Tip Top Tap Tap
Tap Tap, South Beach's only Haitian restaurant, has exhibited precipitous ups and downs since opening on Fifth Street nine years ago. What started out as a fun, funky, crowded joint with enchanting island fare turned into a not-so-happening joint with not-so-enchanting fare. Then the place enjoyed an upward tick, followed by another downhill run. Now, I am pleased to report, Tap Tap is back on top.
The restaurant, housed in a sturdy two-story structure with front porch, recently underwent an exterior paint job, its orange hues now cooled to blues. The Haitian folk art-inspired décor inside remains as it was, the set of small dining rooms defined by colorful murals on the walls, brightly painted chairs, and vibrant artwork adorning each glossy-topped table. Service is standard SoBe slacker style -- or, more accurately, Caribbean slacker style -- but the waitstaff's don't-worry-be-happy demeanor encourages forgiveness for occasional slo-mo service.
Improved cuisine is key to Tap Tap's comeback. Salad lambi, lime-marinated cubes of conch keenly piquant with jalapeño peppers, is an invigorating beginning to hearty main courses, as is a smoothly spicy, allspice-flecked pumpkin soup with cabbage and chayote. The only other appetizer choices on this little menu are malanga or conch fritters, and grilled tidbits of goat with a peppery watercress dipping sauce. Starters run from $2.95-$3.95, entrées from $5.95 (chicken stew) to $13.95 (whole fish in lime sauce) -- which might cause you to take a quick glance out the window to make certain you're still in South Beach, and may also tempt you to supplement your start with one of three salads -- avocado and tomato dressed in olive oil and lime, beets with potatoes, hard-boiled egg and watercress, and "salad Tap Tap," a bright, refreshing blend of mango and carrots over watercress and other mixed greens tossed in honey mustard dressing ($3.95).
Goat comes in two main course guises: stewed in a thin, intoxicatingly spicy scotch bonnet-spiked tomato broth ($8.95), and grilled after a sour orange-garlic marination. Other specialties from the grill, all cooked to order and requiring an estimated waiting time of 30 minutes, include fish of the day, conch, and chicken breast on the bone. As far as this last dish is concerned, I'd be willing to wait hours for a bird this beautifully cooked -- crackly, spicy skin sealing breast meat bursting with juiciness. All entrées come with robustly flavored rice and black beans (congri), and discs of fried plantain, the chicken also including a hot vinegar and watercress sauce for dipping, and a mound of impeccably creamy cole slaw. That's a big, satisfying plateful of food for $7.95.
Rice pudding (penpatat) is more gelatinously puddingy than the Greek/American variety (the rice seemingly puréed or else very short grain), and imbued with a pleasantly subdued coconut flavor. Coconut juice appears in various rum drinks too, which are enjoyable any old time, especially on Thursday and Saturday nights when live island music flows through the breezy space. These tropical elixirs are definitely stiff, though the dining experience at Tap Tap is anything but.
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