Anthony Bourdain may be gone, but memories of taking him on Miami eating adventures are fresh in my mind.
I was hired as Bourdain’s fixer for two television shows filmed in Miami, “No Reservations” and “24-Hour Layover,” where we drank coffee at ventanitas on Calle Ocho, snacked at Palacio de los Jugos, went frog-gigging in the Everglades — and ultimately became friends.
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He came here to shoot but also to vacation (if you can call getting tattooed at Miami Ink relaxing). He truly loved the mix of Latin and Caribbean cultures, sprinkled with Asian and African influences, that make up the South Florida melting pot.
He had his favorites — certainly one of them was knocking back cheap beers at South Beach’s Mac’s Club Deuce, where local chefs and friends gathered last week to remember him. But there wasn’t a bone, hoof or bit of gristle he wouldn’t tackle with relish on his food adventures in Miami.
Garcia’s Seafood Grille & Fish Market
This old-school fish house “smells fishy, which it should. I wouldn’t trust a seafood place that didn’t have a hint of fish smut,” he told me. He sat on the upper deck, overlooking the Miami River, with boats bound for Haiti below.
He sat down with a beer to talk to Luis and Estaban Garcia Jr. The brothers are sons of a Cuban fisherman, who came to Miami as the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro took power and started buying fish from local fishermen. It morphed into the restaurant and wholesale fish market with a fleet of 15 boats providing fresh local fish.
Bourdain talked with them about Cuba opening up (this was before Cuba did open up). “It is just a matter of time,” he said. Eyeing his meal of a whole grilled snapper, yellow rice and salad, he asked “Can people on the island eat like this?” Of course he knew the answer was no.
“I’m guessing in a few years everyone in Cuba will be visiting Florida, and everyone here will be going there, and maybe the two sides will learn that we all need and appreciate good food, not just once in a while but every day, in every pot on every stove,” he said.
398 NW North River Dr., Miami
The old Yakko-San catered to off duty chefs until dawn, with the windows plastered in tin foil to keep out the light. There was sashimi but no sushi, and there wasn’t much Bourdain didn’t order, saying, “This is my kind of place. I could be blindfolded and point to anything on the menu and be happy.”
He found his happy spot with crispy deep-fried bok choy, grilled triggerfish and yaki nasu (grilled Asian eggplant), adding “I’d be happy to paddle out to the drop off in the ocean and spear my own fish if I could have it with angel hair pasta, uni and ikura (sea urchin and salmon roe) like they serve here…. Oh, yeah, I could eat here every night the rest of this trip. Bring on the live conch, grilled beef tongue and oyster mushrooms cooked in their juices.”
17040 W. Dixie Hwy, North Miami Beach
Bourdain sat at the open-air bar with a beer surveying the menu at the semi-outdoor space in Little Haiti. Chef-owner Wilkinson Sejour, who is Haitian but grew up in the Bahamas, introduced himself and invited Bourdain into the kitchen. It was like cooking in a cramped trailer, but Bourdain easily got into the groove with a sauté pan in hand.
“Man, I’m going make creole sos like you’ve never tasted,” he said as sweat dripped from his head. And after sautéing tomato paste with garlic, clove powder, onions and herbs, he declared, “This might be the best creole sauce outside Haiti but I need some conch.” Chef Creole forked over some pounded and scored conch, and soon he and Bourdain were digging into an island meal. “I haven’t really cooked in a restaurant kitchen for years so I’m glad I lost my virginity again in this one,” Bourdain said.
La Perrada de Edgar
This was actually the first place I took Bourdain during the filming of “24-Hour Layover,” and the Colombian hot dogs did not disappoint.
I told him we would be exploring a culture’s fast food, and he said, “Is there a better way?” Edgar’s is garish with gigantic laminated menus behind the counter, but the fat, juicy dogs pleased Bourdain. He was in his element, saying “Ohhh, yeah” after his first bite into the Edgar special. “I was skeptical I could like a hot dog with mozzarella, blackberries and whipped cream, but this is magic, just delicious and I love how simple it is: fat, fruit and more fat. Way to go.”
When he tried a Chilean dog with guacamole, sauerkraut, tomatoes and mayo, he said, “Why hasn’t anyone thought about guacamole on a hot dog? It not only works, it makes me forget they had a dictator.”
6976 Collins Ave, Miami Beach
This is as funky as it gets. Based in a nondescript warehouse stocked with Nigerian staples such as palm oil, stiff planks of salt cod and fufu mix, it is better known as Sam’s after owner Samuel Jack.
I brought Bourdain here on a Friday night so he could taste the spicy pepper soup with goat meat and cow’s feet with singed fur still on parts of the hooves. After a few beers with the Nigerian men who gather here on weekends, he danced with them to African rhythms, then dug into the soup, sweating and saying, “I hate when I get a cow hair stuck in my teeth,” while wiping his brow.
He dug it full force, saying “I love my hotel on South Beach, but this is really living—these folks are as real as it gets, and I’m so happy to be part of this shindig. I’m honored.”
Sam Jack’s grocery store closed years ago, but his visit there was classic.
S & S Diner
I took Bourdain to the original location of the S & S Diner where we took a seat at the horseshoe-shaped red counter that had been there since the 1920s. “I love the art deco marquee, the flapper gals and tuxedoed guys.”
Most customers had no idea who Bourdain was, and that’s how he liked it. “I love these old places. They don’t make them any more or if they do, it is all fake and not fooling anyone. You can’t recreate this kind of authentic atmosphere. It makes me want to order meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, lots of gravy plus mushy peas.” And that is what he ordered and ate with gusto, saying it was “just like mom’s only better because I’m in a greasy spoon in Miami.”
The original S & S Diner closed when the landlord sold the property, but the owners moved just a few blocks away.
2699 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Frog gigging in the Everglades
In Everglades City, we met up with airboat captain Derrik Daffin. Bourdain looked skeptical when he saw the airboat out in the mangroves. The whole point of gigging is to shine a light from the boat onto the water to highlight the gleam of the frogs’ eyes then take what looks like a huge fondue fork to gig (stab) them. Bourdain grabbed his gig and said, “Lets go. If frogs have to die I want to get one on the first try.” He got one on his second try and agreed to Derrik’s offer of a fried frog leg feast. “What else is there to eat on a frog?” Bourdain said, “I mean the rest is what little brain it has and guts, and right now I’m not into any nasty parts.”
At an outdoor table covered with a tarp, and under the glare of fluorescent lights, he dug into what looked like hundreds of battered and fried fried legs, little toe claws curled.
“Mmmmm, good stuff,” Bourdain said, rubbing bugs out of his eyes and slapping at mosquitoes, adding “This is what I live for, doing something you can’t do anywhere else, out in nature. Not sure I like nature, but it’s good to be here, bugs, beer and all. Why didn’t we do this in New Jersey? I guess you have to be in South Florida for this kind of gig.”
Captain Derrick Davin’s guide service: 41 E Flamingo Dr, Ochopee
Linda Bladholm’s weekly Miami.com and Miami Herald column, Hidden Gems, highlights out-of-the-way restaurants in Miami-Dade County.