Empire State of Mind, Miami

StoryMario GamperComment

November 2009 was a good time to come to Miami. That fall, the country was in love with hope. Obama had won the presidency. The economic free fall had halted just shy of collapse. Hurricane season had come and gone, without the usual havoc. It was time to look up again.

I wasn’t doing badly either. The rental car company had upgraded me mysteriously to a brand-new white Prius, the one with some traffic light appeal. I had stumbled upon a beautiful vacation apartment in a 1920’s villa, on a street in Coconut Grove overgrown with tropical trees. Every morning I woke up to the happy flirring of palm shadows on a lightly blue painted wall.

Did I mention the owners of the place also drove a Prius? Unlike Senator John McCain, I was in the right place at the right time. I had come to Miami to spend a month with my daughter, as I did every November. She was about to turn 13.

A day or two or after my daughter’s birthday, one breezy evening, we were ambling through Coconut Grove. She had become a semi-adult, one I could take to dinner and have a conversation with. That is, if I overlooked the harassment that came with my drinking alcohol, or even looking at the Sauvignon Blanc. It was then that we found the “Jaguar Ceviche” restaurant.

Finding the “Jaguar Ceviche” restaurant was nothing we had planned. We were probably looking for a pizza place. But there it was, right next to Coco Walk, a fake-stucco, French colonialist Franken-mall. We didn’t even understand that “Ceviche” was a food. If my daughter had asked, I would have told her it was a special kind of Jaguar. Like a Siberian Tiger. Back then, I still had to have answers for everything.

While we waited for our table, the waiter offered us ceviche. I asked what it was. “It’s our seafood specialty,” he replied. And we boldly ordered the sampler. In no time, a plate with six big spoons arrived at the bar, each a nest for some ecstatic colorful food stuff. Not quite sushi, but close. Meatier, bolder than its Asian cousin, yet still sublime.

My daughter and I aren’t the kind of people who appreciate the niceties of, say, Japanese Imperial Tofu Cuisine, but our first taste of ceviche had us at hello. There was such a confusion of adjectives: tangy, pure, mild, spicy, healthy, fun. Latin and Asian taste worlds fused together in the most unexpected way. I remember one spoon that combined lime-cured fish with ginger, soy and soft avocado bits. Another was a straightforward marriage of strong chili, onions and corn. I was happy that my daughter enjoyed the adventure. Teenagers have taste buds with the mood swings of Hollywood divas.

Apart from the taste, however, the food had another extraordinary effect: it made me curious. How many more unknown taste continents were out there? Were there other cultures right now ready to introduce us to some new greatness? I’ve always believed that eating is like thinking. We chew on new facts, digest different thoughts, and spit out answers. We understand new cultures by placing them into our stomach. I suddenly wondered what Peru was.

Sitting at the bar, we watched the show-and-tell traffic floating by on Grand Ave. The latest Lamborghinis, old Nissan Sentras with neon underfloor lighting, both polished and gleaming by the early Miami dusk. Usually the music pouring from passing cars follows the bi-polar Miami scene: relentlessly spinning salsas from El Zol 95 or the bump-and- thump RNB of 99Jamz. But not that night. Climbing out of every car was the same song: “Empire State of Mind.” A song about the unpredictability of dreams, growing up, tough journeys. A song about New York being back. A song of hope, delivered with the street cred of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ fuse-blowing energy.

I was watching my daughter eat her much safer main course of chicken Caesar salad. I wanted her to live with that energy. South Floridians like to joke that “the best thing about Miami is that it’s so close to the United States.” But in those closing weeks of 2009, the best thing about Miami was that it was close to the Empire State of Mind. And somehow, for me, that state of mind still lives in six spoons of Ceviche.

Illustration by Fumi Koike.