Cheap Thrills

My husband opened the refrigerator, stuffed with the rich remains of tony meals we couldn't finish. He closed the door and sighed. There was nothing he wanted to eat. "Time to find a dive," he said.

My editor marked up yet another in a series of reviews of New World, New American, and New French restaurants, making sense out of complicated combinations of ingredients. He put down his pen and sighed. "'New' is getting pretty old," he said. "Time to find a dive."

I searched through my closet for an outfit other than the dress I'd worn to the past four restaurants, the basic black one with room in the waist. I pulled on jeans with holes in the knees and sighed. "Time to find a dive," I admitted. Either that or shop.

I knew what I had to do. Still, I didn't dive in to the task with gusto. Locating little shacks in the odd parts of town is a time-consuming and stomach-hardening business. More often than not, the fare matches expectations diminished by the rundown exteriors. Or the food's pretty good and inexpensive, but the decor's too hip -- a self-conscious dive (all too common on South Beach), the worst kind. Or the atmosphere's properly dubious, the cuisine scintillating, but the owner's got more money than Thomas Kramer. A dishonest dive. (Also common on South Beach.)

The easiest way to find an honest-to-goodness dive is to set my network to, well, to work. All those friends who eat with me for free could pay now with field surveys. To shove them in the right direction, I compiled a short list of requirements the restaurants must meet (most of) in order to be considered:

(1) Name: The more colorful and descriptive the handle, the more divelike the eatery. I hold every name up to the light of the current reigning champ, a tiny rundown diner in South Carolina called the Squat 'N' Gobble. No illusions about the fast 'n' cheap fare there.

(2) Neighborhood: The more colorful and descriptive . . . I think you get the picture.

(3) Exterior: Image comes down to general maintenance. Fallen roof tiles and dangling hurricane shutters are tell-tale dive indicators. Beer signs in the windows and liquor company promos, preferably in neon. Landscaping is not an issue.

(4) Interior: No more than 25 seats, preferably standard-issue or miscellaneous garage-sale. All appointments should be of the plastic-and-paper variety; if china, chipped and scratched. Wear-and-tear is to be expected, ambiance is not. Any interior design should be of the owners' conception and construction.

(5) Service: Brusque and efficient, or kind and fumbling. Or any combination thereof.

(6) Food: Should be of ethnic origin, reflecting the owners' roots. As The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America proclaims, "The great melting pot [of America] has suddenly become the world's most eclectic kettle as well." The key word here is eclectic, a designation that applies to a great many dives. Note: Acceptable minorities for Caucasians include redneck, townie, and white trash.

Sure enough, my research assistants came through with two seedy gems.
Namewise, Nice Mon had a nice jingle to it. I liked the logo, too, the i in Nice capped with a chef's hat, the o in Mon a picture of a grinning Jamaican man. Of course, that picture's a little misleading: Though Jamaican by birth, the owners of this year-and-a-half-old Jamaican and Chinese restaurant and bakery A Fay Say Yap, Christopher Yap-Sam, and Eugene Chin Aare Chinese by descent. The location passed the test, as well A the busy intersection of NW Second Avenue and 197th Street in Carol City. It's only a few blocks from a big Harley-Davidson dealership, as well as other amusements as potentially diverse as Tootsie's Lounge, Norman's Billiards, Asian Nails, and Shooters Emporium (a gun shop).

Nice Mon delighted us with a dark but well-maintained parking lot and a squat, square building glowing like the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We especially liked the neon sign flashing in the window like Christmas lights: "Hot Bread Now." Inside, Formica seats and tables (the place seats 22) gleamed in green and white. Though this interior spotlessness seemed a bad sign, the restaurant's fast-food philosophy made us forget that. Dishes are served on Styrofoam, forked with plastic. And though printed lists are available, the billboard-style menu above the cash registers and the handprinted signs featuring specials are a more accurate representation of what the restaurant actually offers.

Service -- order at the counter, get a number a la Pollo Tropical and pick up when the number is called -- was wonderfully patient. These are nice people, willing to describe any item in superlatives despite the pressing line of people (we're talking busy here). The fish stewed in brown sauce? "Snapper," the counterwoman explains, "small, medium, or large. It's the best!" Workers might even be scarfing down their own dinners while they take your order. And despite the server's surprise at our request for spicy food, we got it that way. Practically palate-singeing. And no Red Stripe to put out the flames (no liquor license); a couple of bottles of the Jamaican soda Kola Champagne sufficed.

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