Lucky China One
An instantly recognizable two-word dish: crispy spinach. Or perhaps aromatic duck. Or even purple eggplant. But two words, no matter how memorable they are, can't really describe the complex flavors and contrasting textures presented in these outstanding Chinese dishes. Only taste will tell. After six years in business on flighty South Beach, we might have expected this eatery, which has three other locations in or near Montreal, Canada, to wane in popularity, cut back on quality, and ease up on the excellent service. But this fragrant little flower has continued to attract new clientele with its terrific crab-and-asparagus soup and its spicy ravioli stuffed with minced chicken in a peanut sauce. It has also rewarded loyal customers by instituting the VIP card, which offers ten percent off the top of the bill. All you have to do is use the card at least twice during the summer season, thus showing you're a resident. Now this is a privilege -- and a VIP room -- that we don't mind standing in line for.
Think French fries and plump white potatoes cooking in a deep pool of sputtering oil comes to mind. Certainly not health food. The menu at healthy Oasis Café features staples such as tofu, brown rice, and garden burgers, but they're not your ordinary bland concoctions. Oasis gives their food a decidedly Mediterranean twist. And they give their menu a twist as well. The restaurant offers a hearty batch of fries ($2.95) as one of their appetizer-size mezze or "little plates." Not just potato sticks oozing grease. These are thin but substantial fries with skin on one side, coated in a spicy cumin-coriander mixture. They're the perfect accompaniment to an Angus New York steak or a grilled vegetable sandwich. Or they're a fine main course, if you're into throwing all dietary vigilance to the wind. To raise the fat content a wee bit, they throw in a few marinated green olives with your order. No ketchup needed.
The Spaniards may not have invented the appetizer, but they are conquistadors when it comes to premain-course specialties. They have even captured a foothold in the English language with the word tapas (means appetizers, yanqui). Back in the land of Sancho Panza, tapas are free at many an inn, as long as you and your compadres order beer or wine. Here in the New World you'd be tilting at windmills for that arrangement, but you'll want to pay for any number of this Calle Ocho establishment's 35 tapas. They cost from $3 to $6.50 and come in two categories, hot and cold. Among the hot: garlic shrimp, fried squid, and mussels in broth. Among the cold: real Spanish olives, a garlicky potato salad like only the Iberians can do, and the Spanish tortilla (a thick, but mysteriously delicious, potato omelet). Chomp tapas, slurp wine, flirt with the sexy long-haired flamenco dancers (male and female) who are been wrist-flicking and heel-stomping on this little restaurant's tiny corner stage. Get to the inn early or make a reservation if you want a table.

El Toro Taco
A fogon is an oven, and the one here is obviously put to good use. Owner Agustin Paz uses his to melt the cheese over molletes (open-face French bread sandwiches), bake cochinita pibil (marinated pork) burritos, and roast poblano peppers stuffed with ground beef. Fare isn't fancy, but it is attractively presented, not to mention generously portioned. Wash down those spinach nachos, laden with cheese and refried beans, with a Dos Equis, a strawberry margarita, or, in deference to Miami's thirst for fruity drinks, the El Fogon smoothie. But don't come to us if you don't have room for the crepas con cajeta (crèpes with caramel) for dessert -- blame it on the smooth operator working el fogon.
Siberian nachos. What a concept. Better yet, what an execution. Caviar, tuna tartare, crème fraîche, a nacho. The combination is sublime. (The tuna tartare appetizer on its own is pretty glorious.) Of course, the restaurant's name and welcoming statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin are supposed to make you think kitschy communist, but no comrades of the average sort were eating like this when Russia was red. In fact not too many comrades in America can afford to eat here too often, either. But it's worth a splurge just once, for the appetizers alone. There's not much under $13, but the portions are large. And with only a couple of shots of vodka (ranging from about $7 to $12), you could get out of there for under ... well, never mind. Capitalism won. Enjoy the spoils.

Norman's
Perhaps poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa wrote it best: "... what perfect/form a taste can set before the eye/the primary tongue./Con the cheek with bliss." Pau-Llosa was extolling Norman Van Aken's talent, and he hit it right on the proverbial head. Van Aken and his "perfect form" have conned us all into believing none in the Gables (nor in Florida, nor even in the country) can challenge him. Somebody arrest this man. His particular crime? Achieving culinary heights so great every other chef pales in his Himalayan shadow. He has spoiled our palates, and he must be punished. He must not be allowed to win this award again next year, as he has for the past three years running.
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.

Two reasons why this elegant neighborhood restaurant consistently earns kudos for its service: The staff respects chef-owner Klime Kovaceski, and he respects them. With all this mutual regard going on, it's pretty hard not to be a recipient of it. The host has a toy or two stashed away for a fussy baby. The servers cater to customers shamelessly but professionally, which means they consider tips a bonus for a job well done rather than de rigueur. And Kovaceski makes the rounds several times a night, donning a fresh shirt every time he does so, to inquire about the success of his New Continental dishes. Become a regular and you'll get regularly teased by him, particularly if you always order the same meal. But then, it's impossible not to have a favorite at Crystal Café, where everybody knows your name, or at least thinks they should learn it.

Laguna Seafood Restaurant
As out of the way as it might seem to the downtown lunch crowd, this all-substance/no-style Cuban eatery is a big hit with our men and women in uniform. On any given day, Laguna's crack squad of blue-aproned waitresses can be seen pressing prodigious platters of moros, yuca, maduros, and succulent meats of all descriptions on National Guardsmen, police officers, FBI agents, parks and recreation employees, and code enforcement inspectors. The high quantity, high quality, and low prices of the fare keep the heavily armed clientele coming back. If you're on a real tight budget, a big bowl of the heavenly sopa de pescado and a side of tostones (perhaps the best in town) will run you a total of $3.50. Want to drop in early for a hearty breakfast of two eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee? That'll be a buck fifty. The daily specials are uniformly excellent (especially Monday's bistec en cazuela and Thursday's rabo encendido), none costs more than $4.75, and you'll probably need both hands to carry the leftovers out to the car.

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.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®