Little Havana Restaurant
Aran S Graham
It seems odd that a restaurant with three locations (Hialeah and Deerfield Beach as well) and a name like Little Havana can be "unknown," but this Cuban specialty joint in North Miami easily gets lost amid the clutter of shops, banks, and condos on Biscayne's commercial strip. Once you find it, though, you'll know why tourists and locals alike pass on the word about the no-frills cuisine served up seven days a week. From traditional Cuban selections like oxtail in wine sauce and palomilla steak to Spanish omelets and a savory ground beef in Creole sauce, the dishes are basic in presentation (all come with rice, beans, and fried plantains) and delicious in their simplicity. Each course complements the selection of appetizers ranging from fried yuca to the Cuban tamal with mojo. Also worthy of entrée consideration is the baked or fried chicken plate and the broiled seafood assortment. Top off any meal with either the guava with cheese or a sinfully good coconut flan. Prices range from $6.95 to $22.95 and it's open from 1:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily.
Picanha's Grille
So much has been said about this North Miami eatery and its scrumptious menu of gastronomic delights (including what we said in "Best of Miami" last year, when it also took this award). It has done justice to the former home of Mark's Place, Mark Militello's nationally recognized shrine to New World cuisine. In addition to executive chef Edson Milto's traditional but still exotic feijoada (served weekends), the Picanha menu offers plenty of adventure. The same can be said of the restaurant's festive atmosphere. After dinner you can sip the best caiprinhas in town as you samba into the night accompanied by live bands (call for music details).
Coco Gelato
When it comes to gelato versus ice cream, it's the air, stupid. Gelato doesn't contain as much of it as its American cousin. The result is a denser, richer texture, a creamier, dreamier version of one of life's singular pleasures. Okay, you say, but what about selection? Surely there's no gelato parlor offering 31 different flavors. Well, we didn't exactly do the math, but if Coco Gelato's choices -- which include lemon champagne, almond cream, key lime, mamey, dulce de leche, and a half-dozen varieties of chocolate (to say nothing of tiramisu) -- leave you cold, you've got a hole in your head. Or air between your ears.

BEST ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT LUNCH BUFFET

Every weekday at 11:30 a.m. manager Tom Dalgan throws open the doors on a sumptuous lunchtime feast: daily carving, chicken, fish, 22-item salad bar, and an academic ambiance that may nourish you with ideas as well as food. All this until 1:30 p.m. for a fixed price of $9.75. Drinks and desserts are extra. Enter the parking lot off Red Road just north of Dixie Highway.
Joe's Stone Crab
Photo courtesy of Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant
About as appealing as the milk and raw eggs cinema prizefighter Rocky Balboa ingests before each workout -- that's flan to many people. Slimy, rubbery, rich to the point of nausea. But flan is a dessert, like Shakespeare said about Cleopatra, of infinite variety. The classic milk-and-egg concoction doused with caramel may boast coffee, chocolate, mango, and even coconut flavors. Cream cheese can also form its base. A mighty fine flan of the last type is served at Joe's, venerable home to famed crab claws and celebrated key lime pie. Velvety, dense, voluptuous. The confection's high calories come at a rather high price -- nearly four bucks a slice. Perhaps that's a good thing. Eat it too often and you're liable to become a heavyweight of a different kind.
Granted the waitstaff isn't wearing sombreros and the music blaring on the sound system is an odd mix of merengue, salsa, and upbeat rock en español. But the requisite cowboy memorabilia clinging to the walls, plus the basket of freshly made chips, tart salsa, and giant margaritas on the table, are enough to tell you there's a definite Tex-Mex vibe in the air. Founded in 1982 in Dallas, the wildly successful On the Border was acquired in 1994 by casual-dining company Brinker International, owner of other popular eateries including Chili's Grill & Bar and Romano's Macaroni Grill. More than 100 outposts now stretch across the country, offering consistently tasty Mexican fare in generous portions. Among the abundant appetizers: smoked chicken flautas served with chili con queso and firecracker stuffed jalapeños filled with chopped chicken and cheeses. Main-dish choices range from burritos, chimichangas, and enchiladas to mesquite-fired fajitas boasting sizzling chicken, shrimp, beef, or portobello mushrooms. Remnants of spiciness can be soothed by a sinful sweet, be it Kahlua ice cream pie, Mexican crème caramel, or apple and strawberry chimichangas.
While many of La Brioche Doree's fancy little pastries are beautiful to behold, the croissants take the cake, as they say. Why? Because Edouard Maillan, owner of this venerable boulangerie et patisserie, makes his light-layered treats, as he always has, with premium imported French butter. This stuff blows away the mass-market domestic butters used by less discerning croissant purveyors. A no-brainer involving high butterfat-to-water ratios, French butter seems to have been discovered by national food publications only recently. Maillan's secret, however, has been known for years by legions of devoted patrons. In fact the place is so popular you'd better get there early to score any of the favored minicroissants. If that bin has been plundered, try the equally delicious regular-size croissants, which include almond, cheese, chocolate, and seasonal fruits. Like many businesses in this largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, La Brioche Doree is closed Saturday. But it opens again Sunday morning at 7:00. Don't be surprised to find a knot of pastry addicts waiting outside as Maillan unlocks the door.
Franchise-food dining doesn't have the Epicurean seal of approval around here, but once in a while you find an exception. On Friday nights, for example, Robert, the Deep South short-order cook at this mid-Beach branch attached to a Howard Johnson's hotel, will cook you up two golden-red porkchops, an orange sweet potato, and some green broccoli, washed down with heavily iced lemon-Coke. Makes you feel you're in a Carson McCullers novel -- The Ballad of the Sad Café, say. Carlos Duran will serve this feast for only $8.29, and tell you about the time his computer card (for the cash register), which he wears on a vinyl cord, wrapped around a chair while he was delivering an order and nearly pulled his pants off. Lawraye Taveinni, a manager, will seat you in the smoking section (no one sits there) on a crowded Sunday morning and feed you healthy Harvest whole-grain oat, almond, and English walnut pancakes with warm fruit compote for just $5.99. And midweek cute Antoy Williams will cheer up grouchy oldsters who didn't want big sausages on their French toast special ($6.29) with jokes about her bus trip in from Opa-locka: "That driver was madder than you, honey! He just stuck in my face!" Call it breakfast theater.
When Rashné Desai took over Stephans in March 2001, she immediately updated the heavily Italian menu of her predecessor. Her idea was to offer presentable gourmet food and sell it fast as take-out or eat-in. (Located in Miami's Design District, Stephans has 30 Berliner-style tables on the second floor and sidewalk.) A delicious sandwich, drink, and cookie; or soup, quiche, and side (try the rosemary-roasted vegetables and fresh bread from Spain) should price out at ten bucks or less. Rashné learned her stuff at Dean & DeLuca in SoHo before that food-and-wares store went corporate and lame, and is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, where she studied with Gaulist master Jacques Pepín. After that kind of training you know the rules so well you can break them. So Stephans presents the best of various culinary disciplines: a black forest ham sandwich on a baguette with French Brie, crisp lettuce, tomato, and olive oil; pasta with roasted chicken, fresh basil, garlic pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and shaved Parmigiano; the Ultimate Supremo of imported prosciutto, Genoa salami, hot capicollo, and fire-roasted peppers; or curried turkey chili. Presentation is half the battle. "When you work in restaurants," says Rashné, "you're down in some basement kitchen with a lot of smelly people. Here we make food meant to be consumed fast and that looks really good." Call it eat couture.
Emerald Coast Chinese Gourmet Buffet
George Martinez
Something for everyone and plenty of it. That's why you'll often find a line of patrons waiting for a table during peak hours. We're talking chilled snow-crab legs, shrimp, and mussels. Eel, salmon, and California sushi rolls. Barbecued ribs, sweet-and-sour chicken, egg rolls, dumplings, stir-fried veggies. Prime rib, black-pepper steak, General Tso's chicken. A salad bar, six different soups. Eight flavors of hard-packed ice cream, Black Forest cake, miniature coconut tarts, chocolate-dipped fruit. An exhausting array of more than 100 items spread over seven serving stations. Unfettered access to the buffet will run you $7.50 to $11 (on weekends) for lunch and $14 to $17 for dinner. You can also order food à la carte for special dietary requirements. Lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 2:30 p.m. on weekends. Dinner is served 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Sunday, and on holidays. Friday and Saturday dinner service continues until 10:30 p.m.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®