Just as any Turkish travel guide will remind tourists that when Turks shake their head from side to side as if saying "no" it means "yes," I believe Miami guides should likewise inform visitors that the word "gourmet" on storefront signs signifies "not gourmet."
As with almost every such eatery in town, Lechugas "Latin American Gourmet" Restaurant contains no upscale epicurean delights whatsoever. Which isn't to say they don't serve solid, affordable lunches via a cafeteria lineup of soups, sandwiches, hot entrées, and salad bar. Matter of fact, that's exactly what they do.
If you work at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, or just find yourself pleading innocent there from time to time, you're probably already familiar with Lechugas; it's right across the street. Has been since March, when Peter Amaro, owner of Sundays on the Bay, first opened the glass doors to this shiny new lunch spot. The tall, two-level structure, a blend of clean-lined industrial and warm tropical, seats none upstairs (yet), 46 downstairs, and a half-dozen more on a small deck outdoors that also serves as a sit-down for Lechugas Café -- a small outside addition from which $2.99 breakfasts and Cuban coffees are dished out of a window weekdays from 8:00 to 10:30 a.m.
Lechugas Latin American Gourmet Restaurant
46 W Flagler St.
305-374-7323. Open daily, breakfast 8:00 to 10:30 a.m., lunch 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
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The first section you'll glide toward with your plastic tray offers up a trio of soups, usually black bean, chicken noodle, and du jour. Next comes the pasta station. Keep walking, as there's nothing in the three sauté pans worth stopping for. If you insist on pasta these will do, but perhaps you'd be better served if you carried that insistence up the block to the equally new Italian restaurant La Loggia.
Hot entrées and side dishes comprise the next steamy station to slide into view: roast chicken, Cuban tamales, pork chunks, fried flank steak -- they change daily. The flavors in a tender ropa vieja and a savory beef stew quickly make it clear that the kitchen crew is better versed in Latin-American cooking than Italian. Sides also change daily: red beans, white rice, moros, fried plantains (which don't sit well in a steam table), baked potatoes, and a medley of carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and red onion are some of the choices. As I've already implied, you won't confuse this fare with anything pictured in Bon Apetit magazine, but the portions are generous and prices are more than fair -- $4.95 for a hot entrée with two sides, $5.95 for soup or pasta with the salad bar.
The salad bar is the final stop on the line: three bowls of lettuces, about a dozen additions (tomatoes, cucumbers, pickle slices, beets, garbanzo beans), numerous dressings, and half a dozen separately composed and lackluster salads bound with either mayonnaise- or vinegar-based marinades. Only one trip to the bar is allowed, so don't be bashful about piling up your plate. Sandwiches are available for $3.50 to $5.25. Chicken salad was freshly prepared, white breast meat tossed with mayo, red onion bits, salt, and pepper in a straightforwardly appetizing manner. A midnight sandwich wasn't nearly as tasty, probably because it was served ice cold. Accompaniments are a pickle spear, side of potato or macaroni salad (both with flecks of tuna), and a clump of potato chips or cheese doodles.
No beer or wine is served, which probably is a good thing considering that lawyers and jurors likely eat here. I mean justice may be blind, but that doesn't mean it can't sniff out a good lunch deal. If Lechugas would just kick up the food quality a notch, particularly regarding pastas and salads, this would be a great place to do lunch.