Best Of :: Food & Drink
Hy vong in Vietnamese means "hope," which pretty much sums up the emotional state of the nightly crowd that lingers outside this 36-seat hole-in-the-wall in the heart of Calle Ocho.
"We're running on Cuban time tonight," says Kathy Manning, co-owner of Hy Vong, who placates the hungry mob with fistfuls of imported beer including China's Tsing Tao ($3.50), Belgium's Kriek Framboise raspberry ale ($6.50), and, of course, Vietnam's 33 Export ($3.50). But what's new? Ever since Manning met Tung Nguyen — who in 1975 was 28 years old, pregnant, and fresh off a fishing boat fleeing war-torn Vietnam — and opened Hy Vong in 1980, these two food-savvy ladies have been reeling in the masses. And unless they're part of a party of five or more with reservations, patrons have to endure the restaurant's strict (and arguably cruel) first-come/first-served policy. Even though a wait for a table can take up to an hour, this place isn't like neighboring Versailles or La Carreta, where grub comes quickly. Expect to wait an additional hour for thit kho (pork stewed in coconut milk, $12), duck breast with black currant dressing ($15), or any other of the fresh and exquisite made-to-order entrées. After one bite of a dish such as fish wrapped in pastry with watercress/cream-cheese dressing ($15.95), combined with extremely reasonable prices — two simple yet mouth-watering cha glo spring rolls are only $4 — you'll forget about the delay.
Even mishaps such as running out of food are excusable. When the fish for a seared fresh fillet served with mango and peppercorns ($16.95) ran out on a recent Saturday night, Nguyen quickly improvised with large, succulent scallops smothered in strips of mango and pineapple, exceeding any diner's expectations.
Roused but not sold? Warm yourself up to the place with one of Hy Vong's Heat and Eat Delicacies ($6 to $7), which includes house favorite rolling cakes stuffed with a pork-mushroom mixture. These frozen delights are available at local gourmet markets such as Gardner's Market (7301 Red Rd., Miami) and Norman Brothers Produce (7621 Galloway Rd., Miami). Unlike an evening in the restaurant, the wait time is only a few minutes.
Remember that trip to Buenos Aires? There was supposed to be tango dancing until dawn and a smoky-eyed lover. Instead you tripped over your own feet and got fat eating alfajores. Now that you're back in Miami, the porteños are gone, but there are still alfajores. Buenos Aires Bakery offers three kinds of the cookie and dulce de leche sandwich at $2 a pop: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and maizena. The cookies are moist and the Argentine caramel perfectly gooey. Take a bite, make peace with your chubbiness, and daydream about the Paris of South America.
Argentine steaks are revered not because of how they're cooked, but because the meat is incredible. The cattle roam the fertile pastures of the pampas and are never forced to exert themselves (because exercise makes the meat tougher). They are carted around the country in train cars. This special treatment produces beef that melts when it hits your tongue and is unrivaled in tenderness and flavor.
But until just last year, the USDA — out of protectionism and semi-legitimate fears of hoof and mouth disease — banned the import of Argentine beef. Now that it can again be imported, you don't want to go to some fancy Argentine steak house and have them jack up the price on you just for cooking the meat. That's where Estancia Argentina comes in. It's a Miami-based chain owned by Buenos Aires transplants, with locations in Aventura, Coral Gables, Kendall, and Miramar. It's half restaurant, half market, and all good. The empanadas ($1.55) and sandwiches ($8) are delicious, made fresh with quality ingredients. The walls are lined with bottles of wine, so you can buy a Malbec and drink it with your meal. The meat counter is to drool over, with all sorts of Argentine beef cuts, cheeses, chorizos, and chimichurris. They also have great desserts ($1 to $5). The place is always packed with Spanish speakers enjoying a cup of vino or guarana soda with meaty skirt steak or prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches. Join them.
There's no Brie, quail eggs, or diced jalapeños baked into the dough of the bagels at this Kendall joint. Nor is there any caviar-infused shmear or exotic fruit toppings shipped from some remote village in the heart of the Amazon. That's because The Bagel Express, a non-descript delicatessen squeezed into a small, suburban strip mall, simply makes great bagels. There's greatness in the first bite. And the second. And the thirtieth.
Made from scratch and baked fresh daily, the bagels here are classics — pumpernickel, sesame, egg, poppy seed, garlic, salt, cinnamon, plain, and everything. The price: $6.60 for six and $11.95 for a baker's dozen. For the carb-conscious, there's also whole wheat and eight-grain available with your choice of regular or low-fat cream cheese (plain, chive, vegetable, strawberry, and honey walnut) for $2.75 a pop. Speaking of pop, The Bagel Express has Dr. Brown sodas (diet and regular). Then there's fresh, hand-sliced Nova lox for $7.99 per quarter pound and delicious, buttery rugelach for $10.95 a platter.
Still not convinced? Oy vey! Then swing on in after the morning rush and try a Boar's Head deli sandwich served in a large woven basket with your choice of bagel, for $7.95. While you're there — now don't get all verklempt — ponder this: Although a bagel topped with Alba white truffle cream cheese and goji berry-infused Riesling jelly sounds superb, it'll run you $1,000 at the Westin Hotel in Times Square. But these tasty bites in Kendall will cost you a mere $1.25 each. Enjoy!
If great bread is the staff of life, all of us here in South Florida are living on borrowed time, eating mushy, pallid, tasteless loaves made from ultrarefined flour that no self-respecting Parisian or Italian would use for a doorstop. But thankfully, for those special occasions, we have La Provence, where you can get a proper baguette ($2) or crusty loaf of sourdough ($2.25) or hunk of multigrain ($4.35). But man (and woman) doesn't live by bread alone, so if you're hungry for a light, flaky croissant; luscious Danish, fruit tart, or cheesecake; even savory quiches or empanadas, La Provence has you covered there too. Just no doorstops.
For more than nine years, Aziza Yuself has made Varanda's a place where Brazilians can savor authentic cuisine. That's why the low-key eatery draws so many of the Brazilian expatriates residing in North Beach, who can watch Brazilian television and have long conversations in Portuguese while dining on exceptionally good food, especially the muqueca de peixe, fish perfectly simmered in a coconut sauce ($14.95). Meat lovers will enjoy the picadinho ao mohlo, beef strips in a delicious hot sauce, for $10.95, or the frango ao mohlo curry, curry chicken in coconut sauce for $13.95. For many folks, Varanda's is a home away from home, but even if you're not from São Paulo, you can drop by too.