Best Of :: Food & Drink
If you're Puerto Rican you know better than to venture out to a restaurant to eat comida criolla. Nobody makes better arroz con gandules than your abuela, nobody's alcapurrias are quite as tasty as mami's, and mofongo -- well forget it -- you just can't get good mofongo off the island. Until now. This past December Puerto Rican singing-sensation-superstar Ricky Martin joined the owners of Ajili Mójili, one of San Juan's most noted restaurants, and opened Casa Salsa here in South Beach. Everything at Casa Salsa, from the interior design (corrugated metal, cane, wood, and straw with a SoBe twist) to the live plena music, the art work, and, of course, the food, will take you back to the sweet, lulling rhythms of la isla del encanto. Although everything we sampled was delicious, including the items that seemed to be more SoBe Rican than anything, for a true gustatory excursion through Puerto Rico we recommend sticking with the traditional dishes: surullos, alcapurrias, asopao, arañitas, and arroz con gandules. The dish Casa Salsa does best is mofongo: plantains mashed with oil and garlic and filled with your choice of chicken, lobster, or beef, and topped with a delicious tomato-based salsa, all served in a typical wooden pilón. ¡Ay que rico! Lunch daily from noon until 4:00 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 6:00 p.m. until midnight, Friday through Sunday until 2:00 a.m. Reservations are strongly recommended for Friday and Saturday nights: You probably won't get a table without one.
Let's face it, a bowl of black bean soup can be a bounty of blasé. But the chefs at these little Mexican diners add a magical elixir to their pot: a splash of beer, Dos Equis Special Lager, to be precise. That's why they call it drunken bean soup. You won't get a beer buzz, but the effect is definitely euphoric. A dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheese (which you can ask them to hold) round out the unexpectedly flavorful recipe. Please, señor, some more. ¡Ándale!
It's Tuesday afternoon and you're craving chicken feet again. You had the little morsels just two days ago, but that didn't do the trick. At the same meal you scarfed turnip cakes, steamed shrimp dumplings, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, baked roast pork buns, spare ribs with black bean sauce, rice noodles har mon, and for dessert, steamed buns filled with lotus seed paste. Still it wasn't enough. The succulent feet remain on your brain. If you had your way, you would eat dim sum at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. Lucky for you, at Kon Chau you can. Open from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the restaurant offers about 50 dim sum items at any time of the day, unlike other restaurants that leave you hankering for the stuff until the weekend comes. Nothing fancy here: No steam cart being rolled around by a snooty driver who refuses to reveal what exactly is on your little plate. Kon Chau offers all dim sum prepared to order. Exceptional edibles and efficient, courteous service are just two good reasons to dine here. The third: incredibly cheap prices. Two people can eat until they burst for less than 20 bucks. Now that's a lot of chicken feet.
Contrary to popular belief, the Italians didn't invent pizza. The Greeks did, who in turn got the idea from the enterprising Etruscans, who used focaccia as plates. But the Italians certainly improved the dish. In Naples they added tomato sauce, and in the late Nineteenth Century the classic Margherita (four-cheese pizza) was invented and named for the then-queen of Italy. Elsewhere in the country, pizzaiolos, or pizza makers, vied with each other to create the most original toppings, using whatever local ingredients they could lay their flour-covered hands on, including cured meats like prosciutto and soppressata and homegrown vegetables such as olives and eggplant. You can see the fruits of this ancient labor at Spris, which offers delicate, thin-crust pizzas, similar to the ones found in Naples, for contemporary consumption. Owned by the folks who run Tiramesu, only a few doors away, Spris satisfies the pizzaiolo in all of us by offering more than 30 choices, including the tonnata (with tuna, onion, and basil), the gamberetti (with shrimp and arugula), and of course, the Margherita.
It's probably no surprise that this dynamic but industrial-looking place is noisy: Most of the mod décor is metallic. Talk about reverb. Not only that, China Grill Management owns this Asian noodle shop, and this particular restaurant group seems to excel in creating high-end eateries that are sweet to the taste but hard on the eardrum. Sitting outside at the café tables probably won't help much, given that Lincoln Road is overwhelmed with crying babies and whining tourists these days. Still you might as well get used to it if you want to slurp up some yummy duck-topped egg noodles or vibrant curry-infused rice noodles (all reasonably priced). There's no use complaining: No one will be able to hear you.
"Wait, let me get you a warm one," the counter clerk says as he hovers a hand above the trays of doughy bagels. In no time his heat-seeking fingers land on a poppy-seed bagel that's as piping hot as it is flush with flavor. At Bagels & Co. freshness is never in question. Beyond fresh, the bagels are unusually dense and chewy, with a nice flavor. There are more than a dozen varieties available, all of which, we've found after extensive research, are extremely satisfying. The bialys (a kind of puffy, holeless bagel with onions on top) are the best we've ever seen. And did we mention how fresh everything is? And warm? And chewy?
This town knows a thing or two about heat. But it's never known anything like Christine Gouvia's jerk chicken. The tender, unassuming morsels of dark meat tingle the tongue and placate the palate. And though this experience alone is worth the pilgrimage to Gouvia's tiny North Miami Beach eatery, the spicy bird takes second billing to the roti. Sort of a Punjabi pita, roti is used as a vehicle for serving a number of traditional island foods such as curried goat, oxtail, and seafood. Entrées come with roti and rice and peas, and max out at around seven bucks. Ginger beer, coconut juice, and other popular island drinks are available, and the raisin-filled cake is unbeatable. Christine's little shop is open Monday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
An instantly recognizable two-word dish: crispy spinach. Or perhaps aromatic duck. Or even purple eggplant. But two words, no matter how memorable they are, can't really describe the complex flavors and contrasting textures presented in these outstanding Chinese dishes. Only taste will tell. After six years in business on flighty South Beach, we might have expected this eatery, which has three other locations in or near Montreal, Canada, to wane in popularity, cut back on quality, and ease up on the excellent service. But this fragrant little flower has continued to attract new clientele with its terrific crab-and-asparagus soup and its spicy ravioli stuffed with minced chicken in a peanut sauce. It has also rewarded loyal customers by instituting the VIP card, which offers ten percent off the top of the bill. All you have to do is use the card at least twice during the summer season, thus showing you're a resident. Now this is a privilege -- and a VIP room -- that we don't mind standing in line for.
Think French fries and plump white potatoes cooking in a deep pool of sputtering oil comes to mind. Certainly not health food. The menu at healthy Oasis Café features staples such as tofu, brown rice, and garden burgers, but they're not your ordinary bland concoctions. Oasis gives their food a decidedly Mediterranean twist. And they give their menu a twist as well. The restaurant offers a hearty batch of fries ($2.95) as one of their appetizer-size mezze or "little plates." Not just potato sticks oozing grease. These are thin but substantial fries with skin on one side, coated in a spicy cumin-coriander mixture. They're the perfect accompaniment to an Angus New York steak or a grilled vegetable sandwich. Or they're a fine main course, if you're into throwing all dietary vigilance to the wind. To raise the fat content a wee bit, they throw in a few marinated green olives with your order. No ketchup needed.
The Spaniards may not have invented the appetizer, but they are conquistadors when it comes to premain-course specialties. They have even captured a foothold in the English language with the word tapas (means appetizers, yanqui). Back in the land of Sancho Panza, tapas are free at many an inn, as long as you and your compadres order beer or wine. Here in the New World you'd be tilting at windmills for that arrangement, but you'll want to pay for any number of this Calle Ocho establishment's 35 tapas. They cost from $3 to $6.50 and come in two categories, hot and cold. Among the hot: garlic shrimp, fried squid, and mussels in broth. Among the cold: real Spanish olives, a garlicky potato salad like only the Iberians can do, and the Spanish tortilla (a thick, but mysteriously delicious, potato omelet). Chomp tapas, slurp wine, flirt with the sexy long-haired flamenco dancers (male and female) who are been wrist-flicking and heel-stomping on this little restaurant's tiny corner stage. Get to the inn early or make a reservation if you want a table.
A fogon is an oven, and the one here is obviously put to good use. Owner Agustin Paz uses his to melt the cheese over molletes (open-face French bread sandwiches), bake cochinita pibil (marinated pork) burritos, and roast poblano peppers stuffed with ground beef. Fare isn't fancy, but it is attractively presented, not to mention generously portioned. Wash down those spinach nachos, laden with cheese and refried beans, with a Dos Equis, a strawberry margarita, or, in deference to Miami's thirst for fruity drinks, the El Fogon smoothie. But don't come to us if you don't have room for the crepas con cajeta (crèpes with caramel) for dessert -- blame it on the smooth operator working el fogon.
Siberian nachos. What a concept. Better yet, what an execution. Caviar, tuna tartare, crème fraîche, a nacho. The combination is sublime. (The tuna tartare appetizer on its own is pretty glorious.) Of course, the restaurant's name and welcoming statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin are supposed to make you think kitschy communist, but no comrades of the average sort were eating like this when Russia was red. In fact not too many comrades in America can afford to eat here too often, either. But it's worth a splurge just once, for the appetizers alone. There's not much under $13, but the portions are large. And with only a couple of shots of vodka (ranging from about $7 to $12), you could get out of there for under ... well, never mind. Capitalism won. Enjoy the spoils.