out front and, inside, the rangda (demon masks) and wood carvings of characters from the Ramayana, an epic San-skrit poem.
Bali is a destination for home-cooked Indonesian food (there's also sushi). Start with gado-gado (bolied vegetable salad in peanut sauce) or chicken dumplings dipped in sweet soy sauce. Signature dishes include laksa (thin rice noodles in aromatic coconut curry broth topped with shrimp and a fried egg), nasi goreng (fried rice with chicken, beef and vegetables), soto betwati (beef and coconut milk soup topped with nutty melinjo chips) and rijsttafel (rice table), a smorgasbord of delicacies with rice, sambal (chile sauce) and krupek (puffy shrimp crackers). Or ask for an Indonesian bento box.
End with Es Bali Special, a sundae of fruit, gelatin cubes and ice cream in coco syrup.109 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-358-5751; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Fri, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat and Sun; cash only
TASTE OF BOMBAY
Owner Mohammed ''Mike'' Hussain, who came to South Florida 20 years ago from Mumbai (then Bombay), also has an Indian restaurant, Saffron, in West Palm Beach. Best bet here is the lunch buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair featuring salad, onion relish, chutney, pakoras (chickpea flour-battered onion rings or mixed vegetable fritters), rice, dal (stewed lentils), mixed vegetables (often potato and cauliflower), lamb curry and chicken tandoori, plus a basket of blistered, butter-brushed naan bread. If ordering a la carte, be sure to get Kerala-style fish moli in coconut milk with vinegar and tomato sauce or the spicy shrimp vindaloo.
There are also kebabs, creamy seafood kormas (braises), lamb sag (cooked in spinach), lamb or goat madres (cooked in coconut milk and spices) and, to end on a sweet note, carrot halwa (pudding) and gulab jamun (cheese balls soaked in rose syrup). Chinese-Indian fusion dishes and Thai specials were recently added.111 NE Third Ave., Miami; 305-244-5080; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Monday;
credit cards accepted
Originally from South India, Raja Kandaswamy and his wife, Chithra, run this small space with help from daughter Diana (when she's not in school). Now in its second incarnation, Raja's has been a downtown insiders' favorite for a dozen years for its home-cooked South Indian food.
Come for daily steam-table specials plus made-to-order dosas (rice and lentil sourdough crepes), plain or stuffed with spicy potatoes. There's almost always egg curry, chole (chickpea curry), palak dal (lentils with spinach), vada (lentil batter fritters) with coconut chutney and chicken curry. Cool the tingle in your mouth with a creamy mango lassi or canned coconut water.
33 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-539-9551; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Sat; credit cards acceptedCHITHRA'S
Raja Kandaswamy named this fairly new North Indian outpost for his wife (its full name: Chithra's International & Indian Cuisine), and runs it with help from his college-student son, Monovijay Raja. It offers northern favorites like palak paneer (cheese cubes in spinach puree), chicken pepper fry, salmon curry in coconut almond gravy and lamb biryani. Raja also makes pizza and sells soft-serve organic ice cream.48 E. Flagler St., Miami (Flagler Station), space M-46, second floor; 305-789-2842; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon-Sat; credit cards accepted
This shop is Grand Central Station for Indian cruise ship workers. They can buy calling cards and rent phones to call home, then have a cup of chai or kulfi (Indian ice cream). Owner Raj Agarwal stocks spices, snack mixes, mango pickle, bottled curry pastes, canned rossogolla (cheese balls in syrup), Ayurvedic medicines, Bollywood films, cosmetics, alarm clocks and clothing. Weekend mornings are packed.255 E. Flagler St., Miami, spaces 71-72 (enter at Marshalls across from Walgreens); 305-371-7736; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon and Wed-Fri, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat and Sun; credit cards accepted
With just three tables, this little room painted lime green and orange is inside Taste of Bombay but has a separate entrance. Owned by Jun Punay, who is also the cook, it's a gathering spot for Pinoys (Filipinos).
Daily specials are served buffet-style from a steam table and could include half a fried tilapia, sinigang (pork soup), dinugaan (pork belly and blood stew), sap say (mixed vegetable stir-fry with shrimp and black pepper) and pork adobo, all served with rice, pickled chiles and a smile.111 NE Third Ave., Miami; 305-244-5080; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fri-Mon; cash onlyCRUISE LINK
Filipinos come here to eat Connie Romo's home-cooked food and to chit chat. There are a few tables, and the food is served from a steam table. Favorites include gi-gi (mackerel cooked with bitter melon, vinegar, garlic and ginger), kare-kare (beef and vegetable curry with peanut butter), pinakbet (a mix of okra, eggplant and tomatoes cooked with garlic and pork) and fried longaniza (spicy, chorizo-like sausage) with bread or rice. The small space also carries some grocery items.145 E. Flagler St., Miami (777 International Mall), Ste A-13; 786-543-3947; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Frid-Mon and every other Thursday; cash only
Es Bali Special is a striated dessert drink layering mixed fruit, galatin cubes in crushed ice with coconut syrup topped with ice cream and candies served at Bali cafe in downtown Miami. Photo: Linda Bladholm.