Mama Superior

Another recommended starter is the sopa de pescado, a creamy fish soup the color of farm-fresh scrambled eggs and just as rich. Filled with chunks of salmon, shrimp, and other seafood, the soup was hearty and filling, made thick with cornmeal and cream rather than the usual flour or cornstarch.

We were even more impressed by the ceviche of snapper, grouper, and tender baby shrimp; the bright-white appetizer portion is enough for a light meal. On one visit, however, I detected a strand or two of those detestable fake crab legs, so beware.

The best dishes on the menu are those from Antioquia, Colombia's northwestern coffee region and owner Alarcon's homeland. In an effort to help me assess the restaurant's rural specialties, I invited along to lunch a friend of mine from Rome (a great cook in his own right), and he chose the bandeja paisa (countryman's plate). Popular as a late afternoon meal after a day in the fields, this peasant dish consists of red beans in their own juices poured over a mound of rice, then topped with avocado slices, an arepa (corn cake), pork crackling, fried plantains, a fried egg, and a fillet of beef pounded and grilled to almost a jerk consistency. With the exception of the dry, hockey-puckish arepa, everything was fantastic, the equivalent of a chicken pot pie or a serving of macaroni and cheese. A real coming-home meal.

A grilled chicken lunch special was tasty too. A slender plank of breast meat was pounded thin as a pancake and grilled lightly with a hint of salt and garlic, then served over a bed of bright-orange-tinged rice alongside an unremarkable salad that consisted of shredded iceberg lettuce doused with a luscious cilantro-based dressing.

The restaurant's signature main course is a stuffed snapper for two: A whole plump fish is sliced open and grilled, then stuffed to overflowing with a creamy seafood concoction that resembles a risotto, minus the rice. It was loaded with baby mussels, clams, shrimp, and fish. The price for two is $29.95 and well worth it. (You may be able to get a portion for one. Ask. At $19.95 it's still reasonable.) For real savings, consider a similarly prepared corvina ($12.95).

We were also wowed by our garrulous, Spanish-speaking waiter, who knew Italian at least as well as English and was happy to switch from language to language throughout the meal. He eagerly recommended the best (and cheapest) dishes, was knowledgeable about the wine and beer selections, and made sure our water glasses were full from the time we sat down until we rolled out after a huge meal.

I sampled a glass of the house red, a Chilean cabernet that suited the rustic fare perfectly; a rich and not-too-heavy garnet-color wine, it was so drinkable I regretted not ordering a carafe ($12). Also good at the same price is the sangria, loaded with oranges and berries. My friend loved the Colombian beer Aguila, as potent as an ale but with the sweet, clear finish of a regular brew.

A variety of traditional Colombian treats are offered for dessert, including a selection of stewed tropical fruits. We chose the postre Mama Vieja: papayas and figs preserved in a glossy syrup and accompanied by a dulce de leche-style scoop of caramel and rectangles of salted sweet white cheese. The mild flavor of the fermented cheese was a surprisingly delicious contrast to the dense and sugary fruit.

All in all we are happy that this little strip close to home hasn't changed much over the years. Of course, the bulldozers and "For Rent" signs are a reminder of things to come. I suppose in time a publicist will concoct some zippy new name to describe this cozy neighborhood enclave. But in the meantime, with any luck this quaint sleeper of a restaurant will continue to endure, turning out quality fare at great prices -- in MidBe? MiBe? MayBe?

Mama Vieja
235 23rd St, Miami Beach; 305-538-2400. Open daily. Lunch noon till 4:00 p.m.; dinner 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. From 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., diners can choose from either the lunch or dinner menu.

Fish soup
$3.50 ($6.95 for two)
Ceviche
$8.95
Red snapper
$29.95 (for two)
Bandeja paisa
$8.95
Postre Mama Vieja
$4.

95

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