Best Of :: Food & Drink
It's 2 p.m. Thursday, and the ruggedly handsome and perpetually silent guy stands before the spread of 31 flavors of gelato. He's in awe. Tasting each variation with his eyes, he knows the choice he's about to make is very important. Does he want a cup full of the heady rum essence that wafts from the buttery zuppa inglese? Or is the icy, spicy nature of the strawberry-black pepper tucked into a cone better for this midday treat? He already knows the violet chocolate chip is a springtime surprise of light flavor and classic cocoa bean. And he can still taste the puffs of cinnamon from last week's choice — "mamma mia apple pie" — so something savory seems the best way to go. Will it be the local fave — Mediterranean sea salt — or black pepper and olive oil? Or perhaps sweet is the way to go, he thinks. As Brahms plays in the background, he flips a coin to choose between the lovely orange saffron and über-rich crème brûlée. He plays rock-paper-scissors with himself to decide whether today's flavor should be a traditional one: amaretto black cherry swirl or pistachio.
The pastel gelati begin to swirl before his eyes.
He thrusts a finger up against the glass.
And walks out of Paciugo with a single scoop of vanilla.
Someone should have told him $5.89 would have bought him a cup overflowing with five decadent flavors of his choice.
Burgers are big — as in big across-the-board sales during stressed economic times. There are big profits for burger barons, and big-shot chefs putting 'em on their big-price restaurant menus. Govind Armstrong and the folks at Table 8 took things a step further by opening 8 oz. Burger Bar in South Beach. It isn't difficult to locate a great burger in this town — if someone claimed that Clarke's, Kingdom, or Grill on the Alley made the best one, we really wouldn't argue. But Burger Bar's eponymous eight-ouncer brings a few distinctions to the table. The beef is culled from hormone-free cows; ground in-house from Black Angus sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck; and grilled over live oak. Then it's plunked onto a soft, fresh brioche bun. House-cured bacon, house-pickled pickles, hothouse cucumber relish, and homemade heirloom tomato ketchup are among a long list of cool accouterments; there are lots of cheeses to choose from too. Price for the signature burger is $10, a dollar or two less for those culled from turkey or Niman Ranch lamb. Burger Bar bops from 5 p.m. to midnight, and until 2 in the morning Thursday through Saturday. You're gonna like this place. Big time.
Family-owned for 37 years, the small, old-timey joint is now run by brothers David and Joe Arbetter, who insist that the chili used on their dogs be made fresh every day, that the buns be pillow-soft, and that the ambiance stay unpretentious. Simple snacks such as the "All Around" (mustard, onions, and relish) are the brothers' forte, and prices are recession-worthy at $2 to $3.05 per sausage. Inside, the place is a throwback to the shakes-at-the-parlor days when the term veggie dog would have just confused folks. Large sweaty cooks call out orders. Lunchroom dining means grabbing a seat at the counter. And cash is the only way to pay.
Since 1982, Casola's has been serving up delectable, eternally melting (we swear, it's like the Niagara Falls of cheese) New York-style pizza so addictive you might wander back here in your sleep. Slices are so gargantuan that the lifting of one piece has been known to cause hernias. And a single pie can easily feed the entire nation of Zimbabwe or, perhaps, one of the chickens butchered for the jumbo wings. Honestly, this is the only practical explanation for the pterodactyl-size delicacies that come, wrapped in tinfoil, in rations of 6 ($6.99), 12 ($9.99), 24 ($17.99), and 36 ($23.99). Crisp and super-meaty, each wing is fried up fresh and lets out a small stream of steam with the first bite. And don't bother being fussy about sauces — the wings come dry with sides of traditional Buffalo and tangy barbecue dips. Blue cheese is extra (75 cents, to be exact), but as blasphemous as this might sound to wing lovers all over the world, it isn't even necessary.
You place your order in a bar/lounge that feels like a cross between Hustle and Flow's Memphis backwoods and a From Dusk Till Dawn outlaw biker hideout. But you're at the southern edge of Liberty City, on a crossroads with Little Haiti and Allapattah. You order a chicken sandwich, a tall Arizona fruit punch, and a sweet potato pie. You smile, walk your handwritten order to the barbecue man out front, and then pay less than $10. "Extra hot sauce, please," you say.
"You like that, don't you?" he answers with a grin.
"Best chicken in Miami, sir."
You sit down and wait as he removes artfully fire-crisped yet incredibly juicy and tender chicken pieces from the grill and lays them on his cutting board. He lowers the cleaver with guillotine-like precision, splitting bones at the joints and throughout. Then he tongs the chicken, still on the bone, onto a piece of white bread nestled in aluminum foil; douses it in a vibrant red spicy barbecue sauce made in house by secret recipe; and tops it with another slice of white bread. Smiling, he wraps the sandwich in the foil, places it in a paper bag, and hands it to you. You were gonna take it home, but you can't wait, so you rip open the package, take a seat, and revel in the abundance of flavors and textures. This is perfectly executed barbecue chicken. You can get it Thursday from 2 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Tomato or mustard? Tangy or sweet? Every barbecue lover has his or her sauce preferences, but in all honesty, the sauce is just windowdressing. It's the meat that matters and it's James's meat that draws customers to parking lots across town. To cover James's ribs with any sauce, even your favorite, would be a tragedy akin to putting a burlap sack on a beautiful woman. The flavor is simply inspiring and the bones so tender you can gnaw straight through them to the marrow. Save the sauce for that filet mignon or other slab of tasteless meat you bought at the supermarket a few feet away. Call James now to find out where he will be setting up his smoker this weekend (he's usually at the edge of the parking lot behind the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 48th Terrace). Then get a rack of ribs or some chicken, add a couple of cobs of roasted corn, and head home to eat — if you can hold out that long.