My husband and I were about to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, but with four kids and two demanding careers, planning for a quick getaway was left to the last minute. Plus, we needed to find a destination that fulfilled five main requirements: easy access to an airport, stateside (because our passports had just expired), relaxing, tropical, and it had to be within walking distance of restaurants.
We decided on the Surfside-Bal Harbour area of Miami Beach because it met every requirement and we were up for something new but a bit on the quiet side. Surfside-Bal Harbour is located on the northern end of Miami Beach (a little less than half way between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale) flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Biscayne Bay on the other.
We were staying on Collins Avenue known for their several miles of beachside high-rise hotels along the Atlantic. Between the hotels and the ocean is the Atlantic Way, a beautiful wide path of compacted sand perfect for walking or biking for miles. Our hotel was in the northern part of Surfside bordering Bal Harbour. Not only did we have the beautiful oceanfront to enjoy, one street over, literally steps from our hotel, was Harding Avenue, which presented a trove of neighborhood haunts.
It was dinnertime when we arrived but first we wanted to grab a bottle of wine to take back to the room for later. Big Daddy’s Liquors was the first place we hit. As we entered, I noticed the Star of David over the door despite the obvious Irish décor; I was intrigued. The staff were incredibly kind, helpful, and friendly, not something I typically experienced in my neighborhood liquor store where the clerk barely makes eye contact.
We then crossed the street to eat at 26 Sushi & Tapas. It wasn’t until we sat down that we fully realized we had stumbled upon the Jewish Orthodox enclave of Miami Beach, where within one short block there are nine Kosher Miami approved eateries.
Kosher Miami, The Vaad HaKashrus of Miami-Dade, is a non-profit organization that supervises and certifies eating establishments and commercial companies in the general South Florida area. They ensure that each establishment adheres to only the strictest standards of kashrut or keeping kosher. The most basic tenets of kashrut are found in Torah's Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and are a set of Jewish religious dietary laws which determine the foods deemed fit to eat.
It turns out that more than half-a-million Jews live in the Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties combined, making the region the country’s third-largest Jewish metropolitan area following New York and Los Angeles. According to the Jewish Virtual Library (JVL), the first Jewish community existed in the panhandle of Florida in 1763 with the Miami Beach area Jewish population beginning around 1895. Many of the first Jewish settlers were escaping persecution in Europe. In the 1940’s during WWII a large influx of Jewish families escaped Europe and, in 1943, the first of 16 Jewish mayors of Miami Beach, was elected to office.
As the host seated us, we were surrounded by large Orthodox families, couples, and singles many in conservative dress, long sleeves and hemlines for women, men wearing hats, kippah (known as yarmulkes) and many men with payot, the side curls or side locks. Every age and stage were happily chatting and eating, and we were more than happy to join.
The ownership of 26 Sushi & Tapas shares on their site, “Being Kosher and serving a community that firmly believes in a righteousness of kashrut, it is fair to say that the restaurant has a mission beyond simply providing culinary pleasure. The mission of 26 Sushi & Tapas is to provide a unique, spiritual culinary experience to all our guests while promoting a friendly, caring atmosphere where you will feel like family.” Well, we couldn’t agree more and that was clear to us within minutes of sitting down.
Despite being outsiders, we immediately felt welcomed and by observing the plates of divine creations flying out of the kitchen, we could tell the food would be delicious albeit unique. At first blush, sushi, and tapas are an odd yet interesting combo but they work perfectly to the point of brilliance as a fusion of Latin and Asian flavors meant to be married.
Despite it being a Tuesday night, the place was packed with many more waiting outside. The seating is tightly packed too, so the couple seated next to us immediately started chatting. They had just flown in from New York that afternoon, had five kids and keep kosher. They, like us, were on a kid-free romantic jaunt and said they travel to the Surfside-Bal Harbour area as much as possible because it’s an easy flight and they felt it has the best kosher restaurants in the country. The husband said, “There are more kosher restaurants here than there are in Brooklyn, can you imagine that?” He and his wife, Miriam, recommended their favorites at 26 and the food was some of the best we’d ever had.
We have a large Jewish population in our hometown and many of our friends are Jewish but barely any kept kosher. Our new friends shared how hard it was to travel while keeping kosher, especially the need to bring their own plates. Miriam relayed a miserable trip they once made to Bermuda with their youngest son where there wasn’t one kosher establishment on the island, forcing them to stay stuck in the hotel room the entire trip with the food she had brought.
Miriam brought up a good point. Keeping kosher while traveling can be a huge challenge and choosing a destination like the Surfside-Bal Harbour area makes life that much easier for those who do. Francine Rothkopf, a mom of three teens, shares that her family tries to choose destinations where keeping kosher is easier like Miami Beach and New York. She shares, “Being willing to eat vegetarian or fish in non-kosher restaurants helps us.” Rothkopf goes on to say, “Often our getaways are only a weekend, and most kosher restaurants are closed on Friday night and all-day Saturday for Shabbat (the Sabbath). So even if we find a kosher place near us, we may not get to eat there.” She adds, “There are so many levels of observance when it comes to kashrut. While our family will eat vegetarian in non-kosher places, others will not. Or they may only eat cold food like salads. Or if they keep strictly kosher, they might also require ‘Glatt’ (an even stricter level of keeping kosher).”
Being in a place like Surfside-Bal Harbour there’s an innate understanding of all this. For anyone keeping kosher, it’s a must visit. The Kosher Miami site has many resources for those traveling to the area, including a link to the Charles Group of Hotels which list those which are Shabbos-friendly and near shuls/synagogues.
Another place to try while in the area of Harding Avenue is Josh’s Deli for an artisanal take on traditional Jewish deli classics (some maintain it has the best corned beef sandwich in the country). Also check out The Harbour Grill, the best kosher steakhouse in Miami.
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