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There's been a lot of talk lately about airline security, but precious little about being able to secure a good airport meal while waiting through the delays that these defensive concerns necessitate. I wouldn't mind having to bide my time at the Houston airport for an extra hour or two -- I'd simply sit myself down at Harlon's Bar-B-Q and partake of the barbecued-brisket and roast-pork sandwiches that are so good they make being in Texas bearable. The closest thing Miami International Airport has to Harlon's is a branch of La Carreta, the landmark Cuban eatery. The menus at these two places share nothing in common, but both offer cuisines that are indigenous to their respective regions. In an ideal world, this is what airport restaurants would try to do.
I wouldn't quite say that the food options at MIA go downhill after La Carreta; it's more like they fall off a cliff. My saunter through the hodgepodge of second-rate fast-food franchises and cronyistic concession stands started at Concourse A of the main terminal. As it turned out, A had no food stalls at all, but as I approached B the uniquely greasy aroma of disreputable pizza began to subtly assault my olfactory senses. The initial impulse was to walk the other way, but I followed the smell and arrived at Pizza Strada. A slice of one of their ugly little pies goes for $3.49, though savvy shoppers will take advantage of the "slice and salad" deal: $6.59. The pizzeria is somewhat hidden in its location behind Foodcourt, a subpar cafeteria that for some reason was designed to look like a Seventies disco lounge. Desiccated steam-table items like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigiana, and lasagna go for $5.95. That won't seem overpriced until you actually see the food.
Concourse C is an improvement -- it has no food. Neither does G (or at least none to speak of), which means that if you find yourself hungry and desire something edible, you've no choice but to head toward the middle of the terminal -- D through F. With Starbucks and Café Versailles as neighboring tenants, D is the obvious place to go for coffee. Which to choose depends on the style of brew you prefer, though you'll save real bucks at the latter -- cortaditos for $1, café con leche $1.50, cappuccinos a moderate $1.95. Versailles isn't a bad spot to stop for a quick, inexpensive snack either, their potato-and-meat-filled papas rellenas and empanadas under $2, and croquetas 85 cents apiece. Burger King also resides in Concourse D, the only "A-list" fast-food franchise on the premises.
Across the way from Versailles is the aforementioned La Carreta. The meals at this branch aren't as well-prepared or varied in selection as the flagship restaurant on Calle Ocho, but if you're looking for a pleasant sit-down meal at the airport, there is no better place to go. The cafeteria-style lineup of classic Cuban dishes like palomilla steak, lechon asado (roast pork), and picadillo of chopped beef in a brown Creole tomato sauce come with two sides (plantains, moros, French fries, and so on) for under nine dollars. Splendid soups include frijoles negros (black bean) and caldo gallego (white bean), but the mediocre medianoches and Cuban sandwiches would be scorned on Calle Ocho or at any of the other ten La Carretas interspersed around town. The coffee bar here serves up Cuban coffees of the same price and quality as Versailles.
Concourse E has by far the most culinary activity: Edy's Ice Cream; Casa Bacardi bar; and a food court with another Burger King, a Juice Works smoothie bar, TCBY ("The Concourse's Best Yogurt"), and California Pizza Kitchen, where for eight dollars you can partake of a pitiful pie, replete with unappealingly sweet dough, that might be large enough to serve as a light bite for two anorexics. If you're going to indulge in sweet dough you might as well do it right and order a warm cinnamon roll from the Cinnabon situated just a few steps away. I could quibble with some aspects of the sticky treats (what, no raisins?), but I have to admit that either their classic cinnamon bun or crunchier pecan bun, coupled with a cup of Cuban brew (Versailles is nearby), would qualify as an exemplary coffee-and-snack in or out of any American airport.
The Miami International Airport Hotel is situated between concourses E and F. If you rush through the terminal you could ostensibly go right through the lobby and not realize that a hotel was even there. I did so numerous times before I ever noticed it, even though there's a neon sign saying Lobby Bar right by the lobby bar I repeatedly passed. The hotel's sit-down restaurant, Top of the Port, serves burgers and sandwiches as well as full dinners like New York steak, grilled swordfish, and seafood fettuccine. Entrées run from $14.95 to $17.95.
The hotel lobby has also housed a sushi bar for the past three years. Thought it doesn't offer much in the way of ambiance, and airports are probably not the ideal place to seek out sushi, the fish was fresh and prices reasonable: sushi and sashimi $2 to $2.75 per piece, cone-shape temaki rolls $3.50 to $4.25, eight-slice makimono rolls $4.95 to 9.95. This is about your only option for light eating.
Concourse F contains a second Café Versailles and Pizza Strada that straddle a Café Sbarro. Literally translated the word sbarro means "place to eat Italian food when there are absolutely no alternatives." MIA fits thatbill, and, indeed, the pizza here is far superior to any other at the airport; at $2.69 per slice it's also the cheapest. Their baked ziti, mushroom chicken, and other steam-table meals appeared appetizing as well. You know you're in a culinary wasteland when Sbarro starts looking good.
If you're departing from Miami's airport and favor Cuban food, sushi, cinnamon buns, or Burger King, head to concourses D through F and make do. Everyone else had better bring a lunchbox with them: No matter how bad the airport food is, it's only going to get worse once you're in flight.
Unless, of course, you're heading west with a stopover in Houston.