Saturday, February 06, 2016

Celebrate Valentine's Day in Miami For Under $50

Seven tips from local expert Manola Blablablanik for celebrating Valentine’s Day in Miami without breaking the bank.

Kisses on the Beach

Filled with love but not with cash? No worries, you’re good. Love’s the important thing that money can’t buy. Love should be celebrated every day, even if your ass is broke.

Remember: you’re just broke, not broken-hearted.

Even if you can afford rent in Miami, get off your Downton Abbey high horse and have sex like the rest of working-class Miami, bro. Take your sex life down a notch in class but not in fun and experience the glory of Miami’s world-renown motel rows, where the elite meet to cheat! Whether it’s Okeechobee Road or Calle Ocho, Miami’s skankalicious motels range from church-mouse modest ($25) to ultra tacky luxe ($50 +) with everything you need to bump uglies for two hours. You haven’t screwed like a proper porn star until you’ve done the deed surrounded by mirrored ceilings, disco lights and cheap porn in your sacred, Lysol-scented sex cave.

Miami boasts beautiful outdoor spaces that are especially enjoyable in the cooler month of February. Yet playboy ballers spend a big wad for a room with an ocean view when the average parejita can see the same shit and swap spit for free in the city's loveliest playgrounds. Do the world a favor, if you've got those Benjamins, donate them to charity and smooch at these cheap not-so-secret spots instead: South Pointe Park, Matheson Hammock Park, Thalatta Estate Park or anywhere along the entire freakin’ east coast of Florida with a beach. Vete pa la playa y ya!

Access to Matheson Hammock and Thalatta Estate is through gorgeous, lush and dreamy Old Cutler Drive, where you’ll never find Miami’s iconic billboards advertising butt implants. If gawking at a gigantic culo is your idea of romantic, stick to the Palmetto Expressway and thank the board of plastic surgeons for providing every Miami come pinga with cheap thrills during rush hour.

Ever wonder why restaurants raise their prices on Valentine’s Day? Because fools rush in … not just to love, but to the same damn eats at higher prices. How about a picnic at one of the smooch-friendly parks or on the beach instead? Skip Sedano’s or El Presidente for stocking up the picnic basket. I’ll bet you a set of 5 thongs for $5 from Valsan that you’ll walk out of The Fresh Market with delicious food and a bottle of wine to make your heart sing for under $50. You can call it a “bespoke gourmet experience” but don’t say that within earshot of your Hialeah cousins because they’ll call you a come mierda.

Image: Cartoonstock

Why spend hundreds of dollars on a luxury hotel room when you can give your home a despojo from football season and turn your bedroom into a love nest? Yes mujeres, there’s a reason why Valentine’s Day happens after the Superbowl. Now is the time to redeem your football widow points and exchange your viuda black dress for some lingerie. Throw out the sports paraphernalia and bring some real Miami heat into the bedroom with scented candles, soft sheets and sexy lingerie – all of which you can find at ño que barato for under $50.

Roses are beautiful but priced-gouged to bleed your pocket book on Valentine’s Day. Buy some cheaper flowers and spray the room with Agua de Rosas, the kind you’d buy for abuelita. Smells lovely, like Chanel minus the L. If you want to fengshueisar your bedroom, make sure the man cave is in a different part of the house. Ponte las pilas and be creative!

When was the last time the two of you actually relaxed at home? There’s nothing wrong with Netflix and chill between couples. It’s when a cheap ass tacaño douchebag thinks of it as a first date that you know ese huevo no se merece ni la sal.

On Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to find chocolate-covered strawberries and a decent bubbly for under $50 – even at a gas station. Or maybe you prefer to indulge in something that isn’t a Valentine’s Day cliché, so pick up a jar of chocolate dipping sauce and buy a fresh bag of churros from the guy on the street corner in Hialeah. Whatever it is, do it with love. Maybe even turn your bathroom into a spa. Take a chocolate bath … but be careful, because la malanga resbala!

Our buddies at Miami on the Cheap have their own list of Miami Valentine’s Day activities for the budget-conscious.

And remember … the important thing is to love, respect and honor each other every day. Your life doesn’t have to look like a Hallmark greeting card to feel like one. The best gift you can offer is your heart. Get your love on every day.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

How I Lost 80 Pounds and Got Back in My Skinny Jeans

New Year's Resolutions have been on everyone's mind lately. Here's why I say screw the resolutions. Each day is a new day. Fourteen steps to health, happiness and beauty as well as a tribute to a beautiful friendship that inspired me.

Even skinnier jeans: I wasn't expecting to drop more sizes.

About ten years ago, I met my dear friend Stephanie Quilao online through the blogging community. At the time, both of us were embarking on our own self-publishing ventures. For me, it was here on Sex and the Beach and for her it was Back in Skinny Jeans, which has since evolved into other publishing ventures, including the blog Noshtopia, a book version of Back in Skinny Jeans, another book entitled Death of a Road Warrioran app called Vibrantly, stunning food photography on Instagram and more.

Stephanie and I have never met in person, but we've shared the many ups and downs in each other's lives as true BFFs.


Stephanie Quilao
As we connected over the years, one of the most important things I learned from my friendship with Stephanie is that weight loss really isn't about numbers.

In Back in Skinny Jeans, Stephanie wrote about her weight loss journey with great candor; she focused on the emotional issues in her life that contributed to her weight gain. She was honest with her audience and continues to be so to this day, which is one of the things I love about her. We've both been through thick and thin -- pun intended.

As her blog Back in Skinny Jeans evolved, so did the idea of getting back to your core self -- weight not withstanding. As most of us know, being physically slim is no guarantee of happiness. Intangible parts of self need work, too. No matter what the scale reads, it all boils down to how we perceive the world -- a world that more often than not tells us we're broken.

During many a long conversation that went well into the wee hours -- she's on the west coast, so there's always a three-hour difference -- we didn't just chat about our weight and body image issues, but also about how to live life mindfully with a sense of purpose while helping others. How could we be who we are at heart and do this life thing with joy?

Our conversations about our personal challenges were often raw. We fearlessly looked at our "ugly" sides, disrobing, if you will, on a spiritual level to get rid of everything that no longer served us. We held a mirror up to each other and made ourselves accountable. We bolstered our self-esteem.

To have such a friend in my life who would love me unconditionally, warts and all, has been a blessing. Today, we still face many challenges, but we've shed more than just weight -- we've shed barriers to joy that keep so many women from feeling fulfilled and free in their own skin.

Ten years later, both of us are fit, fabulous and full of as much zest for life as two women in their late 40s could possibly have. We're wiser but none the worse for wear. What can I say? Millennials got nothin' on the hot, sexy babes we've become. Women in their 40s can look great and beam with confidence -- and most importantly -- feel it honestly down to their bones.

Let's not get too cocky here, though. We've also got humility, compassion and a genuine desire to share the best of ourselves with the world and to make a difference.

So, now you know what I think when I read "over 40" in any editorial. I just roll my eyes and laugh. That's bullshit. Aint nobody gonna tell me I'm broken.


Before and after. No judgement. Just phases in life.

Over the holidays, I took advantage of sales and headed over to Banana Republic -- my favorite jeans brand -- to find a smaller version of my size 30 jeans. Earlier in the year, size 30 was my "finally! I've made it!" size.

I texted Stephanie from the store. "Dude, I'm down to size 26! It only took me 10 years, LOL."

I then began to reflect on our friendship, our blogs and the journey to get to where I am today.


After my mom passed away a year and a half ago, I woke up one day and decided that I would avoid eating anything with fur or feathers. There was no particular nudge. Nothing. Just like that.

A plant-based lifestyle helped me drop the 80 pounds I gained gradually during my years as a caregiver, when I broke the number one rule of caregiving: I didn't practice self-care. I could have practiced self-care, but yeah, Monday morning quarterbacking. I was overwhelmed and simply didn't have the skill sets. Nobody handed me the manual on being a full-time caregiver to the elderly. But that's another story.

Be concerned if you gain an undue number of pounds. Be even more concerned if you are unhappy. Taking care of the elderly reminded me more than ever that happiness is our birthright. Goofiness is OK at any age.

Witnessing my mother's demise from Alzheimer's influenced my choice to avoid the typical Cuban-American diet, which is full of animal protein, starches and sugar. My mother's health history, which is similar to that of so many baby boomers now experiencing the wasting that came from decades of post World War II ideas on nutrition in the industrialized West, made me realize that something had to give. There's rampant proof of this in geriatric pathology today. But that, too, is another story.

I've maintained my weight loss for over a year and a half. I've never felt better. Each day is a new day. Screw the resolutions. As sure as the sun will rise, so will an opportunity to start fresh.

2015 was a particularly difficult year for me. I lost weight, to be sure, but I also lost my livelihood and home. What I didn't realize then was that I was gaining far more than I ever imagined I could have ... being skinny again was really about shedding all that which no longer served me; slimming down was an opportunity to peel that proverbial onion and get back to my core self. No one would ever be the boss of me except me. I followed my heart to those size 26 jeans, no doubt. What I put in my mouth was secondary.

Below are 14 steps I took and still take as I start each day like a new year. Do note that only four of them have to do with food and exercise and that all the steps lead back to number one.

Where ever you are in life, I hope my story inspires you to get back to your unbroken, beautiful self -- no matter what your size.


Sex and the Beach is more like Freedom and the Beach now.

The single most important thing I did to lose weight was to detox my life from ALL toxic relationships, including the one I had with myself. Toxic relationships are based on lack and fear. Healthy relationships are based on abundance and love. That's it.

I had to reevaluate unconditional love in my life -- how much was I receiving and how much was I giving? Love has nothing to do with bloodlines. When I was down and out, the amount of unconditional love I received from friends was boundless. I continue to receive. I give. No tiny gesture of kindness and love is ever wasted.

Drama is powerfully addictive. I decided that unless I was standing behind a proscenium, there'd be no room for drama in my life. Healthy relationships let go of resentments. Toxic relationships thrive on drama. Remember what I wrote about perception and the illusion of being broken? Food for thought.

I threw out my list of expectations for the perfect man and stopped looking for love. Guess what? It found me and I'm happy.

I joined a bereavement group for support as a caregiver and to cope with the loss of my mother. I became more acquainted with folks who've started mindful, intentional communities in Miami.

I continued to take in spiritual nourishment with my life coach Gloria Ramirez', whose free Thank God It's Monday teleconference is just as important to me as a yoga class or a trip to the gym. I practice some of the tenets of Course In Miracles and nourish my heart daily.

I practiced gratitude and forgiveness every waking moment. The spiritual detox encouraged me to live in a space of radical gratitude, which opened my heart to receiving unconditionally. How can I explain this? Unconditional love is a "thing" you must have in your life in order to be happy, just like air to breathe. Unconditional love doesn't flow from toxic relationships. In healthy relationships, it's a birthright. It's just second nature. Simple as that.

I lightened the load by donating many material possessions, including things I didn't even remember I had in storage. Yes, it's possible to have toxic attachments to material things that can't even love you back.

I sold my car and continue to schlep everywhere on foot or public transportation, which has become a fun storyline on my Twitter account as #miamischlep. Most people think you can't live in Miami without a car, but thousands of people get by without one. It's funny to me that many car owners count their steps with Fitbit because they own a car. Of course, not being an automobile-based human is inconvenient sometimes for me, my beau and friends who helps me schlep, but it's great for my body and has shown me a side of my city that car owners don't often see.

And finally, the food part!

A plant-based diet spurred my creativity as a lifelong, avid home cook.

#Vicequeenkitchen as it is today was born in the last year or so. I don't eating anything with fur or feathers. (This makes me an ovo-lacto pescetarian, for now. Many of my meals are vegan or raw vegan.) A plant-based lifestyle is so tasty and filling, I never have to use that nasty four letter word D-I-E-T. As a food writer who covers omnivore establishments, I have to make some exceptions, but that's all they are -- occasional, small samplings of food that isn't usually on my plate.

I've never been a shy wallflower at parties, but I did cut back on libations.

I don't eat like a predator whose food is going to run away. I eat slowly and mindfully.

I got rid of dozens of beauty products I never really even used. Coconut oil is all I need. Think about what our ancestors used for beauty.

I've saved a key physical practice for last: Daily Burn. These, thirty-minute full-body workouts from home, in addition to long walks and some yoga from my own practice, have made all the difference. What's best is that the gym is one place that isn't on my list of schlepping destinations. This fun, online community workout is inexpensive and is part of what helped tone my body for those skinny jeans.

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

'The Golem of Havana' Sings the Song of Diaspora with Miami New Drama Premiere

Critically acclaimed musical The Golem of Havana made its South Florida premiere this weekend at The Colony Theater in Miami Beach.


This elegant chamber musical captures a complex story that's not easy to tell about the Jewish and Cuban diaspora during the cusp of the revolution when Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship.

The coming of age story reflects on love, loyalty, betrayal and politics through Latin, Afro-Cuban and Jewish inspired music. Think klezmer, son Cubano and odes to Yemayá in one beautiful score, beautifully interpreted by the cast.

The golem is the name of figure from Jewish folklore that is made from clay and brought to life. In one legend, the golem acts as a savior but is destroyed when it turns against its creator. The idea of a golem surfaces in many ways during the musical as characters shift their loyalties struggling to survive during a dangerous, tumultuous time in Cuba's history.

The main character is a storyteller, the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish tailors who's haunted yet inspired by dreams of her mother's escape from the holocaust, which parallels the plot of the musical. The mother is forced to make a Sophie's choice between people she wishes to protect and compassion can only go so far. Difficult decisions abound in this play, including the final one, which involves exile to Miami.

It's a theme that echoes in all diasporas: We sacrificed. We survived. We start over.

The weaving of Jewish, Afro-Cuban and Cuban musical motifs in the score echoes the multi-cultural nature of Cuba's syncretic culture, powerfully expressed in a song to Yemayá, the Afro-Cuban goddess of the ocean, which the young Jewish storyteller adopts in a desperate attempt to find answers as her family life succumbs to the heartless decisions of powerful politicians and revolutionaries.

1958 Havana is the perfect setting for a story that brings together opposing personal religious and political beliefs. The ending is bittersweet: we see glimpses of shared human connection amid bloody struggles that erode faith.



The Miami premiere of the Golem of Havana is a production of Miami New Drama, a fledgling company co-founded by the musical's author, Venezuelan Michel Hausmann. The world premiere took place in New York City at the New York Theater Workshop in 2013. The Miami cast features some of the original actors as well as Miami-based actors.

The Golem of Havana plays at The Colony Theater through February 7. For more information, visit Miami New Drama.

Of interest:

Jordan Levin of The Miami Herald offers an in-depth background about the work: New Miami musical 'The Golem of Havana' evoked struggle against oppression.

Some of my random notes on Facebook.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg for Miami New Drama

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Scrooges Aren't Sexy

You know how they say everyone has a gift to offer? YOU are a gift! Thanks to all for being part of an amazing adventure this year. I thought I had lost everything and gained more than I could ever imagine.


Red ribbon courtesy of Pastease. Yes, a pasty on my arm! They're not just for boobs. What else did you expect from Sex and the Beach? :-)

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Romancing Italy at Via Verdi

A taste of rustic Italian cooking in Miami and some #vicequeenkitchen musings on tomatoes, mushrooms, octopus, olives, hazelnuts ... are you hungry yet? Read more.

No woman in her right mind would refuse a taste of white truffle from a handsome Italian. Photo courtesy of Via Verdi on Instagram.

When I first walked into Via Verdi earlier this month I felt like I had stepped into a little corner of Italy. I'm not quite sure what it is: maybe it's the covered courtyard or the cozy bottega filled with bottles of wine and boxes of pannetone. Of this I am sure, though: the soul of Italy is definitely in the food.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
The lentils that started it all.

I first learned about Via Verdi when I stopped at their exhibitor's booth during the Seed Food and Wine Festival. The cold lentil salad was delicious; however, I told the gentleman behind the booth that it needed maybe a pinch more of salt. Little did I know that I was speaking to one of the restaurant's chefs! He looked at me wide-eyed in disbelief but I'm pretty sure there was no Italian family curse hurled at me; instead buon presentimento clicked and the food writer was invited to dinner.

Good vibes, indeed. Vicequeenkitchen never refuses a dinner invitation from good looking Italian men. Never.

Restaurateurs Nicola (the chef I met at Seed) and his brother Fabrizio (who is also a chef) come from the Piemonte region of Italy. They opened Via Verdi about two years ago and have a regular following of locals, including homesick Italians. I'd be homesick, too, if I were Italian and ate food like this back home.

Octopus with chickpea purée and tomato basil.

"Are you sure we're not in some Italian fishing village?" I asked my sweetheart, who dined with me that night. I gushed further: "You can taste the sea!" Visions of cliffs studded with pastel-colored houses stacked above a deep, blue Mediterranean sea crossed my mind. My palate traveled far -- very far -- from busy Biscayne Boulevard in the MiMo District.

The grilled octopus was so tender and smooth that it melted in my mouth faster than it took for me to talk about how long it takes to cook. Grilling after boiling added a smoky flavor to the subtle briny flavor of the ocean. In all my culinary adventures searching for the best octopus (and often refusing to order it if it even looked rubbery), this one hooked me at first bite. I could eat this everyday. For a pescetarian, this is heaven.

I must be on to something. Fabrizio told me he often makes the same dish at home.


You can tell a lot about a restaurant by its tomatoes. A tomato that is treated as an afterthought is insulting to this versatile queen of fruits. A watery, flavorless tomato is a poor excuse for a real tomato.

A bad tomato is like bad sex: I'll pass. No thanks. A good tomato is the object of desire in a food porn fantasy. A great tomato makes that fantasy come alive as flavors burst in your mouth. A spectacular tomato should capture all your senses and leave you craving -- what else? -- more tomatoes.

At Via Verdi, all my tomatoes were spectacular. I imagined a minion working in the kitchen delicately and very diligently dicing and mincing tomatoes all day long -- tomatoes so delicious that I had to stop and put my fork down on the plate and say: "Dude."

Little cherry tomatoes came to my palate in various forms, including as a garnish salad for the above mentioned Polipo Ala Griglia, which was served in a light, lemony basil vinaigrette.

Assagi left to right: Ceci, Tartufe, Polenta and Panzerotti

But even before we had our octopus antipasti, we enjoyed a few assagi -- small tasting plates like tapas to whet the appetite along with a classic Italian cocktail, an Aperol spritz. Here, homemade sun-dried tomatoes graced the Ceci -- a chickpea mousse served with Sardinian carasau bread, which is more like a wafer thin cracker. Other appetizers included Polenta sticks with a truffle parmesan sauce that was so good, it made my guy say "mmm" in a way that I only ever hear in private. A few "mmm's" were uttered in unison as we ate together.

The Tartufe -- a provolone-stuffed olive with a panko and squid ink crust -- is what I would call the Italian equivalent of a fried pickle. Made to look like a black truffle, the olive, which is fried fresh in the coating, packs big flavor and is the perfect savory accompaniment for a cocktail. I'd hate to call such a sophisticated morsel prosaic bar food, but it's definitely a delicious nibble that'd go great with a martini.

The Panzerotti seriously made me want to reinvent the arepa or anything else made to fry from dough. Fabrizio explained that they use less yeast and that the dough is cooled to rise for a longer time than other doughs. The result is a very light dough filled with melted mozzarella and dipped, you guessed it, in a thick, homemade marinara sauce that pays homage to her highness the tomato.

Fabrizio confirmed that I wasn't the only one obsessed with tomato purity. I mentioned that a tomato dipping sauce should never, ever taste like ground herbs in ketchup. It should taste like tomato, damn it, which is exactly what this particular marinara was -- nothing more, nothing less. One whiff or oregano or garlic powder and I'm turned off. All other sauces -- arrabbiata, puttanesca and so on, build upon that base of tomato-ness that is the foundation of so many dishes in so many cuisines.

The assaggi menu -- order 5 for $23 -- is a great sampler for a light supper or happy hour fare.


Top: pasta with wild mushrooms. Bottom: branzino with Ligurian olives.

For the primi course we tried two different pastas, homemade and cooked perfectly al dente. I made an exception to my pescetarian diet and tried the braised beef agnolotti, which had a rich, concentrated beef flavor that any meat lover would enjoy. The raviolis were light in texture. So were the tagliolini, which shined with hearty flavor of finely chopped mushrooms and more of that exquisite truffle parmesan sauce, which in this case, clung to the noodles. It's this dish that spoiled me to the cucina rustica feeling at the restaurant: Italian comfort food at its best.

For the secondi course, the pescetarian in me was once again transported back to Italy. The grilled branzino with salmoriglio sauce and broccolini, like the octopus, is something I'd eat every day. The  Taggiasca olives in the sauce hail from Liguria where they live in a barrel of silky olive oil until sliced and paired with -- you guessed it again -- more of those heavenly tomatoes. The tender sea bass had just a bit of crispy skin and danced on my palate with an earthy olive oil flavor that complimented but never overpowered the fish. Suddenly, I was wearing a peasant dress in Northern Italy, picking olives under the sun. Can you tell I love olives as much as I love tomatoes?

Even the broccolini had an important supporting role in this dish; it was just perfectly crunchy with a hint of spice from it being tossed with peperoncino, although there were no peppers on the plate. No sad, soggy or overcooked vegetable here.

A typical Northern Italian dessert: bunet Piemontese.

If we both had just had fallen in love with this little taste of Italy, we fell a little harder with dessert. Interestingly, the appearance of chocolate made us forget how full we were from this wonderful repast we'd just shared. So to finish, the bunet of caramel, amaretto and chocolate was heady with the scent of hazelnut and as delicious as one of those interminable kisses by the sea in romantic Italian films.

Eat this dessert in moderation, but love abundantly, il mio cuore.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica is open every day for lunch and dinner as well as brunch on Sundays. Local diners needn't fly to Italy for a sensual feast and on Monday, diners get 50% off select menu items. That's molto bene in any language. For more information, visit Via Verdi Cucina Rustica.

Disclosure: For this dinner, we were guests of Via Verdi. The article was unsolicited. All opinions my own, as always.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Wrapping Gifts

By yours truly.

My friend asked me to help him wrap presents for his daughter while he's out of town. I did it mindfully -- every cut, every crease, every fold -- peacefully and with a lot of love, anticipating the child's joy. I took my time.

I thought about this preposterous notion of holiday stress, which robs many adults of joy. Wouldn't it be better if we just gave ourselves the gift of time? Thanksgiving dinners that take days to prepare are swallowed in minutes. Gifts that are painstakingly wrapped take seconds to unwrap. The paper is torn apart swiftly, thrown away and then suddenly, it's over.

When we gift, do we take time to think of the receiver of the gift? When we receive, do we take time to think of the giver? Do we think of everything that must happen for that communion, that meeting of my gift in your hands, to actually happen?

It's kind of a big deal. A miracle, really. And it all disappears into the big black hole of pressure we've invented that has nothing to do with Christmas.

Wouldn't it be better to have a holiday without so much -- oh, what should I call it? -- all this "muchness" that dampens the very spirit of that which we're trying to celebrate?

To let time expand instead of spiraling into a tight wad of stress -- that would be a great gift for all. So, I'm not going to wish anyone a happy holiday. I'm going to wish everyone a mindful holiday.

As I wrapped each gift, I thought about my inner child -- that adorable toddler with diapers bunched up under her pajamas, standing next to the Christmas tree with a mischievous smile and eyes beaming delight. There'll be no more Christmases for my family: no more mom, dad in the nursing home unable to tell the difference between one day and another and me, alone.

And then I thought about a gift I unwrap every day: dawn. And the blessing of an even greater gift, the present I unwrap every breathing moment of my life: the love my parents and I shared.

You can't put a ribbon around that love, yet it is binding and freeing all the same.

I can't wrap or unwrap my other human family, either, nor do I want to, because they are gifts that give every day: my sweetheart, my friends, the people in my professional life and YOU.

I am blessed.

Every cut, every crease, every fold -- how are you wrapping the gift of your own life each day?

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Early Thanksgiving in Miami for Veggie Lovers

Vicequeenkitchen's Thanksgiving came one week early. This year's second annual Seed Conscious Plant-Based Food and Wine Festival left me full and wanting more. If you go nuts over nibbles like cacao almonds, eat carrots like Bugs Bunny or snack on arugula like candy, join me as I recall my favorite moments.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
Thanksgiving noms for me. I could eat a delicious veggie burger every day.

Leave it to me to attend a food festival one week before Thanksgiving. And in 2015 -- about a year since I stopped eating anything with fur or feathers -- the only turkey I'm going to like is the one who earns the presidential pardon.

If Thanksgiving is about expressing gratitude, then I had no problem nourishing my body with a cornucopia of vegetarian goodness just before the holiday; in less than a year of consciously enjoying a plant-based diet, I lost nearly 80 pounds. And for this, I’m very grateful!

The festival, which humbly planted a seed last year under a single tent in Midtown, sprouted and grew into a multi-day series of events, featuring a first-ever Veggie Burger Battle, which I attended, along with a day-long fair at Mana Wynwood.

So, dear readers, since I'm the kind of crazy foodie who can spend ten minutes describing the taste of one of those sweet tango apples that are in season right now – I actually did this the other day – I’ll offer you a sampler platter of #vicequeenkitchen favorites instead to whet your appetite.


The chic but casual evening outdoors at the Eden Roc made for a vibrant affair. There were so many restaurants vying for top plant-based burger, I couldn't even try them all as I had to pace myself. If you had ever wanted to take a crash course in becoming a veggie burger connoisseur, this was it.

Guests had a chance to vote for their favorites in a people's choice competition. A panel of judges cast their votes as well. The panel included an old blog buddy who turned his love of burgers into a little empire: the Miami legend himself, Burger Beast!

At first, I sought the burger that tasted most like an original all-beef patty. But all of the culinary interpretations were so good, it was hard to choose.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
Chef Daudi MClean of 2 Good Veggie Kitchen, based in Los Angeles, put on quite a show while he grilled up my favorite with vegan bacon.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
And here's why Chef MClean's was a #vicequeenkitchen winner: caramelized onion, melted vegan cheddar,  a perfect texture to the burger and crispy, warm bread. Plus, my tummy could feel the secret ingredient: just love and joy. Who am I kidding? All the burgers had the secret ingredient.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
The people's choice winner: Green Bar and Kitchen from Fort Lauderdale.  I also loved the crunchy and spice pickled green beans. At first, I thought they were cornichons. I asked them to hurry up and open a second restaurant in Miami. Their pumpkin soup is something else.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
No puede ser! Miami's Pincho Factory wowed the Cuban in me with its black bean burger sandwiched inside a perfectly crispy tostón (fried plantain). Mi gente, a tostón is something so easy, but not everyone gets it right. They did.

SeedFW15 Veggie Burger Battle
Chef Todd Erickson of Haven Kitchen + Lounge won the judge's choice. I didn't get to try it, but now I've got a good excuse to pay a visit to this chic South Beach establishment.

More photos on Flickr.


I thought two hours was enough to cover this event. Boy, was I wrong. Dozens of vendors featured not only food but also health, wellness, books and even gardening booths. Guests speakers took to two different stages. Next year, I'm making a day of it.

Not only did the festival celebrate South Florida's farm to table movement, it also highlighted entrepreneurs on the vanguard of Miami's healthy cuisine options. I met several mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who've made the leap from "I'm cooking this at home because I can't find it anywhere else," to "now I'm selling this at Whole Foods." Eating local by locals never tasted so good. Eating local by locals who use local ingredients? Even better.

I'm sure every single person manning a booth in the cavernous space of Mana Wynwood worked very hard. But when I asked for a smile -- if it wasn't already there -- I got one. And that's the feeling I walked away with: people are just happier when they eat consciously.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
The first dish and smile of many food rounds: chef Assia Dahrouch of Miami's Lemoni Café with a light and fresh quinoa tabouli.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
I just love these guys, who are based out of Broward. Heck, even if you eat meat, you'll still love their meat-free sausages and dairy-free cheeses, which are serious morsels of yummy. I can't wait for Whole Foods or Fresh Market to start stocking up on Atlas Meat Free deli products.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
What's nicer than a London expat making you a Bombay Sapphire and tonic? Bespoke tonic made from scratch with heavenly botanical elixirs made of bergamot, fennel and more. I didn't see any wine at the festival, but this libation was perfectly refreshing. Put Gary Hayward on my list of favorite traveling bartenders.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
I first tried Miami-based Chef Christy's raw sweet treats at a friend's vegan potluck. Mark my words: you won't miss anything cooked when you stick one of these addictive, mouth-watering bites in your mouth. Put them on your shopping list.

Seed Food and Wine Festival 2015
Mr. Green Dean of the vegetable farm in Homestead. I wasn't kidding about snacking on arugula. Another festival guest and I were sampling the locally grown greens like kids at a candy store, including the sorrel. Fancy that: greens that actually taste like something. Put it on my plate! I've actually ordered from their weekly offerings. Folks, there is absolutely nothing better for your kitchen than calling up a farmer and asking: "What've you got this week?"

More photos on Flickr.


My friend and food blogger extraordinaire Stephanie Quilao of @farmtofabulous, who covers many food-related topics including the San Francisco healthy eats and green living scene, told me over the phone that she'd wish the bay area had a similar festival. "How's that possible?" I asked. "Isn't California the mecca for healthy eating?"

My theory: maybe it's because healthy eating has become so second nature over on the west coast that a festival isn't even necessary to raise awareness about plant-based living. But maybe it also means that Miami's doing right by its fruits and veggies, too.


I cook like mad and love to share my passion about food. Follow the #vicequeenkitchen tag.

DISCLOSURE I attended the festival events on a press pass. All opinions my own, as always.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Weekend of New in Miami

Culture was alive this weekend in Miami -- combining something old with something new for a fresh mix of cultural entertainment.

New World Symphony PULSE
The New World Symphony transformed into a lounge setting during PULSE.

The New World Symphony and The New Tropic delighted Miami's young crowds this weekend with two vibrant events back to back on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Although the two organizations are unrelated, you'd think they almost did it on purpose.

The old saying "what's old is new again" couldn't have been more appropriate this weekend.

The New World Symphony put on quite a show with orchestra musicians performing alongside South Florida institutions Spam All Stars and DJ Le Spam, known for improvising electronic elements and turntables with latin, funk, hip hop and dub.

The New Tropic Miami, a media and events organization that brings curious locals together, organized an interactive event at the historic Alfred I. Dupont Building in Downtown Miami as part of the launch of its new neighborhood guide. New Tropic called the event "Epcot for Miami" and it truly was -- with local food, drinks, music and organizations representing a variety of interests, from opera to science to grassroots organizations.


New World Symphony PULSE
Standing room on the ground floor at PULSE, up close to the orchestra.

I'll never say South Beach has a hold exclusively on sleazy nightlife again. And when I say sleazy, that includes ridiculously snooty and over-priced night clubs, too. New World Symphony put the kibosh on that one, for sure, with PULSE, which wasn't exactly your grandma's night at the orchestra. Consider this: it starts way after the senior early bird dinner special. Doors open at 9 P.M. House lights and last calls don't happen until after midnight. The symphony turns into a nightclub of sorts, with areas for dancing and plenty of cash bars to get your drink on.

They've been doing this for six years and if Friday's event was any indication, they're doing it right. The event was packed and that's a good thing, as it targets a younger generations of supporters through Friends of the New World Symphony and makes this an affordable night out on the town in South Beach. Forty dollars gets you in -- compare that to the cost of clubbing -- all with a touch of class.

Although PULSE offers a set program of music, it's nothing like a traditional, stuffy classical music concert. The boundary between performer and audience is blurred, making the performance friendlier and more intimate: ground floor seats are retracted for dancing and the space behind the main stage is opened for lounge-style seating in comfortable, cushioned bleachers. If you switched the soundtrack, you'd think you were at a civilized punk rock concert with a mosh pit -- minus hurling bodies, of course.

People stand, sit, mingle, socialize and come and go throughout the entire circular concert hall, which boasts enormous walls, shaped like sails, where behind-the-scenes video wizards project larger-than-life images. Even the orchestra musicians were part of this stimulating audiovisual experience; they wore glow-in-the-dark wristbands that changed colors in synchrony with the performance's lighting design.

New World Symphony PULSE
Stage lifts behind the orchestra spotlight soloists and small ensembles.

New World Symphony PULSE
Spam All Stars with DJ Le Spam in the background.

The program consisted of two DJ sets and musical performances as well as the world premiere of Ibakan, which The New World Symphony commissioned from alumnus Sam Hyken, co-founder of Miami's Nu Deco Ensemble. Hyken wrote the piece for five orchestra instrumentalists, DJ Le Spam and the Spam Allstars.

With its haunting melodies and driving percussion, Ibakan alludes to Afro-Cuban influences. The word means "constant" in Yoruba and features a canto for Obatala, a deity in the Yoruba religion, as well as a section in which each member of Spam All Stars improvised a solo with an Afro-Cuban groove.

For more information about PULSE and other programs, visit The New World Symphony.  More photos from Pulse: Late Night at the New World Symphony


Miami Land
A gilded sign for a new golden age of Miami at the Alfred I. Dupont Building.

No sooner did doors open, crowds formed a long line and kept trickling in throughout the night -- a surprising turnout because the whole city was in wash-out mode with a deluge of rain. That's a coup for Miami. No one ever goes out in the rain.

Miami Land took place in Downtown Miami's beautifully restored 1939 architectural gem, The Alfred I. Dupont building, originally a bank. This event celebrated a different kind of classic -- the city itself, which was founded nearby in 1896 with a population of 300 -- less than the number of people who attended Miami Land.

Simply put, Miami Land was an energizing way to spend an evening in which -- God forbid! -- you might actually have fun while learning something, free of charge. Florida Grand Opera featured a soprano performing with a local ensemble. The old bank's vault turned into a gallery with two video streams -- one projecting vintage footage and the other displaying slides about Miami's future.

Miami Land
Florida Grand Opera's soprano performed with local musicians.

Miami Land
Yours truly contributed #miamischlep to the ideation board.

Miami Land
Front page of the Miami Metropolis, 1913 on display in a swipe screen.

Among the interactive activities: New Tropic invited guests to post their ideas on blank 4 x 6 cards in a section of the space turned into a giant community ideation board. Moonlighter, a local company that encourages creative collaboration and personal manufacturing, let guests carve their own Miami signs out of cardboard in a maker faire booth. O Poetry, which was stationed next to a booth promoting the Miami Science Barge, asked guests to write short poems about art and science. Museum-style digital displays let guests swipe screens with slides about Vizcaya's farming history, the estate's underhanded accounting during the Prohibition era and more historical trivia.

No Miami-inspired event would be complete without food and drink reflecting the city's culture diversity. Nibbles included Venezuelan cheese pastries (tequeños) and tropical fruit samples of jackfruit and dragon fruit. Cocktails included a tasty saison brew from Biscayne Brewing Company, straight from Doral (yes, Doral) and New Tropic's own recipe in a spiced rum and coconut water libation. To top it all off, 3:05 Cafesito served Miami's most iconic beverage -- Cuban coffee -- which left a delicious scent trail.

Miami Land
Miami runs ... and runs on 3:05 Cafesito, the city's official coffee break.

Miami Land
Naomi Ross of #DiversityMiami was among several groups showcasing their causes.

Miami Land
Rebekah Monson, co-founder of The New Tropic, loves Miami!

Not everyone who attended was a New Tropic reader, but that's OK, because it's more than just an online media outlet -- it's also this -- a gathering of curious locals. One guy, a transplant from Mexico wasn't aware that a newsy magazine was associated with the event, but he did tell me where to get the most authentic tacos in Miami. See? Curiosity. Connection.

For me, it was refreshing to see folks gather to celebrate something about a city that often receives negative attention in comparison to older and bigger metropolitan hubs of the U.S. But warts and all, why cares about other cities? We're doing our thing down here in Miami Land and true to the New Tropic's motto: "live like you live here" -- not somewhere else. Be present.

Friday night at The New World Symphony and Saturday night with The New Tropic proved the city is as unique and fresh as ever in the cultural sphere. I'll take my old with the new anytime.

For more information about New Tropic events, visit The New Tropic. More photos from Miami Land.

Disclaimer: I used to write for The New World Symphony and currently write for The New Tropic. I love them both and so should you!

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Palmetto Bay: A Peaceful Retreat from Mad Miami

Canoeing Off Deering Point
My kinda morning commute. Deering Point in Palmetto Bay.

Because I love backyard traveling ...

Why are we more attached to all that's crazy hectic about routine life in Miami -- the traffic, the delays, the rudeness -- instead of being drawn to the magnificent nature that blankets some parts of the city? Is it because we prefer the familiar comforts of drama? Nature isn't crazy, hectic or rude -- it aint got time for that! Instead, it has all the time in the world to just be.

I recently had the chance to stay at a friend's house in Palmetto Bay, a city in southeast Miami-Dade skirted by Biscayne Bay and lush Old Cutler Road, shaded for dozens of miles by enormous banyans and oak trees. After a spell in South Beach, Palmetto Bay seemed like a peaceful sanctuary, far from the busyness and jarring energy of urban life.

Peacock Crossing the Road
This was about all the traffic I encountered during morning walks.

Although I often dream of traveling around the world, I don't have to dream to be an explorer in my own backyard. Here are a few places I discovered while exploring on foot, some which, ironically, were the homes of famous world travelers.


Chinese bridge at Charles Deering Estate
Chinese Bridge at the Deering Estate.

The most well-known historic site in Palmetto Bay is The Deering Estate, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The estate was once the home of Charles Deering, a wealthy businessman and art collector, whose brother, James Deering, built the famous Vizcaya estate further north along Miami's shore line.

The estate, which I had visited a few times before my most recent sojourn in Palmetto Bay -- is well-known for its cultural significance. But it's the undeveloped environment surrounding the estate that has cast many a spell on me. A few years ago, I took sunrise yoga classes at the estate's visitor's center. We practiced in a room with glass walls separating us from the Pine Rockland preserve outside. The experience was magical.

It's no surprise the area is also where archeologists excavated the Cutler Fossil Site, where they found ancient animal and human bones as well as human artifacts.

Last month, when I ambled about the perimeter of the preserve with my friend's daughter, I told her that watching the sun rise through the mist of the forest felt primeval. "What's primeval?" she asked. The observation turned into a a vocabulary lesson for the eight-year old girl. And then I really thought about it: the word "primeval" connotes everything I love about this place: prime, primeval: a land of firsts, of beginnings, of nature untainted by man.

I feel this way for any neighborhood that respects its trees. They speak to me.

Well hello morning glory!
Morning glory vine on the trail.

One Sunday morning, I discovered a paved pedestrian trail just north of the Deering Estate from which all manner of joggers and cyclists emerged. The trail is parallel to Old Cutler Road and while you can still hear cars rushing by, the scenery is natural and feels completely removed from civilization. This area is also a nature preserve -- part hardwood hammock, part mangrove and all coastal environment -- with Cutler Creek running below the bridge.

That day I just happened to bump into the director of the Deering Estate, who was taking photographs of an endangered plant species. She told me the bridge wasn't supposed to be so colorful, but that those who had restored it thought it should be. Deering built the bridge in 1918 to cross the creek on the way to his home. The Chinese theme reminded him of his role as a Navy officer in Asia.


Thalatta Estate
The main house at Thalatta Estate.

When I first set eyes on the coral-colored mansion off Old Cutler Road, I thought it was a private residence off-limits to the public. Little did I know that it was one of five historic bay front homes that dot Miami's coastline which is also the location for neighboring Deering Estate as well as The Kampong, The Barnacle and Vizcaya further north.

One morning, the gate was open and I entered the lush, tropical entrance of the estate. I thought I was crashing a party -- or rather -- the preparation for a wedding party. No one said a word because I wasn't trespassing. I was walking, in fact, inside a public park.

Thalatta Estate
The lawn seemed endless at Thalatta Estate.

Thalatta Estate is an exquisitely preserved 1925 Mediterranean Revival home with an expansive lawn that stretches out to Biscayne Bay. The Connett family built the home that features unobstructed views of the water. The name Thalatta is a Latin variation of the Greek "thalassa," which means "the sea." In 2005, the City of Palmetto Bay acquired the land to prevent further development. I'm glad they did.

For more information, visit The Thalatta Estate.


Shore Fishing at Deering Point
My kinda relaxation. Shore fishing on Biscayne Bay at Deering Point.

This small park is part of the Deering Estate and sits in between the Deering Estate and Thalatta Estate along the C-100 drainage canal. Deering Point is a great spot to launch a canoe or kayak.  Although there isn't much here, it's a great spot to enjoy a view of the bay among some native plants and catch sight of some herons, egrets and other birds.

At Palmetto Bay, my eyes saw a different kind of beautiful. See more photos on Flickr.

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