Best Of :: Food & Drink
Between 6:00 and 11:00 a.m., a cross section of Miami's working stiffs -- from car mechanics to Design District dandies -- jostle for a spot in this efficient little sandwich shop. Not because it's typical chaotic Miami, but because of the morning draw, the desayuno especial. For $3.15 one gets two eggs, bacon or ham, Cuban toast, café con leche, and the pièce de résistance: a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice. For $3.15. It's unmatched anywhere else in the city. The service, by the way, also is a Miami anomaly, swift and friendly.
The sun may have set on the British Empire long ago, but one of its key rituals continues weekdays at the Biltmore Hotel. The rapacious guardians of civilization knew that whether it be the languid tropics of the colonies or the drizzly comfort of hearth and home, nothing beats a good cuppa as the day turns dozy around midafternoon. Beneath the vaulted ceilings of this grand hotel's lobby, for an hour and half starting at 3:00 p.m., the tradition continues as high tea is served. It all begins with the raw materials from a 115-year-old English tea company. A gracious attendant wheels in a cart filled with teas accented by exotic flavors that carry names like Imperial Gunpowder, Afternoon Darjeeling, and Tippy Assam. The last of these is harvested each year, between April and June, from the Brahmanputra Valley in northeast India. Off to the side a woman plays piano softly. The server pours the tea into china cups, through silver strainers that are then placed into individual silver bowls. She brings fresh fruit and a selection of crustless finger sandwiches that range from salmon to cucumber. Next come wickedly rich scones made of fluffy shortbread dusted in powdered sugar. A dish laden with whipped butter and a complete selection of fruit preserves complements the pastries. At this point, rather than risk the perils of overindulgence, pause and appreciate the beautiful orchids atop the five tables, the plushly comfortable chairs, and, of course, more of that delightfully calming elixir. The last course arrives as if by magic, a plate brimming with confections: little macaroons, diminutive lemon tarts, and mini-pecan pies. When the $15 check comes, it seems a small price to pay for the burden of being civilized.
Just the name, written in big old-fashioned script above the entrance to this 32-year-old bakery, makes you think of sweet treats. And here there's an abundance of just about every Latin-American-style treat that can be baked. Homemade tamales simmer in a crockery pot by the cash register, and periodically a kitchen helper carries out fresh loaves of Cuban bread. In the morning and afternoon, people stop in on their way to or from work to pick up empanadas or pan gloria, maybe some pasteles de guayaba, cookies or cupcakes for the kids. The cakes at Bon-Bon are beautiful (it's best to order first and pick up later to ensure freshness), and the pies are dense and heavily crusted. The chocolate, coconut, and almond brazos -- a rolled log of cake that looks like an arm -- are festively decorated and even more fun for the palate.
Since Miami no longer is the nation's southernmost city but Latin America's northernmost, a yearning for Old South Florida cuisine rarely becomes urgent. But after a day gaping at gators in the Glades, nothing hits the spot like cracker cuisine, primo of which is barbecue. And the primo place at which to get it is the Pit, conveniently situated at the outskirts of the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, miles before the road morphs into Calle Ocho. The décor in this small spot is perfect for a Florida barbecue joint: rustic wood booths inside, tiki-hut-covered picnic tables outside. And the food is even more perfect. This is genuine you-can-smell-the-smoke-for-miles pit barbecue, cooked slow over smoldering blackjack oak. The tender yet toothy ribs are terrific. But hard-core classicists order the $3.95 triple-winnerer: juicy pulled pork topped with crunchy, slightly sweet chopped coleslaw right on the sandwich, just like in North Carolina. And for noncarnivores, there's elegant fried fresh catfish. Among side orders, lightly floured crisp real onion rings are required eating, as are tangy-sweet barbecue beans. For dessert skip the overly sweet key lime pie and order another beer, since the Pit has imported Beck's and some Hank Jr. (or Senior) on the jukebox.
Molina's has a large and dedicated fan club; it's certainly among the best Cuban restaurants in town. Thus Molina's black bean soup, as a staple of any Cuban cuisine, has to be perfect, and it is. Very hearty, a nice thick broth enriched with just enough of the right seasonings to complement, not overpower, the succulent legume.
When Picanha's opened a couple of years ago in the former Tark's, which was attached to a Dairy Queen, we thought it would be another restaurant serf, dredging the lower realm of the dining public for customers. We're not ashamed to admit we were wrong about this honest Brazilian eatery, which is named for the cut of rump roast called a pincanha. Indeed the eatery was so successful with both Brazilians and the uninitiated alike that it recently took its meaty linguincinha sausages and rich prawns sautéed in palm oil and coconut milk to a more conducive venue: the former Mark's Place. Now the Grille is even more packed, especially on Thursdays for Brazilian-style karaoke and caiprinhas, and on weekends for executive chef Edson Milto's traditional feijoada. And here we thought nothing could ever take the Place of Mark's.
We're not saying anything we didn't already say back in 1999, 1997, 1996, and 1994. And our deciding factors -- freshness, consistency, selection, reasonable prices, and, truth be known, free samples -- are probably nothing you don't already know about Biga, which, like bread itself, has become a staple in South Florida. Whether you live near the Coral Gables, South Miami, South Beach, Key Biscayne, Dadeland Station, Coral Way, Kendall, Boca Raton, or West Palm Beach shop, the hearty country breads and Latin specialties are trucked to you daily from Biga's 20,000-square-foot baking commissary in Hialeah. Besides, Biga is a bakery that knows how to have fun: How about a loaf resembling a cluster of grapes, a bunny bun for Easter, or a heart-shaped brioche for Mother's Day? Heck, if you've got the dough, you can even buy your own Biga franchise.
Ah, breakfast, the most perfect of all meals: sweeter than dinner, healthier than dessert, earlier than lunch. A shame we can't have it more often.... This terraced café on the ocean is the answer to our prayers. Granola is served with strawberries, kiwi, mango -- whatever's in season -- and bound with a refreshing dollop of yogurt. The thick French toast is four-star. While others sup on the Front Porch's steaks, pastas, and offerings from the sea, be not abashed by your eggs, pancakes, fresh fruit, and the aforementioned crunchy cereal and battered bread. In this just and cozy place, all meals are created equal -- and in generous portions for reasonable prices -- daily until closing time at 10:30 p.m.
A little slice of Mexico across the street from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner. Not that that has any significance, other than Los Tres Amigos certainly has been a welcome addition to the lunch possibilities for all the hard-working medical types in the Jackson Memorial Hospital area. Tres Amigos is the kind of place you virtually never see in Miami: It really looks Mexican inside, Selena plays on the jukebox, and the food really is Mexican/Tex-Mex. You can order the usual varieties of burritos -- chicken, beef, refried beans and cheese -- as well as the superdeluxe burrito Los Tres Amigos, a fat package of beef, pork, and chicken. The best part is ladling on the red or green sauce, or both.
Caesar salad has become such a mainstay of contemporary cuisine that even fast-food joints offer a version. But we like places where the salad is tossed fresh and made to order with whatever you want put into it. The friendly salad makers at Perricone's serve a hearty and delicate caesar at the rustic restaurant's deli counter. With or without anchovies, this salad is a winner. The crisp romaine leaves are coated in a creamy egg and garlic dressing, accented with a perfect hint of Parmesan. Have it with a nice chardonnay and your lunch in Perricone's tropical garden beneath the banyans becomes downright dreamy.
It's Wednesday, hump day, and the morning is closing in on you like a python around your neck. You sidle up to the counter at Enriqueta's and order the café con leche, wondering how in the world you're going to get through the next eight hours. The waitress calls you "amor" and sets down a steaming mug of milk and a little stainless-steel pot with espresso coffee in it, so finely brewed there's a delicate foam on top. Yeah, that's the stuff. You mix just the right amount of coffee into the milk. Today it's full-on, dump the caffeine in. You're going to need all the help you can get. You sip. The coffee is sweet and strong, the milk is warm and comforting. Suddenly things don't seem that bad. There's that cutie on the second floor you want to ask out, and you just remembered your boss is gone half the day. You take another sip. Yeah, things are looking up. You smile. The waitress smiles back. Best damn dollar you've spent in a long time.
This mini-empire of restaurants and cafeterías would have been cerrado a long time ago if the most basic ingredient to any Cuban, let alone Miamian, repast missed the mark. One could say La Carreta's success is founded on a thimbleful of thick, dark, sweetly bitter coffee. The restaurants are able to consistently produce cafecito that is neither too sweet nor too watery. If you don't cheat on the amount of grounds used for each brew, your customers will happily return. "The secret is to use the best quality coffee and buy the whole bean," explains Felix Jimenez, manager of the chain's flagship Calle Ocho locale. La Carreta buys from different suppliers, primarily Pilon, and grinds the beans fresh each day. Jimenez adds: "The other secret is to use a ceramic cup. This is what gives it the special taste. If you use a paper cup, it won't taste the same." Hmm, there's a certain coffee chain from Seattle that might want to know this.