Kon Chau
Maureen Aimee Mariano
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.

El Palacio de los Jugos
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
One word: atmosphere. Rumble your way to the counter for a jugo. Feel the ice-cold, fresh-fruit flavor -- papaya, cantaloupe, piña colada, orange-carrot, guanabana -- roll down your throat. But then take a look at your mixers -- the rice and beans, roasted half-chickens, and flans -- and head to the back to enjoy it all. Yeah, you'll likely consume some exhaust fumes with your ice-cold strawberry juice and tamale, but the light Cuban music and chatter will calm your soul and soothe your taste buds.

Baleen
This upscale seafood restaurant, now guided by Arturo Paz (former chef Robbin Haas is said to be readying his own place in the Gables), wows diners each week with its sumptuous spread. Be prepared for the killer price tag of $36 per person. If you can snag a table on the elegant outdoor terrace with its magnificent view, however, the sting of the sticker price will be soothed by cooling breezes of the bay. Great option for a special treat, out-of-towners, or when someone else is paying. Reservations highly recommended.

One measure of the popularity of this place's wings is the fact that you must order them early on high holy days such as title fights, national championships, or the Super Bowl. Otherwise you could wait hours, so heavy is the demand. And no wonder. These are the meatiest wings in town. Unbreaded and grilled to nongreasy perfection, they're served in huge wooden bowls for party gorging. The toughest decision is always the dipping sauce: special, buffalo, or Miami Heat, which has been known to leave burn marks. The prices are popular too: 16 pieces for $10; 25 pieces for $12.50; and multiples of ten after that.

Tap Tap
The space looks so funky, the crowd so cool, the music just right -- please don't bring the mango salad long before a lone bottle of beer, and have those be the only two "dishes" in front of your group for the next hour! Alas, that was the way it was. No amount of cajoling or directing could bring any rhyme or reason to the order of appetizers, main dishes, drinks, or God forbid water that arrived at the table. Welcome the new Tap Tap! Same funky Haitian art, same cool crowd, but new management that understands the golden word: service! Is it too cold for you in the back room? Zoom, up to the front. The jerk is particularly good today, says the waitress, but are your mojitos sweet enough? Finished with your coconut spinach appetizer? Then I'll bring your main dishes. Jaw dropping, you wonder if it's drugs, or whether you may have been mistaken for someone powerful. But then hospitality surfaces again, and not just for you. After stuffing yourself to the limit, there's still griot left on the plate. No need to waste it. Take it home. Okay, says your waitress, but remember, that means less to eat for the dumpster dog.

El Novillo
Step inside the Bird Road location and you'll find yourself in the re-created courtyard of a Nicaraguan hacienda, complete with burbling fountain and guitar music. That's the idea, at least, and if you don't find it convincing, let the excellent food and extremely attentive service at El Novillo ease your nerves until Bird Road's infuriating traffic seems far far away. If that doesn't work, eat a sixteen-ounce "Big Daddy" churrasco -- after that, you won't care where you are. Perfectly cooked churrasco -- seared outside, melting inside -- is the signature at El Novillo, but just about all the food stands out. The "nica-tizers" (all less than four dollars except sampler platters) are a good start for the uninitiated, particularly the vigoron (pork cracklings with yuca) or the fried cheese with slaw and corn tortillas. The prices are quite reasonable (from $12 to $25 for most entrées) but the white tablecloths and courteous waitstaff give El Novillo the air of a four-star restaurant -- or hacienda.

The River Seafood & Oyster Bar
The River offers a taste of the ocean from the four corners of the Western oyster world. This bar/restaurant serves the cool freshly cracked ones from the coasts of Washington, Oregon, California, Prince Edward Island, New England, and the Florida Panhandle. A tasty flourish comes with the choice of jalapeño relish, Asian mignonette, and the traditional horseradish with cocktail sauce. Most oysters are $19/dozen; the Apalachicolas (from Florida's Gulf waters) run $10/dozen. They're all half-price during happy hour, 4:30 to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. During the week the place (located in the Fishbone Grille's old space) is open for lunch and dinner (kitchen closes at about 10:30 p.m.). On Saturday hours are 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. or so. The joint is closed on Sundays, so if you're jonesing for oysters after church, you'll have to hit Shuckers or Smith & Wollensky.

Lynda Hull: "Sometimes after hours of wine I can almost see the night gliding in low off the harbor." Judith Berke: "The trees were wine and the sky was wine, and everything that wasn't the wine, was wine." Heather McHugh: "The wine glass fills with sun, a slow bright bomb. The mob in me sits still." So you see that the poets have spoken, and once they have spoken, must in some way be heard. Who was listening? Vino in Coconut Grove. Vin Amante and Flûte in South Beach. Joseph's Brasserie and Wine Bar in Sunny Isles. These wine and champagne bars, among others, have heeded the call to the vine and debuted within the last year to offer restless Miami residents a welcome alternative to martinis. Consider them the natural alternative to Ritalin. And now the mob in all of us can sit still.

Epicure Gourmet Market & Cafe
Alejandra Cicilia
Since both Zabar's and Fairway selfishly expanded their Manhattan stores rather than open branches down here in the sixth borough, Epicure wins this one again. Norman Bros. has more and better produce (designer lettuces like frisée and mâche; genuinely ripe tomatoes) at better prices; Gardner's has more interesting homemade dips and spreads; Arnie & Richie's has more succulent smoked fish; Laurenzo's has a more extensive and reasonably priced selection of wines, fresh fish, meats, fresh pasta, and Italian groceries. But when you consider Epicure's astonishing cheese selection, a bakery that carries everything from bagels to birthday cakes, a vast array of prepared foods second to none, an ever-expanding variety of ethnic specialties (including a recently added chorizo that will reduce Spanish-sausage lovers to tears), general variety (there's even a small but interesting selection of cookbooks), and overall high quality -- albeit at high prices -- it's undeniable that Epicure is still the best all-around, one-stop source for gourmet groceries.

Einstein Bros Bagels
There is a secret to serving good coffee that goes beyond the beans, the roast, and the water. Here it is: temperature. And those comical, corporate Einstein Bros. have figured this out. So they start each pot with a blend of Central and South American beans, roasted to a light brown, and they brew the java with water that is between 190 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. (For those who skipped middle-school science: The boiling point of water is 212 degrees F.) Then, when the coffee is made, specially calibrated heaters under each urn hold the coffee at 175 degrees. That's hot. Oh, and if the brothers' employees are paying attention to company directives, they are also brewing up fresh coffee at least every hour, even if that means dumping out a full 1.5-gallon urn, according to Ron Savelli, the chain's vice president of menu development. Of course bagels, sandwiches, and soups are also available. But the allure here is coffee. Hot and fresh, Mel's Neighborhood Blend is perfection.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®