Mama Superior

Heard this before? "It's the next South Beach!"
How about "It's another SoBe!"
At one time or another people have made such declarations to me about downtown Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach. Even Savannah. Depending on the person making the claim, it was meant as a boast or a criticism, but like most such metaphors, it didn't hold up to close examination.

Most recently Mid-Beach, which stretches roughly from 23rd to 63rd streets (into my back yard, as a matter of fact), has been accused of having transformed into another South Beach. In truth it's more a matter of gradual appropriation, with South Beach glacially creeping northward. The area around Collins Park, where you'll find the Bass Museum and a public library, has already been co-opted -- not surprising when you consider that the Raleigh, Delano, and National hotels are all only a few blocks south.

Developers have now turned their attention to 23rd Street, where the aging Roney Palace -- formerly known as Roney Plaza -- is undergoing a $25-million face lift; according to a recent Miami Herald story, it will become a "Vegas-style property." Additionally, a multilevel retail complex is opening soon next to the nightclub Groove Jet, on 23rd at Liberty Avenue, and the Miami City Ballet is breaking ground for its new facility as part of what is being called a "cultural campus." That project also includes a new regional library being designed by famed New York City architect Robert A.M. Stern. Madonna's private yogi has even set up shop in a second-floor studio on the block. And just south, the Bass Museum, spanning 21st and 22nd streets at Park Avenue, is doubling in size.

I would be disturbed by all this gentrification except, as far as I can tell, the only real casualty will be my favorite fruteria, at Liberty and 23rd, which I'm told will be bulldozed to make room for a parking garage. I'll miss the watermelon juice, cafecitos, and roasted chickens, but from my years of living in the nether regions of New York's (way) Upper West Side, I've learned to swallow the bitter pill of development with the help of some good food. Usually once the developers move in and start digging, along with the inevitable Gap and Banana Republic you get a good green market and (perhaps) a decent restaurant.

I thought I had reaped some early rewards of that phenomenon last March when I tasted the heavenly Mexican cuisine at Divina, located behind the honey-color doors on 23rd Street just a notch in from Collins Avenue. But that bliss turned out to be short-lived. Several weeks ago my husband and I were anticipating indulging in a decadent meal there when we found its mammoth doors rudely padlocked without explanation. No sign, no note. Despite incredibly delicious dishes -- they could have come from the book Like Water for Chocolate -- attentive service, and reasonable prices, the place shut down just shy of its six-month anniversary.

Disappointed but unwilling to try to find a parking spot in the heart of the Deco District, where we know several great eateries, we decided to dine at Mama Vieja, the Colombian restaurant across the street from Divina; in the past we had been pleasantly surprised by good food and exceptional service there.

It's not the kind of place we would normally go; it looks like a tacky tourist trap. The decor consists of brightly painted woodwork, a dining room filled with autographed hats, and a huge television set that blares tawdry Latin music videos in the evening and Cristina episodes in the afternoon. Years ago I enjoyed Mama V's stuffed snapper when I tried it at a street festival on Lincoln Road, which prompted me to pay my initial visit to the actual restaurant. Owner Hector Alarcon (he also owns Studio 23, a salsa joint just down the block) is a natural host and born promoter who maintains a policy that in exchange for an autographed hat -- any autograph, any hat -- diners receive free entrees. Unfortunately we had left the house without our sombreros.

We found the service and food to be just as good as we had remembered. The menu is a sampling of Colombia's more rustic cuisine, including staples such as tripe soup, Creole potatoes, ceviche, hen stew, and frijoles antiquenos. Colombia is a tropical nation with regions that vary from desert to rain forest. Way back when, its basic larder included corn, beans, pork, and plantains; then the Spanish and other European settlers showed up and introduced sugar, rice, potatoes, papayas, oranges, and new liqueurs.

To start we ordered the meat empanadas. These crispy half-moons might have been just another meat pie if not for their rich corn- and achiote-flavored casing and a lively aji dipping sauce. The flaky dough was fried to a deep golden-yellow and stuffed with a mixture of delicately spiced beef and slivers of stewed potato and onion. Dunked into the vinegary sauce of scallions, cilantro, and chilies, these starters, a bargain at only a dollar apiece, were delectable. (By the way, as part of the restaurant's open-air-market theme, sauces and condiments are for sale. I suggest picking up a bottle of the intensely flavorful aji.)

Another recommended starter is the sopa de pescado, a creamy fish soup the color of farm-fresh scrambled eggs and just as rich. Filled with chunks of salmon, shrimp, and other seafood, the soup was hearty and filling, made thick with cornmeal and cream rather than the usual flour or cornstarch.

We were even more impressed by the ceviche of snapper, grouper, and tender baby shrimp; the bright-white appetizer portion is enough for a light meal. On one visit, however, I detected a strand or two of those detestable fake crab legs, so beware.

The best dishes on the menu are those from Antioquia, Colombia's northwestern coffee region and owner Alarcon's homeland. In an effort to help me assess the restaurant's rural specialties, I invited along to lunch a friend of mine from Rome (a great cook in his own right), and he chose the bandeja paisa (countryman's plate). Popular as a late afternoon meal after a day in the fields, this peasant dish consists of red beans in their own juices poured over a mound of rice, then topped with avocado slices, an arepa (corn cake), pork crackling, fried plantains, a fried egg, and a fillet of beef pounded and grilled to almost a jerk consistency. With the exception of the dry, hockey-puckish arepa, everything was fantastic, the equivalent of a chicken pot pie or a serving of macaroni and cheese. A real coming-home meal.

A grilled chicken lunch special was tasty too. A slender plank of breast meat was pounded thin as a pancake and grilled lightly with a hint of salt and garlic, then served over a bed of bright-orange-tinged rice alongside an unremarkable salad that consisted of shredded iceberg lettuce doused with a luscious cilantro-based dressing.

The restaurant's signature main course is a stuffed snapper for two: A whole plump fish is sliced open and grilled, then stuffed to overflowing with a creamy seafood concoction that resembles a risotto, minus the rice. It was loaded with baby mussels, clams, shrimp, and fish. The price for two is $29.95 and well worth it. (You may be able to get a portion for one. Ask. At $19.95 it's still reasonable.) For real savings, consider a similarly prepared corvina ($12.95).

We were also wowed by our garrulous, Spanish-speaking waiter, who knew Italian at least as well as English and was happy to switch from language to language throughout the meal. He eagerly recommended the best (and cheapest) dishes, was knowledgeable about the wine and beer selections, and made sure our water glasses were full from the time we sat down until we rolled out after a huge meal.

I sampled a glass of the house red, a Chilean cabernet that suited the rustic fare perfectly; a rich and not-too-heavy garnet-color wine, it was so drinkable I regretted not ordering a carafe ($12). Also good at the same price is the sangria, loaded with oranges and berries. My friend loved the Colombian beer Aguila, as potent as an ale but with the sweet, clear finish of a regular brew.

A variety of traditional Colombian treats are offered for dessert, including a selection of stewed tropical fruits. We chose the postre Mama Vieja: papayas and figs preserved in a glossy syrup and accompanied by a dulce de leche-style scoop of caramel and rectangles of salted sweet white cheese. The mild flavor of the fermented cheese was a surprisingly delicious contrast to the dense and sugary fruit.

All in all we are happy that this little strip close to home hasn't changed much over the years. Of course, the bulldozers and "For Rent" signs are a reminder of things to come. I suppose in time a publicist will concoct some zippy new name to describe this cozy neighborhood enclave. But in the meantime, with any luck this quaint sleeper of a restaurant will continue to endure, turning out quality fare at great prices -- in MidBe? MiBe? MayBe?

Mama Vieja
235 23rd St, Miami Beach; 305-538-2400. Open daily. Lunch noon till 4:00 p.m.; dinner 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. From 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., diners can choose from either the lunch or dinner menu.

Fish soup
$3.50 ($6.95 for two)
Red snapper
$29.95 (for two)
Bandeja paisa
Postre Mama Vieja



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