"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

Tasty Beach Cafe
Though this small café is named for the soft pseudo-ice cream it serves from a machine in the back (three flavors daily), the frozen dessert, which is not as gross as most cream-free "ice cream," is not the main attraction. What packs the place every weekday (closed weekends) are its tasty salads, wraps, and sandwiches made with extraordinarily fresh produce. Homemade sauces that are light but highly herbed substitute for butter, mayo, and high-calorie salad dressings. The tart, nutty, totally nongloppy sesame sauce coating the al dente noodles makes Tasti's pasta salad especially tasty. Everything served is meatless, though some items feature dairy and/or fish ingredients (a very light egg salad; a strongly tarragon-tasting tuna salad), and everything comes enclosed by, or accompanied by, fresh house-baked breads. During South Florida's three annual weeks of winter, the healthy homemade soups (different daily) are substantial, satisfying stuff too.

Readers Choice: Natural Chicken Grill

Puerto Vallarta
Not many of us think about checking out a Mexican restaurant when we feel like tucking into a stuffed crab-back and sucking the heads of prawns. Perhaps, being stone crab claw- and Key West pink shrimp-centric, we haven't had the exposure necessary to inspire such appetites. Or maybe, being offered mostly central Mexican cuisine here in South Florida, we simply haven't had opportunity enough to appreciate the fact that Mexico has a cuisine deriving from a couple of thousand miles of coastline -- and that's just on the Pacific side, where the town of Puerto Vallarta is located. Fortunately our education is at hand via El Puerto de Vallarta, and we're not just talking about the three R's of fish tacos, but the ABC's as well: avocado-garnished shrimp and snapper ceviche with pico de gallo; botana (appetizers) including shrimp quesadillas and oysters on the half-shell; and seafood caldos (soups) such as the piquant mariscos siete mares, a luxurious combination of seven different types of shellfish served with homemade corn tortillas. Finish off your secondary schooling with bacon-wrapped shrimp or garlic-sautéed lobster and a cool Tecate beer, and you'll be set to graduate with culinary horizons appropriately expanded.

Readers Choice: Joes Stone Crab

We grew concerned when we got no response to a letter sent to Willis Loughhead at Bizcaya Grill. We were inquiring about his interest in being one of eight chefs to host a "Personal Best" page in Best of Miami. A follow-up call elicited this: He was out of town and wouldn't return before our deadline passed. Out of commission was more like it. A bit more research revealed that he had been in a very serious car accident on the Julia Tuttle Causeway -- cut off by a driver who then disappeared. A slick roadway and an unforgiving guardrail left Loughhead with a broken nose and about 100 stitches in his face and head. The traumatic experience and slow recovery (now nearly complete) provided him with a new perspective on some of the best things about Miami. For instance, Best Natural High: "Walking away from a car wreck. I didn't get more than four steps or so, but at least I could stand. That, and endorphins." Best Emergency Room: "Miami Heart. It's never crowded." Best Plastic Surgeon: "Dr. Mark Broudo. From now on I'll send all my business to him." Best Medicine: "I don't know her name, but the ER nurse was pretty cute."

Judge a farmers' market not by the nature of its distractions but by the quality of its produce. So what if you can find stilt walkers juggling swords while balancing flaming pineapples on their heads and telling off-color jokes to bleary-eyed parents with toddlers in tow at other local markets. Elizabeth and Maurice Adams, proprietors of Gardner's Markets, have quite a different mission statement in mind -- promote regional products and educate, rather than entertain, the masses. Or as they note on their Website: "We sponsor this farmers' market in hopes of creating a dialogue between growers and consumers. Our mission is to present a forum for the sale and purchase of fresh food grown or produced by the people selling it." Which is why on Sundays from 9:00 a.m. till 1:00 p.m., from the beginning of January through the end of March every year, you can meet the faces behind the vegetables. Like Teena Borek of Teena's Pride, who is well-known for her two dozen varieties of colorful heirloom tomatoes, including Cherokee purple, green Zebra, and Brandywine red. Or Bee Heaven Farms's Margie Pikarsky, who heads up the Redland Organics, a community-supported agriculture cooperative that grows and sells locally everything from mustard greens to sunflowers. In short, the South Florida Farmers Market is really just another way of saying "teikei," a Japanese term that translates quite literally to "putting the farmer's face on food."

The best testament to Original Caribbean Kitchen's authenticity is the number of Caribbean transplants who eat there. Far from the rarefied air of the Beach, where ethnic food gains a capital "E" and checks double or triple, Original Caribbean Kitchen -- more lunch counter than sit-down restaurant -- serves the basics at generous prices. Heaping portions of curried goat, oxtail stew, stewed beef, and tripe -- all with peas and rice -- cost between $6 and $7.50. Call ahead and your goat will be waiting for you when you arrive.

"Frozen yogurt? Who eats frozen yogurt these days?" asked our incredulous editor. Well, if the satisfied crowds at the Beach's yogurt emporiums are any gauge, lots of people. Consequence-free indulgence is South Beach's credo, and a cup of frozen yogurt remains the choice for locals seeking to satisfy their sweet tooth while still keeping a neurotic eye on their waistline. Tasti D-Lite Café, nearby in Mid-Beach, has become a new favorite (its New York City namesake brand is already on the minds of transplanted Manhattanites), but for those seeking to truly have their cake, er, yogurt, and eat it too, Creams 'N Yogurt is tops. Not low-fat but absolutely fat-free, and only seven calories per ounce, it's a tasty yet guiltless treat. Flavors change regularly (just try to find dulce de leche at your nearest TCBY franchise), so why not go back for seconds. Heck, be really bad. Order a large!

Novecento Brickell
Know this going in -- Novecento is not another version of the same-old, same-old Argentine steak house. In fact it has more in common with the typical Parisian bistro, and we could praise it just for breaking out of the stereotypical parrillada box alone. Fortunately we can also laud it for offering Alton Road residents artistic salads such as the artichoke hearts, frisée, haricots verts, grapefruit, and toasted almonds tossed in a honey-lime vinaigrette, and fish dishes including grilled tuna with yuca, sliced onions, jalapeños, cherry tomatoes, sliced avocados, and chimichurri salsa. Which is not to say that the eatery isn't a meatery -- beefier entrées range from entrecote a la pimienta (steak with peppercorns) to medallones de lomo (filet mignon medallions in a Malbec reduction), with rib eyes and skirt steaks and lamb chops thrown in the mix, too. But the presentations are more sophisticated than the slab of skirt steak on a plate that we're used to seeing, and the side dishes, such as sweet potato purée or root vegetable gratin, rate a bit higher than mashed spuds or rice. As does Novecento, a much-needed addition to the area, in general.

What it lacks in location -- stuck as it is in the corner of a strip mall -- it more than makes up for in goodies, which explains why Renaissance has won five Best of Miami awards over the years. From scones to San Francisco sourdough. From empanadas to a chicken sandwich on focaccia with roasted red peppers. They make it there. And they make it memorable. Sit inside at the bar and soak up the aromas. And if it takes awhile to reheat that croissant, don't fret. The microwave isn't broken. It's warming the way it should be: in the oven.

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In terms of upscale "New Indian" cuisine, an innovative, lightened-up approach to traditional Indian food, Miami as yet has nothing that modern. But many dishes at Imlee come close; even the bargain buffet lunch is largely a custom-cooked affair rather than the usual collection of steam-tabled stuff that, at most Indian eateries, sits, stewing itself into increasingly soggy submission as the afternoon wears on. Try kadai shrimp, five seriously fiery fresh jumbo shellfish cooked perfectly tender and coated with rich, reduced tomato sauce. Equally electrically spiced is paneer jahlfrezi, a take on classic chili-spiked chicken jahlfrezi with custardy pressed yogurt cheese substituted for poultry; even more imaginative paneer pakora, nothing like normal pakoras, uses rectangles of firm fried paneer to enclose savory spiced spinach stuffing. For vegetarians, malai kofta, cloud-light nonmeat "meatballs" in a smooth but intriguingly tongue-tingling cream sauce, will be a wonder. Imlee's sleekly spare décor, immeasurably less embarrassing than that at most Indian joints (which tend toward either dumpiness or Last Days of the Raj excess), makes the place entirely appropriate for an elegant date or dignified business dinner, as well as a casual night out with family or friends.

Readers Choice: House of India

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®