'Tis the season for top-ten lists and I'm a sucker for compilations, so I'll contribute to the masses of rated information. But I want you to know going in that this isn't just a list of the year's best whatever. It's a record of my most memorable Miami food moments of the last decade. Some I treasure for sentimental reasons. Others make me laugh. But most are just pure "This could only happen in Miami."
10. Dining at Yuca when it was still in the Gables. Our meal was progressing nicely until the dessert course. We gave our order to the waiter but didn't see any sweets. Finally, after about forty-five minutes (an awfully long time to wait for some flabby flan), another waiter showed up and apologized for the delay by saying, "I'm so sorry. Your waiter has died. I'll be your server for the rest of the evening." Well, that's one way to explain away poor table attendance. FYI: No one expired. We spied our original waiter on the first floor, tending to other, obviously more important customers. I later wrote about this comment in my review of Yuca, a story that won a national food-journalism award. But not first place because the judge felt my insensitivity to the waiter's apparent passing probably injured his family.
9. Standing in line with visiting star-watchers who insisted on gulping down some black beans at the newly opened Lario's on Ocean Drive. The wait for a table was two hours. We were about to eat our own limbs when we saw celebrity proprietor Gloria Estefan herself emerge from the eatery. Purpose served, we decided, and we sped down the street to a Mano, where we sampled Norman Van Aken's New World cuisine for the first time.
8. A winemaker's dinner at Bice in Coconut Grove. My neighboring diner, finding out what I did for a living, asked me what I thought about a particular restaurant. I get these queries all the time and don't think twice about answering honestly. Perhaps I should. After explaining why I didn't care for the eatery in question, he said, "Well that's pretty interesting, because I own it." Ouch.
7. Speaking of painful experiences, or maybe just too much information ... At an erstwhile Cuban joint in North Miami, the proprietor ambled over to ask how we liked her honey-garlic chicken. We didn't much, we replied. Frankly it was way too sweet. But she thought we might not have cared for it because the chicken hadn't been pressed properly. Turns out her toddler son's fingers had been crushed in the pressing machine the other day, and she hadn't been able to get it working properly since.
6. Happy hour at Wet Willie's on Ocean Drive. We got a little too happy, so when a guy walked by with a big cardboard box and invited us to take a look, we did. An entire litter of calico kittens was nestled in the bottom. Someone had left them on his doorstep and he was trying to find them homes. I picked up a tiny little bit of a thing who promptly fell asleep in my hand. We kept her and named her Orson after the guy who gave her to us. If we'd waited to name her, we could have called her Andrew. The category-four hurricane hit the very next day.
5. Eating at a Vietnamese restaurant with poet, novelist, and memoirist John Balaban. Balaban spent the Vietnam War years as a relief worker there, and wound up learning the language so well he regularly translates the poems, folk songs, and stories of the region. I consider him something of an expert, so when he suggested we sample the pigs' ears with garlic sauce, I was game. Silly of me. The ears were just as you might imagine them to be -- tough, chewy, and good only for dogs' play toys. Definitely not for human consumption. When I asked Balaban what he thought of them, he carefully, as any poet would, considered his reply and said, "I like the sauce."
4. Reviewing Café Giselle, an ex-eatery of the Bay Harbour Island area. Between the salads and main courses, we witnessed a guy in chef's white stalking angrily out the front door. The server confirmed our assumption: Yes, the chef had just quit. No, he hadn't prepared our meal. But don't worry, he'd cook our food himself. I have to admit, that waiter did a pretty decent job.
3. During an interminable wait for some pasta at an overly busy Italian joint. The fellows next to us had been there even longer and decided to entertain themselves. They pulled out guitars, tuned up, and began playing with a flourish. Turns out they were the Gipsy Kings. Free concert! When the pasta finally arrived, we sent it back so we'd have an excuse to sit a while longer.
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2. Deliberate ambiguity at a place called Greek House in Kendall. Every member of my party was served his or her main course except for me. When fifteen minutes had gone by, I finally asked the waitress if my food was due to arrive anytime in the next decade. She shook her head. "Something has happened to your fish," she said mysteriously, and offered no further explanation.
1. My first review for New Times. I was less than impressed with a Chinese restaurant in North Bay Village called Tiger Tiger Teahouse. After the generally negative review was published, I learned through a friend that the owner of the restaurant was my next-door neighbor. Even worse, another neighbor had ratted me out and told him who I was and where I lived. To his credit, he was never anything less than cordial to me in the year that I lived there. By that, I mean I'm still alive.
By way of a bonus, here's my all-time favorite food moment: One year, bored with the temporary mediocrity of Miami eateries and well-aware that April Fool's Day was approaching, I penned a review about two restaurants that I had made up. One was called Tastes Like Chicken, and served exotic fare like parrot beaks and stir-fried cockroaches. The other was Natural Causes Café, where no meat was served before it's time -- all the food had to expire from natural causes (roadkill excepted). Most people got the joke. But a couple took me just a little too seriously. Like Channel 7 news. They called me a few weeks later to ask if the restaurants were still in business. Seems that they wanted to do a feature story on them, and the phone numbers - which I had invented - had been disconnected.
And if you believe that, call me after the millennium. I've got a causeway to sell you.