In our Best Of Miami 2011 issue, Best Downtown Restaurant was declared to be Sparky's Roadside Barbecue. We love everything about Sparky's, from the pulled pork sandwich to the smoky, spice-rubbed brisket to the homemade pecan pie. But in recent years, downtown Miami has fairly exploded with interesting ethnic eateries; nowadays there's one or more adding color to nearly every grey block. Here are five more of our very favorites (we're talking low-end, not the fancy-shmancy hotel restaurants and otherwise pricy places, which we will get to in the future).
Soi's Massaman curry
5. Soi Asian Bistro
This 30-seat spin-off of Mr. Yum (on Calle Ocho) presents some sixty-plus plates of cleanly defined foods from Japan, Thailand, and Peru. We honestly didn't even know Peru was in Asia, but you won't debate the inclusion once you try the ceviche de mariscos -- yellowtail, shrimp, and conch with cilantro, lime, and colossal kernels of choclo. Sushi/sashimi selections are pristine, and the Thai soups, curries, noodle dishes and stir-fries are fresh and fully-flavored. Don't miss the beef massaman curry, the meltingly soft meat melding with avocado, cashews and potato in a cardamom-cinnamon-and-clove-spiked coconut broth.
Jackson's fried catfish-and-eggs
4. Jackson Soul Food
Jackson has been an Overtown institution since 1946 -- although not always at the same location. This fourth incarnation seats 100-plus and serves up the most soulful plates of food in town. Liver and onions, chicken wings, pork chops, and signature fried catfish are some of the main courses -- but breakfast is where Jackson shines brightest. An urn of freshly brewed coffee, placed on the table upon request, will help you make some tough choices: Pancakes or french toast or eggs any style with grits or home fries or homemade biscuits with moistly crumbed interior? Plus you don't want to miss the traditional fish boil and grits Friday through Sunday.
3. Pega Grill
Pega comes from Thanasios Barlos, who previously had brought the wonderful Ariston Greek Restaurant to Normandy Isles, and before that the Kris Wessel-led Elia to Bal Harbour. Pega Grill, Barlos' latest venture on Flagler Street, features the same homemade gyros (chicken, beef, lamb); kebab platters with lemon potatoes; and daily specials such as lamb shank perfumed with cinnamon or beef casserole kokkinisto with rice. Bright, crunchy Greek salads are the finest in town -- and better still when gyro meat is added. Outdoor tables are shaded by large umbrellas, while the indoor room is spiffy and set for WiFi.
Sampler at CVI.CHE 105
2. CVI.CHE 105
Once you get over the annoying spelling of ceviche, this winner of our Best Ceviche award just happens to be one of the hippest and hottest places downtown -- not just during lunch, but CVI.CHE 105 is ELE.CTRIC 101 during dinner as well with a young -- dare we say hip? -- crowd. Dig into the complimentary cancha, or toasted Peruvian corn kernels, while determining your choice of ceviches and tiraditos to try (we're partial to the creamy pisco-spiked ceviche). Chef/partner Juan Chipoco tenders fresh, light, zesty, and authentic renditions of both macerated fish specialties, along with a crowd-pleasing chaufa rice and other peerless Peruvian plates.
Nasi goreng at Bali Cafe
1. Bali Cafe
This cozy 30-seater consistently turns out beautiful looking and tantalizingly tasty Indonesian cuisine at very fair prices (caveat: cash only!). Cubes of beef rendang get cooked for hours in coconut milk and spices. Similarly simmered chicken legs called opor ayam are likewise spicy and alluring. Chicken and beef also team with steamed chayote in a delectable, tumeric-tinted coconut broth. Rijsttafel for two, the Indo-combo plate nasi goreng, and day-glo dessert concoctions have made this place a downtown favorite since 2002 (and winner of Best Downtown Restaurant 2005).