BEST INDIAN FAST-FOOD RESTAURANT

Rajas

Décor is unassuming at this downtown lunch room -- it's basically a hole-in-the-wall, albeit a clean and cheerful one -- and most of the roughly dozen dishes served daily are steam-tabled, not made to order, which definitely puts them in the "fast food" rather than "fine food" category. Still, since most Indian food is relatively slow-cooked rather than quickly stir-fried like that of most other Asian nations, it survives the steam table well. Raja's $4.69 combination platter is among downtown's tastiest lunch options. And not merely tasty but absolutely addictive are three South Indian house specialties found neither on the steam table nor in any other Miami-Dade Indian restaurant: dosai, uttapam, and idli. These mouthwatering made-to-order savory, ground-rice pancakes, served with a choice of several stuffings and/or toppings (the rolled potato-filled masala dosa crepe and thicker, onion-packed uttapam are particularly good), plus sides of sambar (a soothing veggie-packed puréed lentil dhal) and spicy/sweet coconut chutney are well worth the ten-to-twenty minute wait.

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

Making sure both your stomach and your wallet are full: That's what the folks at Mama Jennie's, home to delicious, reasonably priced Italian comfort food, have been doing for more than 30 years. Hearty soup or crispy salad with your choice of dressing (the zesty house vinaigrette is a favorite) and garlic rolls lightly doused in flavorful oil begin your meal. Myriad main courses include whopping servings of classics such as baked ziti with meatballs; veal Parmesan; eggplant rollatini; lasagna; gnocchi; and stuffed shells, all accompanied by Mama's lively marinara sauce. Pizza boasting all sorts of tasty toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms, or meatballs is also an option. Waistline watchers need not go hungry: Not everything is piled high with cheese and sauce. Herb-grilled chicken is among the low-fat selections. Still haven't burst your buttons or busted your budget? Don't forget dessert, which greets you in the fridge strategically placed at the dining room's entrance. Goodies can range from cannolis to spumoni to cheesecake and carrot cake.

Readers Choice: Oggi Caffe

Don't let mottos like "home of the $3.99 lunch special with free drink" fool you. Sure, the restaurant's truth-in-advertising bears up -- the midday meal really is that darn cheap -- but Jamaica Inn is about much more than value. It's about authenticity. In other words, the peas and rice? Moist. The stewed oxtail? Meaty. The jerk pork? Aromatic. The curry goat? Spicy. And the Red Stripe? Cold, of course. Which is quite refreshing considering the level of heat activity that is going on in most of the dishes here, but especially in the tamarind sauce that comes on the side -- that stuff can steam-clean your brain. Jamaica Inn? Ja, mon.

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

Despite its being located in the former and famed Warsaw nightclub, you don't have to arrive in a limo to gain entrance to Jerry's. And while you waltz in, valets will somehow find a place to park your beat-up Honda Civic, even at 2:00 a.m. on weekend nights (when there are no such places) for five bucks, which entitles you to two and a half hours in Jerry's. Which you will need, even if you order just a sandwich. Yeah, we've heard the beefing about Jerry's high prices, but you know what? Jerry's sandwiches are the size of two normal sandwiches (three normal sandwiches if you order the #10 triple-decker with roast turkey, Swiss cheese, pastrami, and Russian dressing). Other good eats: intensely poultry-rich chicken soup with matzo balls, cold beet borscht, hearty sweet/sour cabbage/tomato soup with short ribs, shredded crispy onion rings, foamy-headed chocolate creams. Also lox, onions, and soft-scrambled eggs, a breakfast dish that, like all breakfast items, is more satisfying when ending a day at 3:00 a.m. than beginning one at 7:00.

Readers Choice: Dennys

Black-truffle-stuffed tubes of foie gras, $58 bottles of aged balsamic vinegar, tiny round tins of salty black fish eggs -- these are pleasant things to consider, especially if you're sitting at a marble counter, nibbling a delicious smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese sandwich and contemplating the department stores around you as they employ entirely new adjectives to describe pants. This is something you should do if you find yourself caught in mall land, feeling a bit light-headed and susceptible to the marketing onslaught. Find the Caviar & More kiosk. Order one of the array of small sandwiches served on French rolls, such as the aforementioned salmon for $2.29, a cheese manchego for $1.92, or even the foie gras sandwich for $12. There is also a caviar menu, with one- or two-ounce portions served with toast points, maybe a little crème fraîche. The caviar runs from a modest $6.50 an ounce for salmon roe to top-of-the-line Beluga (here the Huso Huso, a "smooth and pearly" Russian caviar that costs $71 an ounce if you eat it at the counter).

Yuca, plantain, papaya, all the subtropical specialties you could want: Frutería Los Girasoles is a way for Miami residents to partake of Homestead's bounty of fresh produce without having to make the drive (or at least not the entire drive). Produce prices stand out, but shoppers can also choose from an array of citrus marinades, tamarind candy, chilies of all shapes and sizes -- dried and fresh -- or knickknacks like the sculpture of a sombrero-clad stereotype napping under a cactus. The store is still pretty far south on Krome Avenue, but the selection and prices are worth the effort (and besides, it's scenic). On a recent weekend plum tomatoes went for a dollar per pound, a dozen ears of corn cost three dollars, and patrons swamped the orange stand, bagging dozens at the six-for-a-buck price.

The festively decorated Paquito's, its rooms festooned with a combination of folksy and kitschy decorations, dishes up genuine Mexican cooking the likes of which you'd find in a good fonda south of the border. Traditional fare ranges from a sopa de tortilla, sopes (small round cornmeal discs topped with refried beans and shredded cheese, served as starters), the classic chocolately rich mole poblano with chicken, tamales, and a real stick-to-your-ribs, homestyle dish, chilaquiles (pieces of tortillas soaked in sauce, topped with chicken and cheese). Margaritas are good but beer is a better accompaniment to food, and Paquito's carries a number of brands, among them the amber Pacifico as well as darker brews Negra Modelo and Bohemia. Desserts include standard Latin sweets like flan but also include crepas de cajeta -- cajeta is apparently an obscenity in certain South American quarters, but in Mexico it means dulce de leche de cabra (goat).

Readers Choice: Dos Amigas

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 Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®