Cheap Thrills

My husband opened the refrigerator, stuffed with the rich remains of tony meals we couldn't finish. He closed the door and sighed. There was nothing he wanted to eat. "Time to find a dive," he said.

My editor marked up yet another in a series of reviews of New World, New American, and New French restaurants, making sense out of complicated combinations of ingredients. He put down his pen and sighed. "'New' is getting pretty old," he said. "Time to find a dive."

I searched through my closet for an outfit other than the dress I'd worn to the past four restaurants, the basic black one with room in the waist. I pulled on jeans with holes in the knees and sighed. "Time to find a dive," I admitted. Either that or shop.

I knew what I had to do. Still, I didn't dive in to the task with gusto. Locating little shacks in the odd parts of town is a time-consuming and stomach-hardening business. More often than not, the fare matches expectations diminished by the rundown exteriors. Or the food's pretty good and inexpensive, but the decor's too hip -- a self-conscious dive (all too common on South Beach), the worst kind. Or the atmosphere's properly dubious, the cuisine scintillating, but the owner's got more money than Thomas Kramer. A dishonest dive. (Also common on South Beach.)

The easiest way to find an honest-to-goodness dive is to set my network to, well, to work. All those friends who eat with me for free could pay now with field surveys. To shove them in the right direction, I compiled a short list of requirements the restaurants must meet (most of) in order to be considered:

(1) Name: The more colorful and descriptive the handle, the more divelike the eatery. I hold every name up to the light of the current reigning champ, a tiny rundown diner in South Carolina called the Squat 'N' Gobble. No illusions about the fast 'n' cheap fare there.

(2) Neighborhood: The more colorful and descriptive . . . I think you get the picture.

(3) Exterior: Image comes down to general maintenance. Fallen roof tiles and dangling hurricane shutters are tell-tale dive indicators. Beer signs in the windows and liquor company promos, preferably in neon. Landscaping is not an issue.

(4) Interior: No more than 25 seats, preferably standard-issue or miscellaneous garage-sale. All appointments should be of the plastic-and-paper variety; if china, chipped and scratched. Wear-and-tear is to be expected, ambiance is not. Any interior design should be of the owners' conception and construction.

(5) Service: Brusque and efficient, or kind and fumbling. Or any combination thereof.

(6) Food: Should be of ethnic origin, reflecting the owners' roots. As The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America proclaims, "The great melting pot [of America] has suddenly become the world's most eclectic kettle as well." The key word here is eclectic, a designation that applies to a great many dives. Note: Acceptable minorities for Caucasians include redneck, townie, and white trash.

Sure enough, my research assistants came through with two seedy gems.
Namewise, Nice Mon had a nice jingle to it. I liked the logo, too, the i in Nice capped with a chef's hat, the o in Mon a picture of a grinning Jamaican man. Of course, that picture's a little misleading: Though Jamaican by birth, the owners of this year-and-a-half-old Jamaican and Chinese restaurant and bakery A Fay Say Yap, Christopher Yap-Sam, and Eugene Chin Aare Chinese by descent. The location passed the test, as well A the busy intersection of NW Second Avenue and 197th Street in Carol City. It's only a few blocks from a big Harley-Davidson dealership, as well as other amusements as potentially diverse as Tootsie's Lounge, Norman's Billiards, Asian Nails, and Shooters Emporium (a gun shop).

Nice Mon delighted us with a dark but well-maintained parking lot and a squat, square building glowing like the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We especially liked the neon sign flashing in the window like Christmas lights: "Hot Bread Now." Inside, Formica seats and tables (the place seats 22) gleamed in green and white. Though this interior spotlessness seemed a bad sign, the restaurant's fast-food philosophy made us forget that. Dishes are served on Styrofoam, forked with plastic. And though printed lists are available, the billboard-style menu above the cash registers and the handprinted signs featuring specials are a more accurate representation of what the restaurant actually offers.

Service -- order at the counter, get a number a la Pollo Tropical and pick up when the number is called -- was wonderfully patient. These are nice people, willing to describe any item in superlatives despite the pressing line of people (we're talking busy here). The fish stewed in brown sauce? "Snapper," the counterwoman explains, "small, medium, or large. It's the best!" Workers might even be scarfing down their own dinners while they take your order. And despite the server's surprise at our request for spicy food, we got it that way. Practically palate-singeing. And no Red Stripe to put out the flames (no liquor license); a couple of bottles of the Jamaican soda Kola Champagne sufficed.

Nice Mon dishes up generous portions of Jamaican and Chinese cuisine (Fay Say Yap used to operate Peking Express in Broward before she opened this place with her son). We weren't too intrigued by the standardized chop suey and chow mein fare, though, so we stuck to Jamaican. An excellent executive decision. A flaky beef patty was an empanada-shape half-moon filled with fragrant chopped meat in a spicy brown sauce. One of the best beef patties I've had in Miami. The pastry is made on the premises; Nice Mon is also a terrific Jamaican bakery. Other offerings include lobster patties, Jamaican hard dough bread, coco bread, banana bread, plantain tarts, and gizzarda, or coconut tarts.

Curried chicken was practically a whole small hen, cut up in pieces and stewed in a traditional yellow curry. The poultry was highly flavored, moist and falling off the bone, a filling dish especially when accompanied by rice and peas (actually red kidney beans). We thought the curry could have used a touch of salt but were deliriously happy with the extravagant punch of chili peppers.

Jerk pork was so fiery that it made us hallucinate. Coated in peppery spices and then layered with a brown sauce, the nuggets of pork were incredibly addicting. Sweat-breaking stuff, yet you can't leave it alone. Bland rice and peas was a necessary balance. Our only quibble was with the quality of the pork, a little too fatty and gristled.

The house special, escovitched fish, was a takeoff on the Latin escabeche. Small, medium, or large snapper were deep-fried whole, then doused with a sauce of vinegar, onion, and Scotch bonnet chilies. The play of flavors was marvelous, sweet-fleshed fresh snapper flaking into the buttery, piquant condiment. The fish was served with four slices of Jamaican hard dough, that wonderfully soft, dense white bread that's a must for sopping up sauces.

Despite large quantities of food, a condensed bread pudding dotted with raisins, displayed on the counter, was too tempting to pass up. We also polished off a potent chocolate rum cake. Fast food and philosophy, Nice Mon serves up worthy courses all at once.

To judge by its name alone, ten-month-old La Cascade Restaurant sounds a bit too uptown for dive status. But we decided to give it the benefit of the doubt after phoning for the hours and deciphering the accent on the other end of the line. Owner Maiyse Laguerre and manager Daniel Longchamps are Haitian, not French.

La Cascade is on scenic Biscayne Boulevard, specifically that section under construction that borders Miami Shores. Local businesses include Checkers Check Cashing, the Pussycat Theater, a Big Daddy's liquor store, and, to risk a euphemism, a brisk street trade. Sandwiched in a strip mall, the restaurant's elegantly stenciled name is highlighted by the bars on the front window. Parking is tight.

With about twenty seats, La Cascade is more ornate than most dives, albeit with a homemade feel. On one side, blond wood-paneled walls are hung with souvenir plates and religious paintings. On the other, a mural of a seascape includes a mermaid and her all-important comb. A fishing net dotted with fake lobsters and crabs stretches above, while potted palms and a border of faux flowers greet diners at the entrance. Some low booth-style seating is available, cushions done in brocade gold and green.

The menu is a small erasable board, scrawled on with a magic marker. We were initially alarmed by La Cascade's white tablecloths and blue napkins, but were ultimately reassured by the lived-in look of the linens. Ditto the centerpieces of roses and carnations, which were wilting nicely, and the (real china) plates, which proved to be mismatched.

The restaurant came through with sweet service of the bumbling kind. Napkins were brought three-quarters of the way into the meal, dirty soda cans were wiped off at the table before being flicked open and poured. Most of the staff sat in the booths, swapping swigs from a bottle of brandy and chaining cigarettes. But they were very concerned about us, periodically leaning over and asking after our meal. We felt like part of the family, especially after a few beers. (No Red Stripe here either, but a modest number of familiar domestic and imported brands of beer are stocked.)

Selection was pretty limited the night we dined -- a choice of about four dishes -- but the homestyle Haitian fare was hot stuff. We started with the only appetizer available, a thrown-together salad comprising some slightly old iceberg, a few pickled beets, slices of canned carrots, and white onions. Unappealing as it sounds, the combination was plumped up to acceptability by a tangy vinaigrette, and by the server's offer of a refill when we were finished.

Main courses improved the meal drastically. Tasso, a heap of spiced, deep-fried goat garnished with rings of raw white onion, was fabulous. Like Cuban vaca frita, the meat was appropriately stringy, lean, and mild, its exterior crunch and bite belying soft-heartedness. Lambi (stewed conch) sets an example for every restaurant in Miami. This piled-high dish was terrific, medium spicy, the flawlessly tender conch covered in a brothy sauteed onion sauce. Two fried plantain disks accompanied both entrees, as did a stellar version of white rice and red beans, topped with a red bean gravy.

Dessert wasn't offered, nor was it visible. But a fresh pot of espresso was brewed for us on the house, a great way to counteract the somnolence good Haitian food brings on.

My clothes still don't fit, of course -- dives aren't exactly the best places to diet. And my refrigerator is still packed with leftovers, only this time it's jerk pork and curried chicken. But whether it's due to atmospheric effect or chili peppers, I do feel recharged, ready for the return from hot to haute.


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