Las Culebrinas
So Cuban and Spanish cultures have had a love-hate relationship throughout the centuries, but their culinary traditions at least come together at Las Culebrinas, where an extensive menu features specialties from both sides of the Atlantic. This presents a bit of a dilemma: Do you opt for the Cuban mainstays you've come to love, like ropa vieja (sautéed shredded beef stew), moros (rice and beans), maduros (plantains), and yuca (cassava), or do you nibble tapas while you wait for a steaming pan of paella for two to arrive at the table? If you're the adventurous type looking for something truly exotic, something you can tell stories about later, then perhaps the decision will be much easier. Choose from any one of several eccentric specialties: octopus Galician style, rabbit in garlic sauce, frog's legs, crocodile medallions French style, or deep-fried breaded beef brains. (Oh my!) Even the chicken is interesting here: You can have it breaded with Kellogg's cereal and served with honey-mustard sauce, or grilled and bathed in an orange-peach yogurt sauce. And since kids will vehemently oppose all of the above, thankfully there is a children's menu featuring fish sticks, chicken fingers, and a sirloin steak. The only problem you'll likely encounter at Las Culebrinas, where families gather around large tables to enjoy abundant portions of quality food, is indecision.
Joe's Stone Crab
Photo courtesy of Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant
It seems such an easy dessert. No intricate baking techniques, no rare ingredients, no specific occasion or purpose. And yet it saddens to know how often this creation can turn out so awfully wrong. A perennial favorite among "Best of Miami" readers, Joe's Stone Crab sticks to some trusted basics from a closely guarded recipe and delivers one hell of a slice of homemade key lime heaven. Cool, creamy, and with just the right tartness from the choicest limes, this pie gets the nod over some fair competition. The crust is a straightforward but delicious graham cracker. No whipping cream is used to desecrate the delicate yet rich filling. And the color is correct: not gaudy green but rather a slightly pale, sour-apple shade. The only chink in this pie's armor is the fact that Joe's closes for the summer, leaving its fans to pine away until fall. It's worth the wait. A nine-inch pie costs $18; by the slice it's $4.95.
Smith & Wollensky
Courtesy of Smith & Wollensky
You'd think that in South Florida the contenders for this award would be many and formidable. Sorry. You'd also think waterfront dining would be at least as common as overpriced sushi. Sorry again. And while there are a few nice places to eat outdoors on the street or the water (river and ocean), why not go for it all -- ocean views, major people-watching, and seriously good food. For instance, try Smith & Wollensky's outdoor dining area on a Sunday afternoon. Every body shape that can be squeezed into a bathing suit is walking by on the way to the pier or the white sands just beyond your seat. Your direct line of sight is toward Government Cut, so the passing parade of pleasure craft and cargo freighters never ends. Then there is the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea, untainted by tall buildings or parked cars. It makes that American dim sum brunch -- newly introduced and consisting of things like mini-steak Wellingtons instead of pigs' feet rolling to your table -- taste all that more scrumptious.
For some people this tiny, tangy citrus fruit is the key to happiness. And there's no better place to buy joy than the source -- the Tree itself -- where the shelves are dedicated to products flavored with this coveted concentrate: key lime-covered pecans; key lime-frosted graham crackers; key lime marmalade; key lime jelly beans. Diehards can even wash their hair with key lime shampoo and bubble up their baths with key lime soap. But the most obsessed among us probably won't even make it into the shop, given that the patio area contains dozens of potted key lime trees. The three-gallon containers go for ten bucks, and while you might not see limes on the limbs for a few years, it's a good investment nonetheless. Just keep it to yourself. We wouldn't want the canker crowd to get aromatic wind of it.
Yambo Restaurant
Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Okay, so they already have a couple "Best of Miami" plaques hanging around. They'll just have to put up another one because there's nothing else quite like this place. Twenty-four hours a day you can soak up Nicaraguan ambiance and cuisine, and so much more, at Yambo. It's kind of like a Central American bazaar, bustling with such a riot of color and knickknacks and people that food sometimes seems to be a secondary consideration. But when you're ready to chow down outdoors (indoors is a little more formal), order at the counter from a long list of Nica favorites, including sauced-and-seasoned pork, beef, or chicken, as well as fish dishes accompanied by yucca and beans and rice, all for around five dollars. To wash it down, choose from a selection of coffees, beers, wines, and juices. Keep in mind that you can do this all hours of the day and night. You'll have to leave at some point, of course. But chances are you'll be back, sooner than later.

Despite the fact that conch fritters are a South Florida specialty, diners need to bring their own microscopes to find the conch in fritters served at most seafood eateries. Not at this friendly fish market, which is also an informal restaurant (five Formica tables) and prepared-foods take-out joint. Jim Hanson, a Miami native, makes fritters that are positively packed with super-size chunks of perfectly tenderized conch, as well as onion and both sweet and hot green peppers. The unusually puffy enclosing batter, similar in texture to a light Spanish churro or Seminole fry bread rather than a rough cornmeal hush puppy, is so succulently seasoned you could easily forget to use the accompanying dipping sauce. Don't. The hot-and-sassy concoction, reminiscent of a remoulade, puts the tart back in tartar sauce. With an order of six plump fritters you need only an accompaniment of crisp fresh coleslaw to complete a meal.
Bangkok Bangkok II
Unlike local patrons who vow undying devotion, we've never been huge fans of the original Red Thai Room in Hollywood. Not that we dislike it, but mostly we walk away merely satisfied and color-blinded by the vibrantly scarlet walls. Not so at this tropically designed sister location where no one seems to have discovered the terrific fare. The true character of the restaurant, located in the space that formerly housed a Dan Marino's Town Tavern, can't be glimpsed from the road. So passersby have virtually no idea that a thatched-roof porch is available for drinking and dining and that a multiroom interior yields some very romantic tables. The fare, ranging from excellent versions of standard pad thai and various curries to innovative dried-tofu salads, is also way above par. Come to think, it's been a year or so since we've been back to the original. Judging by the cooking and prompt service at this second locale, perhaps it's time to give the Hollywood joint another brightly hued shot at redemption.
Donut Gallery Diner
Tucked away in the corner of a secluded strip mall on Key Biscayne, this 30-year-old neighborhood hangout is short on elbow room, long on history, and steeped in cholesterol. Think we're exaggerating? The house special consists of ham, bacon, eggs, and cheese on a buttered English muffin. Next time you're in the area, slide in, grab a seat, and slip back to a time when nuts and berries were for the birds.
The Frieze Ice Cream Factory
I'm not a sorbet kinda guy, you say. I drink tap water, not Perrier. Budweiser, not wine. Relax, okay? After a Lincoln Road meal, an aprés-dining stroll over to The Frieze is an easy way to add a touch of culinary sophistication to your diet. And the folks behind the counter here are more than happy to ease you into your new chichi identity. All you have to do is point and they'll gladly scoop you out a free sample of any of their dozen or so flavors of homemade sorbet. May we suggest a coneful of coconut for starters? Smooth, but not too watery; tart but not tangy -- it's just the thing to cleanse the palate and then to keep you coming back for more. Good thing they pack pints to go.

When it's too late for a full meal but necessary to refuel for the last leg of your long night's journey into the wee hours, the take-out window at La Carreta is the perfect pit stop. For a dollar and a half you can order a steaming cortadito (sugary espresso coffee softened with a big splash of hot milk; also available without sugar) and a warm and flaky pastel de guayaba (guava pastry). If you arrive after the window closes at 2:00 a.m., you can still order at the counter inside the main restaurant. This branch of the local chain happens to be the only one open 24 hours.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®