Norman's
It's not surprising that Norman's remains the Gables's best restaurant. Quite frankly Norman's could give the best restaurants in New York, San Francisco, or Paris a run for their money. What's surprising is that there are still Miamians who haven't been to Norman Van Aken's mega-award-winning, elegant yet friendly place. Sure, it's expensive. But so are many other Miami restaurants that are just upscale meals. Norman's is a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- or would be if it weren't for the fact that no one who's been once can resist going back again and again, to revisit favorite classic dishes such as yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with sour orange mojo, a zingy 21st-century take on traditional Cuban roast pork, or The Ultimate conch chowder (saffron/citrus-tinged, creamy-smooth, and topped with a rich foam "cloud"), as well as to taste-test the myriad of astonishing new surprises Van Aken always, like a world-class magician, has up his sleeve. Recent new inventions include Brazilian-influenced black-eyed pea acarajé fritters stuffed with blue crab; a "New World" duck duo (mango barbecued duck in a green chili crêpe, plus slices of wood oven-roasted rare duck breast with a cumin/scallion sour crema); and a remarkably innovative sushi trio (think crisp West Coast kumamoto oyster in piquant unagi dressing with Asian shoots, or tuna tartare with quail egg) whose only flaw is that there are only three rather than thirty per serving. Hungry yet? Don't mind us. Go eat. See ya next year, Norman, same time, same BOM category.

Readers Choice: Normans

Tasty Beach Cafe
A mensch, as defined in Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, is "someone of consequence," of solid character. This could also serve as the definition of a bagel -- a real bagel, that is, chewy enough to provide challenge, not those puffed-up pillows sold by supermarkets and most bagel chains, many of which don't even bother boiling their sissy specimens before baking them. For a bagel with guts you go to the source -- H&H Bagels of New York, by many accounts the world's absolute best. (Visit www.hhbagels.com to learn more.) Though the mid-Miami Beach branch of the originally NYC-based Tasti D-Lite chain makes most of its tasty baked goods in-house, the owners are wise enough to not mess with perfection. Their bagels are flown in from H&H. These are bagels that provide resistance to the teeth and honest yeasty flavor that comes from its own dough, not from blueberries, chocolate chips, or other frou-frou additions. They are mensch bagels, and in providing them, Tasti D-Lite has done Miami's human mensches a mitzvah.

Sit down at the counter and take a load off, brothers and sisters. Slow your heart rate with mellow reggae, fruit juice, and a salad. Emperor Haile Selassie stares down at you from the walls, regal and peaceful. Gentle philosophy is mixed into the smoothies. "It's the right way to live," claims the Rastafarian behind the counter. "I might die of pollution or an accident, but never from eating wrong."

Taquerias El Mexicano
Courtesy of Taquerias El Mexicano
Little Havana is changing. It used to be difficult to take the red peppers and mix them with the green, blend the onions with the grilled chickens and luscious strips of beef. But no longer. In a post-Elian world, you can bring it all together under the cover of a warm corn tortilla. Remember, fajita comes from the Latin word fascia, which means band, as in band together. So if you're going out for a little dialogue with your friends, why not stop at this Mexican restaurant, see the new Little Havana, and put all the ingredients together at last.

Just utter the words "La Broche" and you may find yourself embroiled in controversy. Controversy is La Broche's -- and its cutting-edge Spanish chef Angel Palacios's -- middle name. In fact debate has raged within these very pages about said avant-garde Spanish cuisine and its ingredients. But hey, creativity often stirs controversy, and this offshoot of the famous Madrid mothership is nothing if not creative. You definitely will want to try the Spaniard's signature "foam," used to top many a dish (raspberry foam on cauliflower soup, anyone?). But there's more to La Broche than foam. There are, for example, duck livers and rockfish, confits of lamb and codfish, sweet-potato cappuccino with ginger and coconut, turbot fillet with pork trotters. This is, for Miami, something very fresh and exciting. It is also expensive. But sometimes you have to pay for the best.

Readers Choice: Casa Juancho

Covertly it lurks in the refrigerated case, concealed among the soft drinks and ice teas. The double agent of desserts, it is rich yet somehow light and not off-puttingly eggy. A quivering homemade creation that is simultaneously rico and suave. See, the real secret at the Secret Sandwich Co. is not the sandwiches but the desserts, especially the flan. And now that we've told you, we'll have to kill you.

BEST RESTAURANT TO DIE IN THE PAST TWELVE MONTHS

Macau

It always was easy to overlook this hole-in-the-wall eatery, located in a nondescript minimall on NE 167th Street, so possibly you've driven by a dozen times in the last few months without noticing it's gone. But the next time you're in the mood for authentic Chinese food, you will not be able to find any because May Wong's one-woman operation was virtually the only place in the county, save a couple of good dim sum joints, where you could find actual Chinese Chinese food -- not Americanized stuff but rather the dishes only found, outside of China, in sophisticated urban Asian outposts like San Francisco and Vancouver. Delicate sautéed pea sprouts with crab, dry-style or wet (sauced) fresh ho fan noodles, comforting porridge-like ginger-spiked shrimp and mushroom congee, addictive whole salty pepper shrimp (with the heads left on for maximum flavor) on a bed of crunchy-battered Chinese broccoli. You can't continue the list without wanting to run right out and -- but there's no place to run. And don't bother grilling the nice guys from the Thai restaurant that's replaced Macau about a possible new location. We've tried and they don't know. If you're reading this, May, come back! Miami needs you!

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.

Two Chefs
Dining alone is both an art and a science. Therefore the solo diner obviously has a dual appreciation for both the imagination and the intellect. Where else to find the creativity as well as the observational opportunities necessary to keep such a person entertained than at the bar of Two Chefs? This ten-seater is cozy enough to get to know your neighbor but roomy enough to be served a full-course meal. And not just any meal, but one that might include escargot pot pie with smoked pork and sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus salad with Maine lobster and chimichurri, or a flatbread topped with Chinese black bean barbecued shrimp. Nor does the inspired elegance stop short of the wine list, which comprises smartly chosen, internationally renowned vintages that are poured into Riedel glassware. Feel the need to chat with someone about the virtues of the Gary Farrell Zinfandel and how it pairs with the oak-baked portobello with Gruyère and sourdough toast? Seek out the two chefs themselves, Soren Bredahl and Jan Jorgensen -- when two names are on the marquee, it's a pretty good bet that at least one is in the kitchen at all times.

Readers Choice: At home

Homestead may seem an unlikely location for an Asian grocery, but Sau Leung explains the simple reason why she and husband Tim, a Cantonese couple from Hong Kong, wound up peddling Sri Racha sauce in a town known for taco stands and pickup trucks. "We used to live in Kendall, but Homestead is much nicer. The people are nicer." Fair enough -- the traffic's better, too, although Sau admits that a dearth of customers is starting to cause business problems. "There's a little bit more Thai and Vietnamese people coming to Homestead, but most of them work in farming so they don't need to buy vegetables from us." In addition to a prodigious supply of produce, Tim's shelves are stocked with multitudes of fish and oyster sauces, won ton and egg roll wrappers, sesame oils, spices and spice mixes, noodles, even Asian dishware and paper lamps. If you're coming from Kendall, buy a six-pack of Kirin for $7.50 -- it should last about as long as it takes to navigate the traffic home.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®