Live Free or Dine

July is the month for celebrating the existence of America, and I'm all for it. I like where I live. I like the principles on which the United States was founded. I've always believed in the strength of diversity and individualism, and though some of our constitutional rights fail us or are twisted to suit nefarious purposes, the intent -- freedom -- remains intact. Yes, my patriotic voice whispers. Go America.

Only problem is, I hate the Fourth of July. Traffic, crowds, fireworks that sound like thunder. The obligatory barbecue. Burgers and dogs and corn on the cob. I can hardly stomach the thought.

So this year I praised America in my own way -- by visiting the local melting pots for dinner. For Part II of my restaurant capsule rehab project, I checked out places that (like so many of us) have dual nationalities, more than one cultural influence, or an assimilation factor. I found what I expected despite the seemingly conflicting elements: distinct and unique personalities that could flourish only in America.

Maria's Greek-American Food Shop
1363 Coral Way; 856-0938. Open Monday -- Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

I kept trying to discern what's so American about Maria's Greek-American Food Shop. The Greek part is easy to figure: prints of the islands hanging on the green- and white-latticed walls, the Mediterranean folksongs on the sound system, the Aegean brand beer. The tasty eggplant salad, a cold and potent starter spiked with garlic, scallions, and dill and served with quartered pita bread warm from the grill. And the souvlaki, juicy pieces of boneless pork or chicken speared kabob-style and partnered by authentic tzatziki, yogurt dotted with cucumber.

Then I tried the spinach pie, a geometry of chopped spinach and feta cheese, the lid of phyllo dough as limp as if it had just come out of a microwave. Ditto the galactobourico, another soggy square, this one with custard and a warm honey sauce. That's pretty American of 'em, I thought. So was the pastitsio, bland noodles layered with ground beef and a scant bechamel blanket, which tasted like Hamburger Helper and which was accompanied by canned string beans with a tomato sauce and yellow rice doused with same. And the souvlaki's garnish, browning iceberg lettuce cushioning feta cheese, was something I might expect in a greasy spoon, Greek or American.

Lunch specials -- a different one daily -- might be the best way to go. Stuffed peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves, Greek-style meatballs or beef tips with orzo (rice-shaped pasta), all served with pita bread and a bargain at $5.95, bring in a healthy crowd of local business people representing practically every nationality in Miami.

Ruen Thai and Sushi Bar
947 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 534-1504. Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m., Friday -- Sunday until midnight.

The staff at Ruen Thai is eager to serve you. So eager, in fact, that they might ask for your order five times in as many minutes. Take no notice of them; the newly installed sushi bar and expanded menu require all your attention.

Unfortunately, the two sushi products I ate -- a fishy, lukewarm shrimp tempura roll (fried shrimp, asparagus, and avocado) and a skimpy Boston roll (boiled shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and spicy mayonnaise)-- were not great justification for this new let's-just-add-a-sushi-bar trend. The combo of mediocre offerings and competition from other Washington Avenue spots might prevent this suddenly sushi one from taking off.

Thai fare here is much, much better. Yum woon sen, for example, an appetizer of clear noodles tossed with ground chicken and whole shrimp, served warm over cool iceberg lettuce and garnished with bean sprouts. The noodles were al dente and delicious, spiced with hot pepper, onion, scallion, and lime juice. Another pasta starter, mee krob, was excellent as well. Rice vermicelli was fried to a crisp finish, then coated with a honey-sweet sauce that tasted like candy. Whole shrimp and bean sprouts added texture. A vegetable curry was a fresh and plentiful main course, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and onions drenched in a delightfully piquant coconut milk sauce that soaked into steamed aromatic rice.

With its remarkable hand-carved teak tables and luxurious curries -- pan-fried grouper with broccoli, pork with sweet peas, and shrimp massaman with sweet potatoes -- Ruen Thai has been a South Beach staple for years. Not even sushi can spoil that.

Biscayne Wine Merchants & Bistro
738 NE 125th St., North Miami; 899-1997. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30.

A stately dining room redolent of Europe, this North Miami eatery moved several years ago from its Biscayne Boulevard location but kept the name. It also kept its main feature, the wine gallery in the back, a bacchanal's delight from which diners can pick and choose among innumerable bottles to complement the daily menu items or blackboard specials -- or to take home. And though wine prices might be slightly higher than at the liquor store, they're reasonable for a restaurant; the selection makes it all worthwhile.

European with a bit of brash America thrown in might be the best way to describe the culinary offerings, ranging from pate to pasta to pork chops. Gazpacho was a chunky version, so thick it seemed more like salsa. This was a very refreshing starter, barely spicy but flavorful with celery, onions, and cucumbers ground into the tomato broth. An arugula salad was also exquisitely fresh, the tear-shaped peppery greens unaffectedly crowned with rings of white onion and a dash of olive oil.

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