Getting What You Pay For
Several national publications recently declared Miami's 33137 zip code -- the narrow rectangle north of downtown, between Biscayne Bay and North Miami Avenue -- to be one of the hottest five locales in the U.S. based on rising real estate values. This zip code ends at 62nd Street. But residents up around 69th Street, in 33138, aren't worried about missing the boat.
Locals have at their disposal more indicators than mere property values to determine whether their area has turned the corner toward terminal trendiness. Those who live or work near 69th and Biscayne have known for months that the neighborhood is now destined for gentrification: A Starbucks opened on the corner.
It's not the block's only sure sign, either. Just a few doors south of the coffeehouse is a Brazilian body-waxing salon that also offers massages -- but not the sort of "massages" cruising johns formerly sought along this strip. Adjacent to the Brazilians is something called Bites on Wheels, and it has nothing to do with the porn Website of the same name. This is a self-proclaimed "mecca of good health" where the specialty is prepared meals that are both low-calorie and low-price: three squares (including breakfast served all day if you prefer your egg-white scramblers at 8:00 p.m.), with no item, even seafood dinners with two vegetable sides, exceeding eight dollars. You can also choose among four discount "plans" (books of five to twenty meal tickets) for prices ranging from $37.50 to $115. Individual meals, prepared with dietetic care for the weary 33138 workaholic, would now seem to be affordable.
What's more, as implied by Bites on Wheels' name, meals are available for all-day home or office delivery; you can also dine right there. And since the menu counts not just calories but also carbs, proteins, and fats, customers know how much damage they're doing. Given that the calories range from 210 to under 600, that means not much damage. But the counts are somewhat deceptive, since they apply only to the entrées, not the included sides. Still the clean, if spartan, café's trim patrons are an encouraging sign that Bites on Wheels' meals do offer something a professional food scarfer like me could use: weight loss.
But do these meals deliver taste? Until I set out to do the research for this review, I had no idea, though I actually discovered Bites on Wheels two years ago. The Biscayne Boulevard outlet is new, but the company operates three older eat-in/take-out cafés, all employing the exact same menu and with no noticeable difference in preparation quality.
I happened onto the SW Eighth Street branch on an attempted run to the odd Chinese/Italian greasy spoon that formerly occupied the site. But when you're in the mood for a pepperoni pizza with deep-fried egg rolls, oven-baked flatbread topped with healthy stuff is not a viable substitute. So I backed out and headed down the block to another Chinese/Italian joint.
I can now report, however, that Bites' seven-layer ground-turkey flatbread isn't bad. In fact additional toppings of low-fat cheddar and guacamole, as well as tomatoes and scallions, made for a Tex-Mex effect. The low-fat sour cream and low-fat mayo listed on the menu were indiscernible, except maybe as a moisturizer for the lean poultry.
The need for some sort of substitute for fatty juices was made obvious by other ground-turkey items I tried. A grilled turkey burger was so dry even a garnish of (unripe) tomato, lettuce, onion, and a tiny smear of low-fat mayo couldn't render it edible; a stale whole-wheat bun made matters worse. Turkey meat loaf, one of sixteen full-meal "hot platters," seemed slightly more moist -- at least the small portions covered by two nickel-size dollops of "light mushroom sauce" did. The insipid purée tasted nothing like mushrooms, but it was wet.
Oven-baked turkey lasagna was certainly superior to the frozen supermarket lasagna diet dinners I've sampled, thanks to fairly firm pasta and a generous dose of concentrated tomato sauce. But the ratio of poultry to low-fat cottage cheese was much too low on the dairy side. And if you're tempted to try spinach spaghetti with turkey meatballs, I'd suggest you have a back-up Italian restaurant at the ready. One bite of Bites' bland meatballs, mushy pasta, and watery tomato sauce had me craving the real thing.
Of course there was more than just dry turkey. The chicken was dry, too. Best of three dishes tested was Southern chicken fajitas. Once you removed the strips of desiccated chicken breast (which weren't even close to being Southern-fried), this garlic wrap filled with low-fat sour cream, garnished onion, and pepper strips was quite edible. So was a small accompanying container of spicy pico de gallo, served with baked corn chips. Whole-wheat, crumb-breaded baked chicken Parmesan in light (watery) tomato sauce would have been better with more than an eyedropper of low-fat mozzarella -- not to mention some Parmigiano, even a tiny sprinkling. The chicken marsala was unspeakable. If nothing else, give credit to Bites for being consistent.
A six-ounce grilled steak with onions was ordered "as rare as possible." What arrived was a small slab cooked to the color of cardboard. It was also about the thickness of two sheets of cardboard put together, though not quite as tender.
Steak fajitas, on the other hand, were pretty palatable. Wrapped in soft tacos, the beef slices were chewy yet chewable. Onion and pepper strips provided crunchy contrast, dabs of guacamole and low-fat sour cream countered dryness, and low-fat cheddar suggested sin.
For noncarnivores Bites has ten vegetarian selections, but options are generally limited. Several shrimp dishes were always available, and two I sampled were fine: a huge seafood-medley baked potato stuffed with good garlic-spiked large shrimp plus tomatoes, peas, and low-fat cheddar. The shrimp-and-pea fettuccine -- with bell peppers, peas, scallions, and nicely sautéed shrimp -- made a good shrimp salad once I rescued them from their bed of soy sauce-soaked fettuccine (udon would have been less weird) and mixed them with some celery and nondiet Hellman's. A shrimp vegetable stir-fry would have been okay as well, had the seafood not been overdone. (Not surprisingly, meals ordered in person involved a 15-to-25-minute wait, but were uniformly better cooked than those ordered in advance by phone and delivered.)
After more than a dozen visits to Bites branches, though, I came to marvel that the catch-of-the-day plate was always salmon something-or-other -- and never available. "Our shipments come in on Mondays and always sell out right away," confided one server.
Weekly shipments? "So it's frozen?" I asked.
Well, that would certainly explain the flaccid, flavor-free corn on the cob. Among side veggies, only baked plantain was a winner. Reheated hard white rice and distressingly plain mashed potatoes were especially not worth the extra carbs. Boring black beans were okay once doctored at home with spices.
Another oddity at a "mecca of good health": The fountain drinks that come with some meals included no spring water but did feature both diet and regular sugar-packed sodas. For a treat, drink your Classic Coke over a homemade corn dog -- at Dogma, just up the boulevard in 33138.
Other locations with varying hours: 1751 Alton Rd, Miami Beach, 305-538-1270; 26 SW 8th St, 305-374-0047; 2342 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables, 305-461-1554.
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