Cumin and tomato are the starring flavors in the heaping bowls of chili served at Picnics at Allen's, but the atmosphere at this Fifties-style pharmacy and lunch counter steals the show. Owners Marie and Jerry Burg are personable without being obsequious (an attitude mirrored by the waitstaff), creating an atmosphere that seems more like a real neighborhood restaurant than a self-conscious retro re-creation. Jerry, who cooks the chili, says good-quality ground beef and huge helpings make the chili ($3.95 for a bowl with generous portions of onions and cheese on the side) popular. He also admits that even the "spicy" chili isn't firehouse hot. "I don't like to make it so hot you can't taste it -- that's what the Tabasco's for." Tiny Tabasco bottles line the counter, where patrons can sit on spinning chrome and vinyl stools and make like they're headed for the sock hop, or cross the black-and-white checkerboard floor to sit at one of the cushy booths. "The recipe is one of those things that get handed down through the years," says Marie, "although [original owners] the Allens used hot peppers in theirs, and we don't do that." A Picnics at Allen's milkshake (the 2002 New Times Best Milkshake winner) is the perfect cure for Tabasco overapplication.

Siam Palace
So a serious lack of funds, not to mention a rather scary war and that strange respiratory outbreak across the world, have prevented you from making it to Thailand this year. We're not crying for you. We have our own little piece of Thailand right here. We sit peacefully among the orchids listening to the tranquil gurgling of a waterfall. We munch on curry puffs and crispy noodles and jumping shrimp. And if we're feeling pyromaniacal, we order the satay and cook our beef or chicken over the flame of a tiny hibachi. Then we load up on signature dishes like the Star of Siam (breaded, marinated chicken cooked with chili sauce and mixed veggies) or the massaman curry, tender meat or seafood accompanied by cashew nuts, plus chunks of avocado and onion in a curry/coconut milk sauce. We satisfy the noodle jones with the always-comforting pad thai. Each day we return for lunch and dinner, and lunch and dinner, and lunch and dinner again. No wonder we can't afford to travel!

Readers Choice: Bangkok Bangkok

Cheeseburger Baby
Photo courtesy of Cheeseburger Baby
Sure the place is a hole in the wall. But it's a cool hole in the wall, and in South Beach a seven-ounce burger at any kind of cool place is going to average at least a couple of bucks more than Baby's $5.50 ($6.50 for a cheeseburger) -- plus you don't know what quality of meat you're getting. At local promoter/fast-food impresario Tommy Pooch's place, the beef is 100-percent certified Angus, and tastes so full-flavored by itself that no accouterments are necessary. Accouterments are, however, a strong point at Baby's. Burgers come with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, condiments, and choice of bread (egg roll, Texas toast, or hoagie roll). Cheeseburgers come with a much bigger selection of cheese than usual: American, cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, provolone, even bleu cheese or feta. An extra 50 cents for a generous grilled onion garnish puts the burger over the top, and accompaniments of real (not frozen reconstituted-potato) French fries and an exquisite, handmade vanilla-bean milkshake puts you in hamburger heaven. (Important note: Do spring for a full-size burger; the 2.5-ounce "baby burgers," unlike their big sibs, are too small to be reliably cooked to diners' desired degree of rareness.)

Readers Choice: Fuddruckers

You won't find SoBe-style "mango/jalapeño/flourless chocolate piña colada" sushi rolls here. And the restaurant's setting in a low-rent mall could not be less trendy. But when a Japanese restaurant is packed nightly with Asian diners and regulars -- and one of the regulars happens to be the chef at one of Manhattan's most critically acclaimed spots for kaiseki (elaborate ceremonial tasting dinners, the ultimate in Japanese culinary arts) -- you know you're on to something special. Instead of going in the direction of unorthodox cuisine, Matsuri offers numerous sophisticated traditional Japanese delicacies rarely found in the U.S. -- except on Matsuri's specials board in the front of the room: ankimo monkfish liver, often likened to foie gras; nama uni, sparkling-fresh sea urchin that tastes like the most delicate of custards; shisamo, succulent salt-broiled freshwater smelts stuffed with their own caviar; negitoro wasabi topped with a tiny quail egg, sort of a tuna take on traditional steak tartare. What's also always offered is toro, something often seen on other Miami menus but seldom actually available -- and the price here for buttery belly tuna sashimi or sushi is about one-third what you'd pay at more high-profile spots.

Readers Choice: Benihana

When South Beach superstar chef Michael Schwartz left the eatery he co-founded, Nemo, last year, local media meticulously tracked his every post-Nemo burp (literally -- a burp's length being about as long as Schwartz's much-ballyhooed tenure at Bal Harbour's Atlantic House lasted). No such attention has been accorded to new Nemo head honcho Mike Sabin. Why? Maybe because Sabin isn't really new, just newly on top; he was actually the first cook hired when Nemo opened in 1995 -- which makes his succession seem same-old-same-old. In between his original Nemo time and now, though, Sabin garnered mighty impressive cooking credits, at Pacific Time and five restaurants in the Mark Militello empire locally, as well as a stint at Virginia's Inn at Little Washington, considered by many pro foodies to be the nation's top kitchen. Nevertheless, since returning to Nemo Sabin has demonstrated remarkable restraint, displaying eagerness rather than ego-tripping. He added some of his own innovative, boldly spiced Mediterranean-influenced fusion dishes to the menu, but retained the house-cured salmon/sprout rolls, the grilled Indian-spiced pork chop, the outstanding raw bar/shellfish platters, and all the other beloved favorites Nemo's regular customers count on. This respect for long-time patrons, as well as Sabin's meticulous attention to detail, almost superhuman energy, and just plain talent, make him worthy of much more notice.

The SSC has carried out a number of successful lunchtime sandwich deployments since completing its Design District buildup in late 2002. The Bay of Pig, one of the most effective items in its arsenal, contains the following judiciously selected ordnance: roasted and seared pork loin with grilled onion and mojo marinade, all packed into a baguette. But given the disastrous and deadly April 1961 invasion of Cuba for which it is named, do customers find it tasteless? Co-owner Cesar Canton, whose family carries bona fide anti-Fidel credentials, serves up an anecdote on wry: "A woman recently called up and ordered one for delivery. She goes: 'And could you send it with some air cover this time?'"

To borrow a line from the old ad campaign for Arnold's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to eat kosher chocolate. Indeed whether you follow those dietary rules or not, the ultimate issue is taste, for which Krön is an ecumenical experience of the heavenly culinary variety. Its tantalizing array of candies, truffles, and dipped fruits are all made by hand with top-notch ingredients (and prices to match). Coffee and baked goods like brownies and cookies are also for sale, though the tables set out in the middle of the mall are decidedly unatmospheric. Recent ink on the store has hinted at expansion plans. Let's hope any new outlets include a proper café.

"You don't need teeth to eat our meat," boasts the barbecue joint's menu. Apparently you don't need legs to get take-out service, either. Just call ahead for some hickory-smoked pulled chicken sandwiches, collard greens, homemade cornbread, and succulent pork ribs, give another ring when you've pulled up to the front door, and the friendly folks inside will hurry outside with your order. It's like a bank drive-thru, but with no need to show ID. And given the lack of street-side parking and the somewhat unsavory neighborhood, the service is not just a good but a necessary idea. The trick, of course, is not to swill down the beef brisket before you even pull back into traffic.

Titanic Brewery & Restaurant
With about a dozen specialty beers on tap (plus seasonal selections) and another half-dozen or so microbrews in bottle, Titanic may not have the biggest selection, but there's no arguing that this brewery and restaurant has the most flavorful, carefully crafted beer in town. Brewmaster Jamie Ray whips up at least half of the daily draught offerings, including the evocatively named Boiler Room Nut Brown Ale and Triple Screw light ale, and he keeps receiving national awards for them at competitions where the judges, for the record, never spit. Then there are all the beer-related events -- live blues-and-brews, Mug Club specials, name-that-brewski contests, University of Miami sports nights, Brewmaster dinners, free T-shirt happy hours. The microbrew boyz here even send out an e-mail newsletter every week.

BEST RESTAURANT FOR THE HEARING IMPAIRED

Metro Kitchen & Bar

It could be that the noise level is deliberate, a reflection of the urban name, or accidental, a result of the former Astor Place's mod-Italian renovation. But while there may be quibbling about the motive, there's no question over the decibel level -- it's about as high as the two-story ceiling allows. That said -- or shouted -- Metro possesses a great buzz. Like that created by a horde of honeybees feeding on the pollen of flowers that have been grown on a nuclear-waste dumping ground. But a buzz, nevertheless. And on South Beach, louder is always better.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®