At Miami Nice, you may not immediately realize you’re eating vegan. The croquettas are fried up tightly, and the Cubanito is neatly pressed. If you don’t pay attention to the quotation marks around the ham, would you notice?
That’s exactly how Valerie Espinoza wants it. “Honestly, that’s the thing that makes me happiest,” Espinoza says. “When someone is, like, a vehement carnivore and they enjoy some Miami Nice without noticing it’s not meat.”
While many people like to argue food preferences with family or friends, it’s hard to imagine customers being taken off guard, but Espinoza relates that people aren’t always hip to what “plant-based” means.
Sometimes they’re just there for some good Cuban food.
Much of her cooking came from looking for Miami flavor profiles in Portland—even in L.A., before that—and coming up empty-handed. Like with her Big Papi: a fried ball of mashed potato filled with picadillo. She had picadillo in other places, but they never made it the Miami way.
“Picadillo is ground meat stewed with tomatoes and sofritas: onions, garlic, bell pepper, etc. A lot of people put raisins in it,” Espinoza explains. “But in Miami you don’t do that. You use green olives.”
Espinoza wasn’t vegan when she lived in Miami, so many of Miami Nice’s menu items are versions of street food she loved—with a vegan twist. The chop salad Espinoza used to eat back in Florida, for example, was a whole bowl-esque salad with saffron rice on the bottom, iceberg lettuce in the middle, and chicken on top. Espinoza’s approach uses marinated grilled soy curls, but the rest is as close to her memory as she can get. The dish’s bright yellow sauce draws stares; it’s a mixture of curry, mustard and mayonnaise she worked on to get just right.
“It’s not healthy, but it’s so good!” she says.
Miami Nice is comfort food, not health food, though Espinoza makes her own seitan, soy curls and other imitation meats, which gives her more control over what goes into them.
“We don’t use any sugar in our jackfruit,” she says. “It’s just citruses and spices.”
The starchy food works well to stave off the high ABV in beers at Culmination Brewing, where Espinoza runs the kitchen. The setup could look like a pop-up, but after a few rotations of very bad new-business luck and very good new-business luck, Espinoza is simply running her business out of Culmintion’s kitchen and selling her food to its customers. It’s perhaps an unconventional relationship, but collaborations like these are helping them both weather their pandemic losses.
After operating a brick-and-mortar takeout spot on East Burnside for most of COVID, Espinoza moved back into Culmination Brewing—where she’d previously worked and run a pop-up—in May. Miami Nice is there to stay, but Espinoza already has another venture in the works with Thuy Pham of Mama Dut: a collaborative bar, now in its build-out phase on Northeast Alberta.
“I’m pretty adaptable. Wherever I see a spot, I throw myself into it and I’m like ‘Here I am.’”
EAT: Miami Nice, 2117 NE Oregon St., 818-200-5571, miaminicepdx.com. Noon-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.