Wake up on a Saturday morning longing for a fresh croissant and you're outta luck here. Like most shops in this predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Brioche Dorée isn't open on Saturday, and you can't pick up your morning pastry fix on the way home from work the night before because the bakery closes, invariably cleaned out of croissants, at 3:00 p.m. weekdays. The place doesn't take credit cards either. But all the inconveniences are worth it. No bakery in Miami-Dade County makes a more melt-in-your-mouth croissant. (Which explains why La Brioche Dorée has taken this award four times previously.) In fact, though the secret is supposedly genuine French butter, which is denser than American supermarket stuff, it's hard to find a croissant even in France that beats Brioche's, so delectable briefly warmed to bring out the dairy richness that applying extra butter at table seems superfluous. Tip: Brioche bakes half-size mini-croissants that are perfect party brunch fare, but these sell out even earlier than the full-size models, so go early, especially on Sunday when the place opens at 7:00 a.m.

"You go to Versailles for the people," reflects Bill, tipping the last of his garlic shrimp from fork to mouth. "You come to Villa Havana for the food." Basic, inexpensive Cuban food deftly delivered is what has kept the lines at this restaurant long for years. For lunch, a $4.95 plate of tender ropa vieja (con arroz y maduros, claro!) is among the best in town, certainly for the price. The place is clean, unpretentious, and well lit. The vested and bow-tied waiters are fast, helpful, and occasionally flirtatious with the women. Of course if you are looking for something a bit more pretentious, the menu includes several lobster dishes in the $15 to $19 range. "Yeah, I know that place real well," says New York Times scribe Rick Bragg, who spent several years slumming in Miami before moving to a similarly decadent city, New Orleans. "They have a ham shank that will bring tears to your eyes, the best one outside Alabama." Pause. "If you don't eat it, you could always save it till someone you don't like walks by and use it to beat them over the head." The place is open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Readers Choice: La Carreta

For the past 38 years, Sarussi has offered the biggest Cuban sandwich in town: fifteen inches long and a good four inches tall. What makes owner Humberto Betancourt such a culinary genius is not mere size, however. It is his top-secret hot sauce. Piquant but not spicy, the peppery condiment gives this full meal of a sandwich a unique flair. Hints of Tabasco, mojo, tomato sauce, and some unidentified salsa reportedly smuggled in from Costa Rica. Intelligence sources say he prepares the sauce in a secure bunker beneath his heavily guarded home. Direct questions about the ingredients are met with icy stares, then mocking laughter. Good try.

"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.

"I feel like I've stepped back into Brooklyn, circa 1961," observed a Jersey-based visitor upon entering the Mecca of Miami delis. Rascal House was established in 1954, so the visitor wasn't too far off. Weekends and around holidays it can be a madhouse, although an organized one, as the clientele (which skews toward the blue-rinse, polyester-clad of a certain age) shuffles through lines divided according to the size of the party. The food is not always 100-percent fabulous, but one can forget minor transgressions when starting in on sour pickles, tangy coleslaw, and a slice of buttered challah bread. Almost without exception, portions are huge, whether it's the pot roast, a regular sandwich (never mind the sky highs!), or homemade desserts such as the chocolate bobka, guaranteed to keep you on a sugar high for at least two days.

Readers Choice: Wolfie Cohens Rascal House

Even at excellent sushi bars, the best that diners can expect at meal's end is some red-bean or green-tea ice cream out of a carton. At Shoji Sushi, where Hedy Goldsmith reigns as pastry chef, the green tea flavors a to-die-for white chocolate cheesecake with blackberry coulis, or a crème brûlée accompanied by sake gelee, candied kumquats, and a lacy brown rice tuile. Goldsmith, an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America's first Baking & Pastry Arts class, is also in charge of the desserts at the other two restaurants in Myles Chefetz's one-square-block South Beach eats empire, upscale New American Nemo and all-American diner Big Pink, and at each of the three very different eateries, the sweets flawlessly suit the mood. Nemo regulars would riot if Goldsmith's warm chocolate pudding cake in a rich sweet cream puddle were ever removed from the menu. Big Pink people would sooner allow ya to step on their blue suede shoes than to leave the table without a big chunk of Elvis's favorite red velvet cake -- here even more heavenly than in The King's current place of residence. Let's face it: the woman is not a pastry chef, she is a Dessert Goddess, capital letters totally intended.

Readers Choice: Cheesecake Factory

Bigger and better known -- as well as, for sure, better looking -- Tropical Chinese just a few blocks away is a tough act to beat when it comes to dim sum, China's traditional teahouse lunch/brunch. But although Tropical's dumplings and other "small plates" are mostly just as tasty, casual Kon Chau rules when it comes to authenticity. Truly serious fans can even feast on chicken feet (the trick is to not munch but suck the things like lollipops, concentrating on the fabulous black bean sauce rather than the tiny toenails). For the rest of us, there are over 60 steamed, stir-fried, stewed, or grilled selections, some sweet but most savory, with dumplings predominating: delicate steamed cilantro-spiked pork or shrimp har gau, wrapped in near-transparent pasta; more substantial large round raviolis stuffed with shiitakes, shrimp, and Asian garlic chives; addictively chewy cheoung fun, super-succulently sauced rice noodle crêpes filled with beef, pork, or shrimp. Especially impressive are hard-to-make holiday items like taro and turnip cakes, but even the simplest congees (variously flavored rice porridges) and roast pork or Chinese sausage buns seem more skillfully made than at most places in town ... or in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, possibly even Hong Kong.

It's always open (24-7); it has a solid bar (with a separate entrance); it's got a no-nonsense load of records that management plays relentlessly -- "I Fought the Law" by the Bobby Fuller Four; "Crazy Arms" by Jerry Lee Lewis; "Secret Agent Man" by Johnny Rivers -- wonderfully appropriate for these times. Then there's the real diner food -- pork chops with barbecue sauce, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, green peas, Coke with lemon, all for $12.50. Plus there's the enigmatically beautiful crew: Christine, the statuesque blond waitress; Eloise, the even taller, elegant waitress; Ricky, the little dancer type, Andy, the owner ... And interesting people traffic with informed conversation. It's the reason the ten-year-old Eleventh Street Diner has won before.

When the entire glazed doughnut melts in your mouth like its velvety-crisp icing, you know you have a winner. Independently run Sunshine Donuts makes the kind of fluffy and sweet fried treats that people on diets dream of and drool over. Whether they be glazed, powdered, or Miami-style jelly doughnuts (filled with guava, dulce de leche, or mamey), you're getting fresh, made-on-the-premises goods that are worth the caloric indulgence. Sunshine also offers authentic Cuban café con leche, which is ideal for doughnut dunking.

From 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. every weekday the Fish House showcases its excellent fresh-fish selection with an earlybird special for seafood lovers. Fresh fillets of all their fish -- from yellowtail to grouper to tilapia -- along with a side (try the excellent coleslaw) are just $7.99. The only catch is the parking lot. There's nowhere near enough room in the lot for all the cars, so patrons park on the sidewalk and in the median between Miller Road and the strip mall where the restaurant is located. It's worth the hassle.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®