Best Of :: Food & Drink
More than two dozen local restaurants didn't live to see 2009 — a high body count, for sure. Two of the losses that sting most are those of Mark's South Beach and Sheba Ethiopian. Larry LaValley was a longtime executive chef at the former, but it was the brilliant culinary combinations of namesake chef Mark Militello that garnered the acclaim (to wit: pan-seared arctic char over English pea with farro risotto and beurre rouge). Militello, after all, is a James Beard Award winner and earned a place on the top tier of South Florida chefs via his celebrated Las Olas, Mizner Park, City Place, and South Beach properties — all of which bit the dust during the past 12 months. We will miss Sheba too — it was one of very few Ethiopian restaurants, perhaps the sole outlet for doro wat (chicken legs and thighs in berbere sauce), kifto (spicy tenderloin tartar), and kik alicha (yellow split peas with green peppers and herbs). Plus it was cool to scoop up the food with that sour, spongy injera bread. Now the good news: Nearby Kafa Café filled the void and is serving Ethiopian fare. Sheba will soon rise from the ashes and debut up in Hollywood. And chef Militello is helming 1 Bleu Restaurant in the Regent Bal Harbour.
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.
On the northwest side of a nondescript corner in Allapattah, there is a sandwich shop with exactly zero signage. Set back 200 feet from the road and buffered from traffic by a small asphalt field, the place looks like a postapocalyptic bunker. It's easy to drive past, and even if you do see it, you wouldn't assume delicious lunch foods are hawked from this spot. Simple, uncomplicated pan con lechón doesn't fit the profile. Nevertheless, Papo Llega y Pon serves one king-hell $5 pork sandwich. Drippingly delicious and spicy cleaver-chopped roast pig is piled onto soft white bread and then finished with onion, mayo, or piquant sauce. It's huge. But you came here to eat, right? So double-fist it, go around the corner, and enter the little dining dungeon. It's about the size of a holding cell; there are iron bars on the windows and nothing but a single exit. So a tip: Don't let any of your fellow sandwich eaters get behind you. These people are very hungry. Then again, so are you.
One could easily make a meal of the hearty bar menu at Bourbon Steak's swanky temple of upscale comfort food, but risking arterial blockage is worth it for just one thing: the platter of fried chicken and waffles that's offered only Wednesday nights, when the restaurant hosts a live blues band and bourbon drink specials. The heaping plate is piled high with expertly fried cornflake-battered white and dark meat drizzled with maple syrup and accompanied by bacon-studded waffles and cilantro crème fraîche. Gluttony doesn't come cheap — the dish of fried chicken costs $19. And forget the utensils; despite the posh surroundings, you're encouraged to do finger-licking justice to this golden delicacy.
The low point in American French fry history came when members of Congress humiliated spuds by spuriously renaming them freedom fries (seems so long ago, no?). But the fry has also had its share of historical highs, one of which occurred when the first Five Guys opened 23 years ago in Arlington, Virginia. Sacks of Idaho potatoes are piled in the store to form aisles and to let patrons know how serious these guys are about their fries. (Last year, the chain's 300-plus locations went through 38,409,200 pounds of potatoes.) The fries are hand-cut with skins on and cooked to order in pure, cholesterol-free peanut oil. They're served hot, crisp, and in such abundant portions that one regular $2.89 order can feed three, and a $3.99 large can feed three sumo wrestlers (the fries also come with Cajun seasonings, but let's not go there). Five Guys will be coming soon to Aventura and South Beach as part of its continuing quest to restore dignity and integrity to this most iconic American food.
Axiom No. 1: If it's delicious, it's ten times more delicious rolled in breading and deep-fried.
Axiom No. 2: If it's seafood, it's ten times better when you're sitting on the waterfront.
Conclusion: Conch fritters at Monty's are 100 times better than any other kind of conch anywhere else.
Don't believe in science? Just add it up yourself. There aren't too many joints left in South Florida with Monty's vibe — a thatched roof covering a huge outdoor deck, right on the yacht-choked Coconut Grove dockside, with front-row seats for the evening light fading over Key Biscayne and a regatta of sailboats. You literally cannot get your food any closer to the ocean unless you're on D-Wade's yacht. Throw in some of the freshest conch in the metro area deep-fried into a crunchy, greasy golden nugget. Just for good measure, add in a liberal happy hour and a live reggae band in the evenings.
Fact: You're going to enjoy it.
In a far-off land called Little Havana, there is a humble abode called La Palma Restaurant. Inside, past twisted blue wrought-iron railing and through an enchanted forest of characters that range from Cuban princesses to chain-smoking serfs, is a window above a granite counter — a ventanilla, if you will — staffed by women who transform into witches if you don't speak their native tongue and guard, with troll-like glares, three croquetas.
The first, filled with fish, is perhaps a tad strong, evoking the smell of Papa Bear's trout breath in just a single bite. The second, chock full of chicken, is too weak, like a girl with blond locks who's about to receive a major beatdown from a family of violated grizzlies. Yet the third, stuffed with ham, is just right, making a possibly long wait and awkward conversation with La Palma's pleasant waitstaff well worth it.
And although the croquetas at this Calle Ocho joint lack centers filled with flecks of parsley, wild mushrooms, or Manchego cheese, like at other (and pricier) local spots, they're still the most magical in all the land. Silky and smoky with a crisp fried crust, these scrumptious golden brown nubs allow your taste buds to live happily ever after. Plus, at 86 cents each, one or even ten of them is no hair off of your chinny, chin, chin.
Juan Zavala Jr. and his wife Pilar would sometimes sit around with friends in their native Argentina and ponder dinner-by-delivery choices. Inevitably it would come down to pizza or empanadas, and just as inevitably, they'd choose the latter. It occurred to Juan that maybe some of the 40 million Hispanics living in the United States might be thinking along the same lines. Long story short: Light bulb goes off, and some time later, the couple opens Half Moon Empanadas on Washington Avenue. "The first and only in Miami Beach," Pilar claims, "that makes the empanadas entirely from scratch, in house." Patrons can observe workers carefully crafting the turnovers through an open window in the back of the clean, contemporary venue. The empanadas come baked or fried, their flaky crusts filled with all manner of ingredients that are both traditional (beef, chicken, or ham and cheese) and nontraditional (smoked pancetta with mozzarella and plum sauce). Price is $1.99 each, six for $9.99, and a dozen for $17.99. Half Moon is open most days 11 to 11 and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. — and yes, they deliver.