Chain restaurants get a bad rap because many serve cheap meals made with overly processed ingredients.
It might be hard to believe, but quite a few chain restaurants, specializing in all kinds of interesting gastronomical niches, are more than decent. It just so happens lots of them aren’t in Miami. Here are a dozen of them that we’re dying to see in South Florida.
1. Locol. Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson and his Los Angeles-based partner Roy Choi serve gourmet veggie burgers topped with garlic and scallion relish and a tasty special sauce at Locol, a new concept that won Restaurant of the Year from the Los Angeles Times. This all sounds like a recipe for a $20 lunch, but items on Locol’s menu run a shocking $2 to $6.
Why would a prizewinning chef go back to flipping burgers? Patterson’s answer is simple: “It’s unbelievable that in our country... we’ve just decided that it’s OK for people to eat garbage, basically — processed food.” At its heart, Locol is a philanthropic venture. Restaurants are located in economically ravaged areas such as the Tenderloin in San Francisco and Watts in Los Angeles, food deserts where residents rely on McDonald’s and other junk for subsistence. It goes without saying that Miami, home to several disadvantaged neighborhoods, would not only welcome but also sorely need such a place. And if you’re worried about the taste, even Anthony Bourdain loved the veggie burger.
2. Ichiran Ramen. This is possibly the best bowl of ramen you will ever have, and it has everything to do with where you are when you eat it. A bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran, the Fukuoka, Japan-based chain that recently landed in Brooklyn, is delivered to you from behind a curtain in a “flavor concentration” booth. Here, nothing can distract from the intense, savory pleasure of your bowl, custom-made to your every specification, from the richness of the pork broth to the texture of the noodles. In a word: sublime. This is food as personal enlightenment, and it must come to Miami.
3. Tim Ho Wan. It has been called the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world by the Village Voice, and at its New York location, which opened in 2016 to 'round-the-block lines, nothing costs more than $6. When it comes to dim sum — the small-plates style of Chinese food that put Cantonese cooking on the map — Hong Kong-based Tim Ho Wan is the expert. Here, you’ll find delectable dishes such as steamed egg cakes, barbecued pork buns, and sticky rice on lotus leaf. Miami’s Chinese-food scene has never been as robust as those in other American cities, but perhaps the addition of Tim Ho Wan can help change that fact.
4. Pret a Manger. We’ve all had those busy days when, famished after working for hours on end, we wander dejectedly into the cheapest, quickest spot we can find, usually Subway. Shouldn’t we have better options? That’s where Pret a Manger (French for “ready to eat”) comes in, offering gourmet sandwiches, salads, and other items made with natural, healthful ingredients for working people on the go. The British chain has already taken Manhattan, where it's become a hit with the city’s white-collar workers; in Midtown, you can’t walk two blocks without spying one. Brickell might take a similar liking. Bon appétit!
5. Xi'an Famous Foods. Move over, Panda Express. This inexpensive, fast-casual Chinese chain is one of the most celebrated Asian restaurants in New York, a down-to-earth oasis in a city that prides itself on food excellence. One won’t find any General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies at Xi’an, because it specializes in the hearty, spicy cuisine of Shaanxi province. Lamb is the dominant meat on the menu, cumin is the favored spice, and all of the dishes are served with thick, sheet-like noodles with or without spicy soup. It’s pure comfort food, albeit with quite a bit of heat. Vegetarian options such as spinach dumplings are also available.
6. Nando's. Nando’s is a South Africa-based chicken chain that’s become an inexplicably beloved cultural common denominator in Great Britain. Everyone goes there and gets some sort of ironic pleasure out of calling it “cheeky,” to the chagrin of confused Americans. Frankly, we just want to see what the fuss is about.
7. Jollibee. To the uninitiated, the menu at Jollibee, the enormous Filipino chain making inroads into the States, will seem absolutely deranged. The eatery serves sandwiches made with corned beef and Spam and spaghetti with sausage and ham. Their Aloha burger comes with a slice of pineapple. Then there's the Halo-Halo, a dessert combining shaved ice, fruit chunks, condensed milk, and leche flan, and all bets are off. It’s like KFC and McDonald's had a baby who grew up and went to art school. In other words, it’s a slightly off, vastly more interesting take on American fast food than we’re used to.
8. Sizzler. On its face, Sizzler might seem like just another steak-and-salad-bar place, a West Coast Golden Corral. But to many immigrants, especially those in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, a night at this boilerplate buffet was, as Cecilia Hae-jin Lee writes on Eater, “the epitome of the American meal.” It's the place you eat the thick, juicy steak you saw in your dreams back in your homeland, but it’s also a place where you can put that steak in a taco with meatballs and sour cream. What’s more American than that kind of freedom?
9. Tim Hortons. America runs on Dunkin', but not like Canada runs on Tim Hortons. The franchise, known for hearty pastries and piping-hot coffee needed to survive in the Great White North, is as Canadian as a beaver playing hockey while eating poutine and taking socialized medicine. Ask any Canadian about Timmy’s and they will fight to the death for its honor. Can Miami say the same for Krispy Kreme?
10. Zaxby's. Ah, the humble chicken tender. Many have tried and failed to elevate the fast-food staple, but none have done quite as well as the Georgia-based Zaxby’s. So well balanced is its take on the tender that it was voted by Complex’s First We Feast as the best fast-food chicken fingers on the market. Served with Texas toast, crinkle-cut fries, and the eatery's distinctively zesty Zax sauce, this is a tender to take home. Zaxby’s has yet to expand to Broward and Miami-Dade, but with franchises in Palm Beach County, it might be only a matter of time.
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11. Hale and Hearty Soups. Whether it be tomato with your grilled cheese or chicken soup when you’re under the weather, there’s nothing better than a nice, warm bowl of soup. That’s what Hale and Hearty is all about, although the New York-based soup shop doesn’t stick with just old standbys. A typical menu might include Japanese pumpkin soup, New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, and chicken and sausage jambalaya. Many of the soups are also gluten-free and vegan-friendly.
12. In-N-Out. American culture is built on bitter rivalries: Hatfields and McCoys, Yankees and Red Sox, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But among fast-food connoisseurs, there’s no question more divisive than “Which regional chain has the best burger?” Every part of the country has its own choice. The big cities have Shake Shack. Five Guys owns the East Coast, and Whataburger holds dominion over Texas. But out West, Los Angeles-based In-N-Out dominates the competition thanks to its fresh ingredients, secret sauce, and unbeatable prices (only $3.60 for a double-double). With Five Guys and Shake Shack already in town, why not bring In-N-Out to Miami so we can decide for ourselves who wins the battle of the burgers?