Sunday, August 08, 2010

Finding Vegan Gold in Miami

I recently returned from visiting my mom and one of my oldest, dearest friends, Parandeh, in Miami. Actually, Mom's condo is in Aventura and Parandeh has a beautiful home about 15 minutes away in Miami Shores. It's been two years since my last visit, and the sweltering 94° degree heat and 100% humidity didn't seem to bother me nearly as much as I had anticipated. I was just so darned happy to see two of my favorite people in the world.

Eating out together has become a greater challenge as years have gone by. Meeting both my vegan needs while at the same time honoring my mother's abhorrence of anything that might be labeled "vegetable" rather than "animal" or God forbid, "organic" is almost impossible. Fortunately, Parandeh is far more flexible. Over the years, it's become more and more difficult to find a decent Chinese restaurant, and during this trip we couldn't find even a single one. Overall, I found the food quality at Miami restaurants to have continually deteriorated with each visit. This time, even my favorite vegetarian restaurants (which are few and far between to begin with), have gone downhill to the point where I don't even want to spend the money eating there anymore.

But I have noticed a strange phenomenon emerge in Miami over the last several years: Sushi-Thai restaurants. Now, don't get me wrong, I love veggie sushi and Thai food, but somebody please tell me: since when do they go together? And these places have sprouted up ALL over South Florida! I mean, you don't really see too many sushi places that don't also do Thai, and I've yet to see one Thai restaurant that didn't also serve sushi. Is it like this anywhere else in the country?

We didn't actually eat at the restaurant below, but I kept forgetting to take a photo of a restaurant sign that said "Sushi" and "Thai" so I made a quick stop to have the girls pose for this pic, just so I could document this whole sushi-Thai thing.

I've yet to find one of these establishments that actually do both cuisines well, so I'll often start with a sushi roll, and take it from there. The vegetable sushi roll at Thai House II Restaurant & Sushi Bar is filled with asparagus, carrot, spinach, and strips of kanpyo (or kampyo), a cooked and seasoned type of Japanese gourd. The veggies were fresh, and the combination was filling and tasty!

Breakfasts are always a special treat at Parandeh's house! To begin with, she has the most amazing mango trees on her property. While there are more than 400 varieties of mango in the world, Parandeh's are the sweetest, juiciest, most delicious mangoes I've ever eaten. I'm not saying I've eaten anything close to 400 different kinds of mangoes. But I've probably eaten at least a dozen different varieties in places like Hawaii, India, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and I'm telling you, Parandeh's mangoes are amazing!

The breakfast spread was a nice departure from my usual morning smoothie: a hearty 10-grain toast, several kinds of preserves, including Parandeh's mother's lovely home-made sour-cherry and one of my favorite indulgences, halvah, (made with tahini, sugar, and pistachios), both of which Parandeh had just brought back from Iran a few days earlier.

One morning after breakfast, Parandeh and I set out to visit the Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead, Florida, the only tropical botanical garden of its kind in the United States. This unique 37-acre Dade County Park features over 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, and nuts, and showcases 150 varieties of mango, 75 varieties of bananas, and many other exotic edibles from around the world. Although much of the property's history dates back to 1898, Mary Calkins Heinlein (1903-1975) was the driving force behind the creation of this amazing park, which first opened in 1944 and now bears her name. Her fascination with the exotic fruit and flora that flourishes in South Florida's subtropical climate evolved into a lifelong passion.

When we arrived, we learned that the next scheduled tour didn't begin for almost an hour, so we hurried back into the car and made the 6.6 mile trek to Robert is Here Fruit Stand, where we'd find an incredible selection of delectable exotic fruits to buy. This landmark fruit stand and farm was established in 1959 when Robert was just six years old. On the very spot where the fruit stand sits today, Robert's father set him on the roadside to sell cucumbers from his farm. In order to insure that customers wouldn't miss the table where the little boy had set up his roadside shop, Robert's father placed two hand-painted signs at each end emblazoned in red with the words "Robert is here!" The story is really quite charming, and I encourage you to read more about it on the Robert is Here website.

As soon as you step inside, you are greeted by Robert's pride and joy, his impressive selection of mangoes!

These wonderful mamey were right next to the mangoes. I'd had some incredible mamey flavored sorbet the night before and couldn't wait to taste the real thing. I discovered that I LOVE mamey. Its brightly colored flesh is strangely mushy and a bit dry like a sweet potato, only much, much sweeter.

Finally, I got to taste dragonfruit! And I didn't have to pay $12.99/lb like I would have back home! They were not as sweet as I expected, but still very delicious. The texture reminded me of kiwi, with all those tiny little black seeds. They sure are one of the prettiest fruits I've ever seen!

I couldn't have been more excited to see this display of jackfruit! As you may recall, I first tasted jackfruit and wrote about it a couple of months ago. The fruit I purchased back then was imported from Thailand, and therefore, not fresh and certainly picked long before it ripened. I still loved it, but it was nothing compared to the taste of FRESH jackfruit, which is super sweet. WOW! My taste buds screamed with joy! They were so captivated by jackfruit's intoxicatingly sweet, tropical flavor, the taste lingered on my tongue hours later. 

Another one of my favorite new fruit discoveries is monstera. Beneath the bumpy green exterior is a sweet, juicy, white flesh, which tastes like a cross between banana and pineapple. If you try to eat monstera before it's ripe, it will actually burn your mouth. But it's easy to know when it's fully ripened, as the green kernel-like skin will start to fall off, revealing the sweet edible fruit beneath it!

While Parandeh shopped for all manner of fruit butters, preserves, and chutneys, Robert Jr. was happy to answer my many fruity questions. Like his dad, he sure knows his fruits!

Packages in hand, we dashed back to Fruit & Spice Park just in time to begin our own private tour, as we were the only visitors there for the 1 PM start time. Our adorable volunteer guide, Erica, made the experience so much fun as she identified all of the unfamiliar fruits, flowers, and trees we encountered and gave us a little history or anecdote about each of them. She invited us to munch on all of the fallen fruit we could find, and needless to say, we ended up grazing our way through the park, oohing and ahhing all the while.

We came across this odd-looking fruit, which we all sampled and thought tasted much like a cross between a grape and an apricot. Oddly, no one at the park knew the name of this lovely orange-colored bumpy fruit with the fuzzy skin. They called it "Jackfruit Relative," even though it neither looks nor tastes anything like jackfruit. So I gave it a new name, "grapericot."

Speaking of jackfruit, these big babies were actually growing from the bottom of this tree!

Parandeh was wearing the perfect colors to pose beside these lotus flowers in the park's herb garden. Doesn't she look pretty?

I've heard Doug Graham say that rolinea tastes like rice pudding. Sadly, we did not get to experience this delectable fruit. It looks a lot like a cherimoya (one of my very favorites!), but is supposed to taste quite different. Oh well, tasting rolinea is just one more thing to add to my bucket list!

This heavily-laden loquat tree was spectacular! And it generously offered up to us our fill of ripe loquats. They're slightly acidic when eaten underripe, as we discovered when we picked a few. But fully ripened loquats have a delightfully sweet flavor. These tasted much like guava and strawberry.

The trees are planted in the park according to their native continents. We made our way through Asia, Africa, and Europe before the sky broke loose with a torrential summer thunderstorm. You can clearly see the sky darkening just before the clouds burst in the photo below.

Even though we get more than our fair share of rain in Oregon, we rarely get such torrential downpours, and rarer still are thunder and lightning storms. So I found this twenty-minute spectacle absolutely thrilling!

Since we didn't make it to South America, this gives me the perfect excuse to visit the park again!

When you live in South Florida, you don't really need to go much farther than your local supermarket to find an impressive selection of delicious tropical fruits. I snapped this photo in Epicure Gourmet's produce department, not far from my mother's house.

On the last full day of my visit, Parandeh had to go back to work, and my mother and I got to spend some quality mother-daughter time together. She joined me for what was to be the best meal of my entire trip: lunch at Vegetarian Restaurant by Hakin! This two-year-old gem serves some of the most delicious Caribbean American vegan cuisine I've ever experienced. I could have easily eaten every meal of my trip here and never tired of it. As soon as we walked into the restaurant, Hakin's winning smile and warm hospitality made us both feel instantly at home.

While Mom enjoyed a tall glass of juice, (we didn't tell her it was organic), I indulged in an amazing lunch plate made up of Seitan BBQ Ribs, Curry Herbed Tofu, Herb Tomato Chunks, Quinoa with Spinach and Carrots, and Sautéed Bok Choy along with a glass of freshly squeezed Carrot-Beet-Apple Juice. From the very first bite, I could tell how much love went into the preparation of this exquisitely prepared meal.

Not that I really had room for it, but Hakin tempted me with his Pineapple Tofu Cake, and so I relented and ordered a small slice. Without hesitation, I can safely say that it was the most scrumptious pineapple cake I've ever eaten, even surpassing my own pineapple upside down cake, which up until now, I thought was pretty awesome. The heavenly buttercream frosting was sinfully rich, and the cake was sweetly moist and filled with little chunks of pineapple. I didn't think I'd finish the whole thing, but I polished it off in no time. I was really glad Hakin talked me into it!

After lunch, Mom and I strolled around Aventura Mall. I was in search of some incredibly comfortable Zealand memory-foam flip flops, but The Walking Store was out of my size. I think my mom looks so cute sitting in front of this fountain! It was so hard to say goodbye to her.

When Parandeh arrived home from work the three of us headed out for one final meal together. We made our way to Kampai Japanese (and Thai) Restaurant at The Waterways. I had very little appetite for dinner after such a filling lunch, so I ordered the vegetable roll with ginger dressing and wakame salad on the side. I enjoyed my last dinner of the trip together with my two best girls very much.

On my last morning in Miami, I worked for a few hours and then headed back to Hakin's for a hearty breakfast and some empanadas to take with me on the 10-hour journey home. Hakin's mother, brother, and niece were there that morning, and I couldn't resist taking this beautiful family photo. (I love how his brother is sitting in the background smiling and unaware that his photo is being taken!)

The Blueberry Pancakes and Scrambled Tofu were absolutely delicious. I enjoyed them with a Pineapple-Banana Smoothie and Hakin's lively company. What a delectable breakfast!

The next time you're in Miami (or if you're lucky enough to live there), run, don't walk to Vegetarian Restaurant by Hakin. You'll be treated to one of the best meals of your life.


Helen said...

What a delicious adventure! I would love to visit Fruit & Spice Park, Robert is Here and Vegetarian Restaurant by Hakin! Your photos make everything look incredibly delicious!

Merrie Beth Samways said...

What an amazing, fruitful adventure!!! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip! Enjoyed this story immensely.... and while the Sushi- Thai phenomenon has not yet arrived in Pittsburgh..... I'll keep an eye out for it..... tho' I hope it never arrives! LOL.... I like my Japanese food in a Japanese restaurant and my Thai food in a Thai place!!!

VeganMarr said...

I am SO jealous of you getting to taste all those exotic fruits! I want some!! Oh and that pineapple/vegan buttercream, pass that thru the computer!!!! NOW!!! ;-) Your Mom IS cute, in her little sundresses! You planned a wonderful trip!

Lilly said...

I clicked on the photo of your lunch at Hakin's restaurant, and I drooled all over myself when I saw it bigger! (I actually clicked twice on the photo, and it really blew up in size!) Then I did the same thing with the pineapple cake. Holy mother of all that is sweet and good, that looks soooo delicious!!!!!

Justine said...

Like Lilly, I am salivating over your food photos! I can't wait for my next visit to South Florida, and to wrap my lips around some of Hakin's pineapple cake!!!!

Vegiegail said...

I agree with you completely, Merrie Beth! And it's good to know the phenomenon has not traveled that far up the East Coast.

Marr, I swear that pineapple cake was incredible! You would love it! And the tropical fruits ... well ... it almost makes me want to live there. (But not quite.) Actually, my mom is wearing shorts, as opposed to a sundress. But thanks for saying she looks cute! :)

Justine and Lilly, I hope you get to Miami soon so you can enjoy the pineapple cake as much as I did!

ellen said...

Gail, your photographs made me want to dive directly into the page! Gorgeous! And your descriptions were mouth watering. The next time I visit South Beach in Miami (the only place I visit in Florida at this time)...I will be sure to check out the fruit/spice park..and the vegan Caribbean restaurant. Thank you for posting. Right up my alley!!

Allison Rivers Samson said...

hGreat post, Gail! So glad it wasn't as sweltering as we thought it might be.
I, too, have noticed the Sushi-Thai trend the past few years. What IS that??
LOVE the Fruit & Spice Park! Such a cool place. =)
I'm not sure which is more exciting... all the varieties of mangos or the various types of avocados, including ones bigger than your head! Well, not your head, specifically, but you know what I mean. ;-)
South Florida thunderstorms are one of the very few things I miss now that I live in California. Visiting is just fine though. hahaha
I am SO going to Hakin's restaurant when we go for our annual family visit! Thanks for that hot tip!!
Great seeing your mom... good job tricking her into eating something healthy! ;-)

Janet said...

I googled sushi-thai & seems there are such type of restaurants in several other FL cities, and in NC, NY, MA, TN, GA, CO. Doesn't seem to have hit the west coast yet tho. But we do have a Lemongrass restaurant here, will have to check their menu to see if that's what they are.

Vegiegail said...

Awe, thank you, Schmoopie and Allison! Yeah, I didn't even mention the football-sized avocados. I was so overwhelmed by everything else! You guys will love Hakin's. I can't wait to hear about it when you've both had the chance to eat there.

Wow! That's really interesting, Janet! Thanks so much for checking into the sushi-Thai phenomenon. It sounds like a bona fide trend. W'e better watch out, Merrie Beth! It sounds like Sushi-Thai restaurants may be coming our way soon. Eeek!

oldmanvegan said...

It looks like you had a great trip. I stopped enjoying visiting Florida after the 1960s. However your pictures of the fruit washed the bitter taste from my post-sixties memories. Sushi and Thai food make strange bedfellows. But don't despair. The end of civilization doesn't happen until the first Sushi-Pizza restaurant opens it's doors.

Marilyn said...

Wow, what a delectable trip! Loved traveling with you through your lovely descriptions - YUM!

JL Goes Vegan said...

Nothing makes me happier than yummy vegan food while traveling! Thanks for sharing your finds (and great pix!)

Abigail S. Bean said...

Along with nutrition, I wish our schools would do as good a job with teaching about fruits (and veggies) as you've touched upon here; incredible!

Vegiegail said...

Thanks for the laugh, oldmanvegan! And thank you for the lovely comments, Marilyn, JL, and Abigail!

Anonymous said...

I want that cake. O_O

GiGi said...

Thank you for posting I totally needed a vacation. I was quite happy reading about your halvah and delectable breakfast adn then was wowed by the pineapple tofu cake.

Young Wife said...

Sounds like a great trip! Eating out can be so difficult.

Vegiegail said...

It really was a wonderful trip. Even flying wasn't so bad. I had two connections both ways, relatively short layovers, and the flights were all on time!

blessedmama said...

Sounds like a great visit. What a nice thing that you had some special time with your mom at the end, and also that you finally got to eat some quality veggie food! Lovin' those mangoes.

parandeh said...

Your adventure and talent is amazing . I learn so much about food everytime I see you. I hope I can transfer these healthy knowledge to my children and other people. i had a great time with you as well and hope to see you soon.