When the La Casita team took over this Calle Ocho location eight years ago, they showed their acumen by holding on to the best part of the previous restaurant: Amparo Jidy, concocter of the creamiest, sweetest, foamiest café con leche in town. Amparo has ruled the coffee bar ever since, serving up plenty of smiles, along with coladas and cortaditos. Some years back, a young lady discovered, too late, that she didn't have enough change to pay for the steaming cup of liquid gold she needed to get through her morning. "No te preocupes," Amparo said, waving her hand magnanimously. "Esta es tu casita." No wonder lawyers, laborers, and locals keep beating a path to her door.

From their pita bread to their desserts, the Oriental Bakery and Grocery store is one of those rare finds that make living in South Florida a truly diverse experience. All the baking and cooking is done on the premises and they sell more than 400 loaves of pita bread per day. It's been a family- run business for nearly 30 years, and Okashah Monem and his sons provide not only an impeccable array of baked goods, but also some of the tastiest Arabic food in Miami. They serve traditional meat, spinach, and cheese pies, as well as kibbeh, safiha, and a host of other Middle-Eastern delicacies. And don't get us started on their hummus and baba ghannouj, which are simply fabulous.

You are down south in late April. An intense summer sun seems to have bypassed spring. Those strawberries dotting the fields look red and juicy, but the thought of picking fruit in this heat makes you turn the car air conditioner up a notch. Fortunately Charlie Burr has already gathered them for you. They await at his stand just like they have for 36 years from just after Christmas to about mid-May. Stacked ripe and succulent they bulge from pint and quart containers. If you overheat while standing to buy them, order one of the wonderful strawberry milkshakes. Just the thought sounds cool.
Although it might make more sense to sip hot chocolate after ice-skating in Michigan than after Rollerblading along Coral Way, make an exception at Hoeflinger & Chiarini. It's that good. The pastry chef takes dark Swiss chocolate, melts and mixes it with sugar and milk, and makes it creamy and smooth. Then he squeezes out generous dollops and refrigerates them. When your order arrives, the chocolate is served on the side with a mug of milk heated in an espresso machine's steamer. Plunk it in and stir. Ask for more than one dollop if you want. Think of it as the best of the frozen North brought to you in the sunny South for only $2.15.

No sweet maduros dripping with grease, no deep-fried croquetas or rich, fatty chunks of lechon asado. No, this is Fat Busters, home of Cuban Lite, where the mantra is: "No added fat or sugar." And before you dismiss this small strip-center cafeteria/cantina as an insult to real Cuban cooking, at least sample the wares. Turkey meatballs, turkey picadillo, grilled chicken breast, tuna-stuffed sweet pepper, meatless congri. Steamed plantains, steamed pumpkin with mojo, and no-fat black beans with rice are surprisingly savory. Many other less-traditional fish and pasta dishes grace the extensive menu, which changes weekly. It's all the brainchild of Thais Carreño, a Cuban who learned to cook light for her health and then started her own business three years ago. You're welcome to eat on the premises, but Fat Busters (open weekdays 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. and Saturdays 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.) is more of a take-out deli. Carreno and company will also prepare (and deliver, if requested) an entrée and three sides every day, cooked to your individual diet requirements (about $35 per person for five days; $1 per day delivery charge).
The Sweet Tooth is ready for any holiday. Make that every holiday. The North Miami Beach institution prepares foil-wrapped hearts for Valentine's Day, of course, and chocolate clovers for St. Patrick's Day. But even lesser festivals are covered. How about a Mardi Gras mask on a stick? Or an edible football-playing figurine for a Heisman Trophy party? Hand-dipped chocolate matzo for Passover are available, as are symbolic Seder plates featuring solid-chocolate shankbones. Gift baskets are a specialty, with prices varying from more than $100 to only $5 for a Big Bird coffee mug overflowing with creamy nougats. All the chocolates are made on the premises, and in accordance with kosher law. (There's even an ultrakosher parve division.) They deliver anywhere in Miami-Dade and Broward, and ship nationwide. The Sweet Tooth thrives in a humble stripmall, next to a shuttered weight-loss clinic. The "FOR RENT" sign in the clinic window says everything: With chocolate so good and so close, even dieting takes a holiday.
The chili at Firehouse Four is a very traditional blend of meat and spices, simply stewed to perfection. The secret is its stick-to-the-basics formula and a reliance on quality ingredients, especially ground sirloin. The recipe is the same one used by the original Firehouse Four when it was first opened more than a decade ago. After a troubled hiatus, when the restaurant was closed for far too long, the establishment reopened, and rather than trying to reinvent its kitchen, it brought back its fabled chili. A hearty bowl at lunch sells for $4.95.

The tacos in this barrio-style taquería are truly Mexicano, as are the prices. For a buck and half you can erase all traces of Taco Bell from your taste buds. You'll become a born-again taco eater once you indulge in the light, crispy corn tortilla or the soft flour wrap with your choice of chicken chunks, carnitas, picadillo, barbacoa (steamed beef), and seasoned pork. Also on the menu: brain, intestine, and gut tacos. The contents may be as gory as the Mexican Revolution, but the items are popular among the more radical eaters. Fresh lettuce and tomatoes are the final touches to what is ultimately an authentic Mexican experience. ¡Viva Taquería!.
In My Year of Meats, a novel by Ruth L. Ozeki, an Asian character says, "Name is very first thing. Name is face to all the world." No doubt she'd appreciate Sam Woo's moniker, which in English means to seduce. And that's precisely what he does with his "snowballs," chopped shrimp molded into balls and dressed with a sweet mayonnaise, and the artfully prepared double-cooked pork, rife with peppery cabbage and water chestnuts. But if Woo's appellation makes a great first impression, and his wokking a terrific second one, his décor certainly leaves something to be desired. The few rickety tables and chairs in this twenty-seat dive look as though they've been gleaned from a garage sale. Take-out's definitely the way to go here. Just ask the steady stream of neighbors and MDCC college students who perch temporarily while their orders are prepared from scratch, to go.

In Andalusia's vacated Kendall location the ghost of a bakery remains. Through the darkened windows you can still see boxes of wax paper, ovens, cash registers, and industrial mixers, all just waiting to spring back to life and commerce. Faithful customers await a resurrection, combing the recesses of their freezers for a loaf of rye, a danish, any bittersweet memento. Although the empire has fallen like a soufflé, Andalusia's goodies live on in the hearts, minds, and perhaps kitchens, of many Miamians. In 1988 Andy Kaplan bought Andalusia Bake Shop (which had operated in its Coral Gables location since 1963) and over the next ten years opened seven additional shops throughout Miami-Dade County, expanding services and product selection. The cheesecakes and sacher tortes couldn't be beat, their icings to die for. With expansion the Andalusia standards, such as rye bread, braided challah, and rugalach gained renown from Aventura to Hialeah. Unfortunately while trying to cash in on his golden goose, it seems retired CPA Kaplan cooked his own. Over the course of 1998 his stores began closing rapidly until finally even the original Coral Gables location locked its doors, and Kaplan's enterprise landed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Until the end even employees seemed in the dark about the future of the store. As the days counted down, loyal customers stockpiled supplies in a desperate attempt at cake cryogenics.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®