Starex Smith and his two friends waited for service for 20 minutes in a separate section of a restaurant before it hit him.
That’s when a young couple — both white — sat behind them and within seconds were being served water and shown a menu.
Then he remembered.
“Oh, my God, I forgot I was black!” he thought.
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Smith spoke up. The manager feigned not knowing English. The waiter dragged the other couple uncomfortably into the conversation. And when Smith wondered aloud whether he and his friends should just leave, the manager waved, “Bye!”
That day two years ago at a popular Biscayne Boulevard Peruvian restaurant was a turning point for Smith.
He is, like many other millennials, a foodie — what you might call a food tourist. He travels from his hometown of Miami to places like Chicago, Detroit and New York to eat at trendy new restaurants and discover local favorites, for nothing more than the love of food.
He Instagrams his dishes. He drives his friends to South Florida restaurants they have never heard of in neighborhoods they might otherwise never venture into. (“When you go out with Starex, you let him order,” one friend said.)
So that day, when Smith found himself again being judged by the color of his skin and not the color of his money, he decided he had had enough.
Smith, 33, one of the co-founders of Miami’s Black Tech Week, started a blog: The Hungry Black Man (thehungryblackman.com).
He set out to write about restaurants owned by minorities, what he calls “black and brown people,” that are fair and welcoming to Miami’s diverse dining crowd.
It’s not a bulletin board of places that are simply for blacks, by blacks. It’s a place for foodies by a foodie himself. In the first month, he said, it got more than 200,000 views.
“I wanted to create something that gave people of color a voice but also to be a conduit to places that are doing things right,” Smith said. “I want to show appreciation to the people who appreciate us.”
One of Smith’s blogs is titled “Dining While Black.” He confronts the stereotypes he has witnessed: Will he tip well? Will they not read him the specials because they’ll judge it too expensive for him? Will the hostess ask him if he’s there to apply for a job?
He has witnessed all of it.
“I just sat and thought, ‘As a black person, your dollars matter.’ You have to see the value in your community,” he said.
Smith has a unique perspective.
He grew up in North Miami Beach with a group of friends that looks like a United Nations internship program (Chinese-Cuban, Jewish, Colombian…). He skateboarded around his neighborhood in his Lacoste T-shirt and Airwalks, listening to Green Day and ska-punk band Reel Big Fish on his headphones.
It wasn’t until his family moved to Opa-locka and he started attending Nathan B. Young Elementary School that he started to learn what it meant to grow up black in poorer sections of Miami-Dade. It was a gift his father unwittingly gave him, Smith said, after they lost their home to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (and they didn’t have insurance).
Neighborhood kids didn’t know what to do with him: the comic book nerd who liked to play pogs, showing up to the park in a Seven Dust concert T-shirt with a trombone under his arm.
“I was the quintessential nerd,” he said.
Yes, he got into a couple of fights defending himself. He also learned about a tough-guy culture he wasn’t used to. (He says he never used a curse word until he was 20 and rushing a frat.)
“I looked like everyone in my neighborhood, but I was culturally different,” he said. “That redefined my life. I was so different. … It was a culture shock for me.”
His father, who owned two local barbershops near Opa-locka, taught him about his roots, black culture and “being a man” — he even presided over one of his neighborhood fights.
His mother, a minister, was the polar opposite. She spoke of peaceful resolutions, of phrases over fists, and traveled the world from London to Australia sharing a Christian message. (The couple has split, and she’s currently living and ministering in Fiji.)
At Hialeah Miami Lakes Senior High, his friends “looked like the rainbow.” He made friends with teens from all different backgrounds, tasting a world of different cuisines at their homes. And he wasn’t afraid to call out his friends’ parents from Latin American countries who often used nicknames for blacks.
“My name is not ‘moreno’ or ‘negrito.’ I have a name. Please use it,” he would tell them. “If you don’t check that, it creates a belief system.”
Yet his criticism never came off as confrontational. “I give off ‘nonthreatening,’ ” he jokes.
That upbringing amounted to a boy growing up in a provincial town with a wide view of the world outside it. He would go on to found the first black student union at Florida International University and become president of his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma.
“It made me very accepting of people who are written off and have compassion for them to do better,” he said.
It’s no surprise he went into public administration, working with cities to get funding for small businesses and children’s programs that are often overlooked.
He focused on helping mom-and-pop food businesses scale up, like the woman going from selling pies in her down time to having an actual storefront. He coaches them on everything involved, from how to treat customers to finding the best computer system to handle inventory and payroll. He helped engender sophistication.
“Don’t just talk about it, solve the problem,” he said. “Everything to me is about finding solutions.”
And that’s how he found himself turning his Fridays off as Miami Gardens’ assistant parks director into review days. (He works a flexible four-day week.)
Smith drives the flyover neighborhoods beneath the interstates and highways looking for hidden gems or trying new restaurants in neighborhoods such as North Miami, Little Haiti, Little River and unincorporated areas that don’t have trendy real-estate names.
“That’s the power of what he’s doing,” said friend Felecia Hatcher, co-founder of Black Tech Week and a frequent food adventurer with Smith. “If you call yourself a foodie and don’t branch out to all of Miami, I don’t think you’re really a foodie.”
Soon, he’s not just eating but in the kitchen with the chefs, with partner Korey Davis shooting pictures and video to get a first-hand look at how his favorite food is prepared. He’s watched Trinidadians at L.C. Roti Shop make doubles, a chickpea sandwich on fried bread. Snow pea tips at Sang’s Chinese Food. Yellowtail at Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grill in Miami Gardens. And then he writes about those often-overlooked restaurants.
“His idea and way of approaching it was unique, especially in Miami, which is a huge melting pot,” Davis said.
“If it’s not Wynwood or [Miami] Beach, they get no exposure,” he said.
He has found favorites. The best Haitian food? Au Bon Gout in North Miami or Le Lambi in Kendall, he says. Best Chinese? Sang’s on 163rd Street in North Miami Beach. His favorite Cuban food? La Viña Aragon in West Hialeah, near his old high school.
Taking notes yet?
“Every place on the blog is a place you’re going to go and have a great time and a great meal,” he said. “We want to highlight places that are doing a phenomenal job of having a diverse, friendly environment.”
He doesn’t spend any ink (pixels?) on panning restaurants he hated. He’d rather give an honest review of a place he enjoyed, with any criticism when it’s required, to a restaurant that treats diners with respect and unforgettable flavors.
“I want to show appreciation to people who appreciate us,” he said.
Often, he rounds his friends up and, since he’s driving, conscripts them to trying new cuisine, from Indian to Honduran.
“He took us to a place that has the most delicious Chinese food I’ve ever had (Sang’s Chinese), and we’re there at least once a week now,” Hatcher said. “That’s the power of what he’s doing. These stories are just not told. If you’re going to tell the story, tell the whole story.”
And on the blog, he writes with wit and a nod to pop culture.
“Don’t you just love when you order dishes and they come out either on fire, smoking or creating some sort of spectacle? I do. It makes me feel like a true boss, like Rick Ross is having dinner with me,” he wrote in a review of Fort Lauderdale’s Royal India Restaurant.
“The fact he has an eclectic mind and he’s so inquisitive gives him such a unique perspective,” said Derick Pearson, Smith’s friend and a self-described foodie who has traveled on food tours overseas. “He has an authenticity. It’s always about the quality of the food and the experience.”
On a recent Thursday, he found himself at Finga Licking in Miami Gardens, the spin-off of the North Miami location that serves elevated Caribbean and soul food and that he has reviewed on his blog. With its private room, sleek chandeliers and modern red leather banquets against jet-black furniture, it has become a favorite among everyone from rappers such as Sean Combs and Flo Rida to pop culture celebrities like Mike Tyson and just about every black athlete who comes through Miami.
He dug into a plate of lemon-pepper fried turkey wings — a flavor pop unlike anything else in Miami — between bites of fried lobster and spoonfuls of life-changing mac and cheese, as Finga Licking chef Bridget Vargas looked on.
“You got to cross the bridge for this kind of food,” Vargas said.
The cuisine is a reflection of her upbringing, learned at the heel of her Dominican mother and African-American father’s family. And now others get to know about it through Smith’s blog.
“It gives an opportunity for black restaurants to get exposure, places you might never thought of going to,” she said. “It’s giving us an opportunity to be tasted. He’s our voice.”
Smith wants the blog to expand to other cities. And with the new commercial flights to Cuba, he wants to take a film crew to the island to trace the Afro-Cuban roots of some of his favorite dishes.
Smith is hungry, and The Hungry Black Man is just getting started.
“Culture and food is one and the same,” he said. “You tell the story of who you are through your food.”
The Hungry Black Man’s Favorite Spots
Five of Starex Smith’s favorite hidden gems in Miami:
L.C. Roti Shop: Go for the doubles, Trinidadian chickpea sandwich on fried bread.
19505 NW 2nd Ave., Miami
Sang’s Chinese Food: Killer weekend dim sum and snow pea tips.
1925 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach
Lorna’s Caribbean and American Grill: Get the yellowtail and get it steamed
2732 NW 183rd St, Miami Gardens
Au Bon Gout: Haitian food done right in North Miami
12051 W Dixie Hwy, North Miami
La Viña Aragon: His favorite Cuban food is in near his old high school in West Hialeah
8155 W 8th Ave., Hialeah