Oh, Canada by the Bay
On this ratty but rallying stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, in a neighborhood where the most popular restaurants have long been referred to by acronym (KFC, IHOP, and so on), the log-cabin-like Canadian-outpost exterior of Pangea stands out like Dudley Do-Right at a gangsta convention. Gustavo and Laura Sanchez are co-owners of this two-month-old self-proclaimed gourmet take-out shop. Laura hails from Canada, thus clarifying somewhat the outdoor north-woodsy theme, which is ditched indoors in favor of a cheery yellow, modern country-store décor that follows the more standardized upscale-market blueprint: a series of sections fronted by glass cases of deli, baked goods, beverages, prepared foods, and yes, a coffee bar. Rustic touches include pickle barrels, cupboards of Robert Is Here products, and the seating -- carved wooden logs serving as stools, lined up at a counter that stretches across the glass-windowed length of the Biscayne side of the store. A similar stool-and-counter setup runs around the outdoor patio. Pangea, incidentally, is close enough to the New Times building that if you knew what your favorite investigative journalists looked like, you might just spot them here at lunchtime. (Hint: They will likely be the ones complaining aloud about how high prices are.)
Prices are a little extravagant, though one could also argue that they'd be just right if the cuisine actually was gourmet. Rather than focusing on the idea of putting out refined foods and letting taste and word-of-mouth decree them as being worthy of connoisseurship, Pangea, along with so many other local take-outs, relies on design, concept, and marketing schemes to imply fine quality but never gets around to providing what should be an exceptional product; as such the word gourmet becomes an albatross around otherwise modest successes. The salad bar illustrates: a trio of greens accompanied by a choice of raw vegetables such as zucchini, yellow squash, and cauliflower, with equally uninspired additions like salami slices, carrot salad, olives, and marinated tomatoes -- everything fresh and convincingly conventional.
Sandwiches also are epicurean wannabes. They lack the golden-brown crustiness of a classic baguette, the array of sparkling dressings, and exceptional extras that great sandwich shops always have on hand. Instead they're defined by the Dietz & Watson cold cuts contained within, which is to say, respectable. The best of the warm offerings, which at $5.95 run a dollar less than the cold, is the pan con lechón, a juicy rendition of roasted pork on Cuban bread (available Tuesdays and Thursdays).
If only all the cuisine were as worthy as the splendid soups, from smoky black bean chili to creamy potato garlic. Pizzas, too, are a strong suit, and though they won't awaken any slumbering culinary recollections of Naples, the oven churns out cheesy, crisp-crusted pies that get cut into extralarge slices.
Hot entrées like meatless lasagna, seafood-sausage paella, and medium-rare churrasco steak all pass muster, though none gets any moister while sitting in a warmed glass case; best to catch them between 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Chopped chunks of just-rightly spiced curried chicken, perhaps the best dish overall, holds up in the heat better than most, as does sweet tomato-based apple-barbecue chicken -- something to keep in mind if buying meals to take home. (A main course with two sides of your choice, at $6.95 to $7.50, is a better deal than buying items à la carte.)
Another consideration when making selections: The hot foods fare far better than the cold. Calamari, tuna, chicken, and potato salads exhibited the sort of singular listlessness that I previously believed was only attainable at Winn-Dixie's deli department. The sole standout was a caponata of tender eggplant slivers robustly combined with onions, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and vinegar.
Desserts were excellent -- before they let go of the pastry chef, that is. Now Pangea resorts to the familiar formula of buying them wholesale. Mass-produced cakes and pies are extensively tested and prepared according to standardized recipes, so they're attractive looking and rarely fail to deliver decent flavor, but more often than not these attributes come through in a chilled and passionless manner.
Pangea delivers decent flavor in far warmer fashion -- service and attitude are quite amiable. If they kick the food quality up a notch or two, locals should flock here like Canadian geese to warm weather. I hope that happens, but if not, this would make a nice home for an L.L. Bean outlet.
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