Best Of :: Food & Drink
Many Americans have smoked hookahs yet have never used tobacco in one. But Sawa Restaurant & Lounge is the spot to go if you wish to inhale any number of flavored tobaccos. Patrons puff while seated on soft leather sofas amid white curtains billowing under royal palms in the outdoor center of the Village of Merrick Park. The al fakher hookah selections ($20) include about a dozen fruit-based smokes, from strawberry to watermelon to double apple. But Sawa is also "home to the hookah on steroids!" ($33), which means the base of the water pipe is filled with choice of cocktail: cosmopolitan, mojito, strawberry margarita, and so forth. No, you definitely do not drink said cocktail after smoking, but it adds flavor and a slightly intoxicating inhalation. Before flaunting contemporary society's anti-smoking conventions, you might strongly consider partaking of chef Jovens Jean's modern Mediterranean small plates or creative sushi rolls in the same oasis-like outdoor setting.
Let's talk alchemy. For centuries, wizened scholars — toiling in dark cellars, their wispy gray beards flirting with flames as they cooked cauldrons of metals and spices — searched endlessly for the secret to transmuting basic elements into something new, something otherworldly. Everyone from Isaac Newton to Tycho Brahe grew obsessed with finding the key. Honestly, they should have just ordered some pho at Miss Saigon. How else to explain what happens inside the massive, steaming bowl delivered to your table at the small Vietnamese eatery on Washington Avenue (or inside its larger sister restaurants in Coral Gables and Pinecrest)? In go a few basics: unctuous broth, thick rice noodles, and chunks of raw beef or chicken, topped off at the table with a plate of basil and sprouts and squirted with bottles of fiery red hot sauce and deep-black plum sauce. Yet into your mouth goes a magically complex meal, infinitely better than the sum of its humble parts. (And a steal at $10.95 for a bowl easily big enough for two). If that's not alchemy, our name is Ptolemy.
The American South has given us Hee Haw, boll weevils, Dollywood, and 92 percent of all mosquitoes in the United States. But it has also bestowed upon us Ray Hicks of West Virginia. It was he who brought Miami locals the First & First Southern Baking Company. When it comes to breakfast, Hicks's hot licks include cornmeal/blueberry pancakes; potato pancakes; blackberry waffles; chicken and waffles (with real maple syrup); a "lumberjack" breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes, two pancakes, two bacon strips, two sausage links, and a fruit cup; oatmeal; and, of course, grits. Most breakfasts run $5 to $9 and are served from 8 to 11 a.m. It's almost enough to make you want to put on a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD. Almost.
Almost as famous as this local chain's coal-oven pizza are its chicken wings. Spared from goopy sauces, Anthony's are seasoned with flavorful herbs and roasted at high heat in the oven. They arrive at the table in orders of ten ($8.95) or 20 ($14.95) with sweet caramelized onions and focaccia on the side. Their skin sports a nice char, and the flesh is moist inside. They are to the palate a coal-fired delight.
We all love Lulu — at least those of us old enough to remember her tearfully singing, "How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?" to Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love. Huh? Oh. Yes, of course. It goes without saying that we also all love Lulu the restaurant — operated by the team behind the Grove's number one meeting spot, GreenStreet. In fact, it is located right across the street from that landmark eatery and is something of a smaller, cozier version with the same mission: to provide a sidewalk café environment where locals can gather for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch — and lollygag over cocktails, wine (all bottles $25, all glasses $8), and value-driven cuisine. They call it "neighborfood," which means sandwiches of fried green tomatoes and apple-wood-smoked bacon ($11); shrimp tacos ($15); hamburgers, and patties culled from turkey, pork, and brown rice/black beans too ($12 to $15). Entrées likewise lean toward popular American classics: rotisserie chicken with French fries ($18); truffled mac and cheese ($13); and chimichurri churrasco ($20). We all love Lulu, which is why its tables have been packed since opening day. Wonder what became of that other Lulu?
It is a labor of love born from a love story: Jeremy and Paola Goldberg met while they were students at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After years of earning their stripes in other people's restaurants, the couple serendipitously ended up in Miami and opened a place of their own — located in Coral Gables and named for the highway that swoops by their alma mater. Jeremy helms the dining room, Paola is the chef, and the restaurant serves fresh, home-cooked fare. The concise menu includes charcuterie and cheese plates ($13), soups and salads ($6 to $9), small plates ($6 to $13), main plates ($14 to $23), and sides ($6). There are sticky chicken wings, burrata cheese with fig preserves, and entrées such as prosciutto-wrapped pork loin, and flank steak with grilled romaine hearts and blue cheese vinaigrette. Each plate, of course, is likewise loaded with love. The waitstaff here is excellent, and service is about as good as it gets: personable, knowledgeable, efficient, and professionally trained. Those years spent managing restaurants evidently served the Goldbergs well.
Hiro's by the numbers:
3881: The Tokyo-style izakaya's new address on NE 163rd Street — bigger and far less cramped than the former location.
11: Categories on the menu — soups, rice, noodles, tempura, grill, etc.
100: Minimum number of items to choose from on any given night.
13: Vegetable offerings, most of which you won't see anywhere else, such as fermented natto in toasted tofu skin.
5 to 20: Place a dollar sign before each and that's the price range.
23: Noodle dishes, such as kimchi ramen, curry udon, and noodles in spicy codfish roe sauce.
3: In the morning, which is the closing hour.
7: Days a week.
Gustavo Ribero came to Miami from Bolivia when he was 14 years old. That is also the age when he began working in the restaurant industry. When Gustavo reached college age, he headed off with dreams of becoming... a doctor. Then, somehow, he came to his senses and realized that cooking was more fun. Plus he decided it was his calling, so Ribero attended Johnson & Wales University and grabbed a gig at Marriott. He followed that by helping to open Bizcaya at the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove. A few years later, his brother-in-law Giuseppe, the proprietor of Anacapri in Coral Gables, hired Gustavo as chef. Two more Anacapri restaurants would follow, including our favorite Pinecrest venue — and the rest, as they say, is pasta e fagioli ($5.99)... and linguine carbonara ($14.99), chicken cacciatore ($18.99), veal piccata ($22.99), and shrimp alla francese ($24.99). Plus there's a wide array of other pastas, meats, soups, salads, and appetizers in large family portions and at eminently affordable prices. Adjacent to the handsome and casual restaurant is an Italian market where you can load up on imported meats, cheeses, pastas, and other Italian delicacies.
Sparky's should really be called "Sparky's & Sparky's," because the two chef/owners gave each other the nickname while cooking together years ago. "Slow down, take your time. You're probably only going back to work," goes their motto, and if you're beginning to get the idea that these guys are characters, let's make it clear they are characters with enviable barbecue skills (one Sparky went to the Culinary Institute of America). "Low and slow" cooking over hickory and apple wood brings out the best in baby-back pork, beef brisket, chicken thighs, and pulled pork shoulder. Sandwiches are stuffed with the aforementioned meats ($6.95 to $8.50), on grilled rolls with coleslaw and waffle fries. The same choices arrive on platters ($8.95 to $12.95) with pick of two sides (slaw, fries, mac and cheese, stewed collard greens, and baked beans). Spark your thirst with any of a dozen microbrews ($3 to $4.50) from Maryland (Flying Dog's In-Heat Wheat) to Minnesota (Horizon Red Ale) to home (Florida's own Native Lager). If you crave great barbecue and come here to eat, know that Sparky's will deliver. And if you work in the downtown area but can't make it out of the office, know that Sparky's will deliver.
"No shirt, no shoes, no problem," reads one sign in this open-air fish shack. The lack of strict dress code might have to do with B.O. having started out as a wagon on Duval Street some 25 years ago. "Cold beer sold here," reads another, and it's true — the bottles are kept in ice-filled coolers. Right there you've got two-thirds of B.O.'s allure. The final and most definitive reason for heading here is the food: fresh, simple, delicious, and relatively cheap, as a fish wagon should be. The house signature is the cracked conch sandwich: thin strips fried and, like all sandwiches here, dressed in key lime dressing and slipped into soft Cuban bread with lettuce, tomato, and sliced onion ($12.50). Fried grouper, shrimp, and fish du jour sandwiches are equally satisfying ($9.50 to $12.50, a dollar extra if grilled). Dinners, served 4 to 9 p.m., showcase same seafood selections but with choice of two sides; select the fresh-cut fries, which just might be worth the drive alone. Although we recommend the fish here, many fans swear by BOMF's half-pound burger ($9) — BOMF standing for "Buddy Owen's Mother's Finest." Buddy is the owner. Next time you're in Key West, head to the corner of Caroline and William streets and say hello to him at his very excellent little restaurant.
In 1915, the year Miami Beach became a city, the Browns Hotel was the number one hot spot — the only place to be. In fact, excepting a nearby bungalow (since demolished) called Joe's Stone Crab, it was literally the only place to be, hot or otherwise. A "modernization" in the '30s buried the Browns under yucky stucco, but the original pine was still sturdy. A challenging restoration by architect Allan Shulman (the house was moved back 13 feet from the sidewalk so the original porch could be returned) was followed by a gorgeous, contemporary saloon-like renovation by interior designer Alison Antrobus — and the Browns reopened in January 2004 as Prime One Twelve, a modern, upscale steak house by Myles Chefetz. The restaurant's lush steaks and flush financial stakes have since become stuff of legend. But part of the success no doubt lies in the warm, intimate, yet invigorating ambiance. Wooden plank floors, exposed brick columns, and champagne leather-upholstered chairs add charm to the two-story, multiroom dining house. And nearly a century after the debut of the Browns, D-Wade chose Prime One Twelve as the place to watch LeBron's nationally televised "Decision." This is still the number one hot spot.
"It sells pretty good," says Todd Webster, the man who butchers much of the meat at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. "We braise them for about four to six hours, cut them into thin pieces, and fry them until they're nice and crispy on the outside." "They're a pretty popular bar snack," echoes Travis Starwalt, sous chef at Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill. We braise them... slice them thin, dust them in flour, fry them, and toss them in our house-made barbecue spice." Michael's began serving them about a year ago, offering the crunchy bites as a snack seasoned with spice mix ($6) or atop an arugula salad with shaved radish and red onion, dressed in sweet lime vinaigrette ($8). Sugarcane offers them with a wedge of lemon ($4). "People will order one, and then they'll order another one. It's perfect for people hanging out at the bar and having a beer or cocktail," Travis concludes, and at this point we're all ears.