Casita Tejas Mexican Restaurant
Tacos are simple concoctions, usually containing only three or four ingredients, so the little things -- a sprinkle of fresh cilantro, a squirt of lime juice -- can make a big difference. At Casita Tejas the difference is the meat. The chicken, ground beef, and pork tacos ($6.50 for any combination of three with rice and beans) all have well-marinated, good-quality meat, and the chefs at Casita Tejas take care not to overcook. But the steak tacos ($7.50 for three with rice and beans) are the reason to eat at Casita Tejas. Perfectly cooked flank steak slices -- not the dried-out shards of meat you find at so many taco stands and restaurants -- are marinated for twelve hours, though Casita Tejas manager Veronica Corona won't divulge the ingredients in the secret marinade. The restaurant has been a staple on Krome Avenue for fifteen years. The sunny interior looks out, via wall-length windows, onto Homestead's main drag (for what it's worth). Corona isn't troubled by the view across a parking lot at rival restaurant El Toro Taco (the 2002 New Times Best Taco winner). "We've been here so long," she shrugs, "people know us and we're constantly busy."

Sit in a booth, or sidle up to the counter and enjoy a massive repast with any and all combinations of the breakfast staples that make you want to go right back to bed: ham, bacon, sausage, waffles, pancakes, eggs, biscuits, gravy, grits. Chuck Wagon breakfasts provide the caloric intake you would need for ploughing your fields or rounding up cattle (rather than sitting at your terminal, wondering if co-workers can hear your stomach gurgle through the cubicle walls). Breakfast is available all day, and specials last from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m. Daily specials include a two eggs, grits, and bacon breakfast for $2, and omelet and breakfast combos that change every day, but hover around the $4-$5 price range.

Miami Subs Grill
Why are Miami Subs' fries so addictive? First of all, they're more visually appealing than the pale-yellow "freedom" fries dished up at other fast-food joints. Miami Subs cooks its fries until they're a golden, resonant brown. That means they're always crunchy and never underdone like those of so many competitors. But the real attraction, the reason you can't help coming back repeatedly for these rail-thin spuds, is the secret seasoning that imparts a memorable yet mysterious flavor -- a little spicy, a little exotic. Miami Subs honchos will not divulge the precise recipe, and that's fine. Who wants to try this at home anyway?

Readers Choice: McDonalds

Perricone's Marketplace & Cafe
Photo by Lynn Parks
There's nothing more romantic than a picnic, right? A blanket spread in a secluded seaside nook or beneath a flowering tree. A column of red ants marching across your blanket. Sand flying into your plastic wine glass. And those damn flowers falling into your tuna fish salad. Maybe a picnic's not so romantic after all. You want the greenery, the seclusion, the quiet without all the dirt and pests. And, let's face it, you want a repast that's a little more seductive than what you can cram into a Tupperware tub. So call Perricone's and make a reservation for one of the tables on the back patio. If you really want to get intimate, ask for the wicker chairs beneath the trellis. No one will see you but the waiter when he brings you delectable dishes -- on real dishes. When he's gone, all you'll hear is the whir of the ceiling fans and the sighs of your beloved.

BEST RESTAURANT WHEN SOMEONE ELSE IS PAYINGWhen it comes to subjects of fine-dining debates, La Broche has been a veritable gastronomic epicenter. Just voicing the name of this controversial restaurant is enough to launch earthquakes of opinions, accompanied by tidal waves of whetted appetites and burning fires of curiosity. Indeed the fare that executive chef Angel Palacios prepares at this offshoot of the two-Michelin-star original in Spain can be called nothing less than incredibly avant-garde, highlighted by an array of foams, gelatins, and interesting if not always appetizing parts of animals. When all is said and done -- or eaten, rather -- La Broche isn't any more expensive than the usual prime suspects around town. But when it comes right down to the pork turbot in pea sauce garnished with sea urchin and "empanadas" of trout egg or basil-gelatin lollipops encasing tomatoes and watermelon, which you may or may not find truly exhilarating, you just might be relieved by the saving grace: "At least I didn't have to pay for it."

Hang out in Tokyo after working hours and you're likely to see hordes of men in suits, knocking back shots of sake or bottles of beer and feasting on sushi and yakitori at loud tavern-style eateries known as izakayas. Hang out in Coral Gables at the almost-hidden Japanese restaurant Su-Shin Izakaya and you're likely to behold the same sight. Of course those businessmen have wandered in from the hotel across the street, yet they seem right at home. What contributes to that feeling? The artfully wrapped rolls filled with the freshest slices of fish such as tuna, salmon, or yellowtail; daily specials such as maguro youke (lean chopped tuna topped with shiso leaves and served in a frosted glass bowl); and the most delicate sashimi. Makes you want to raise your glass and say "kampai!" too.

CARMEN GONZALEZ

CARMEN THE RESTAURANT, 700 Biltmore Way (David William Hotel), Coral Gables, 305-913-1944

The recent opening of Carmen the Restaurant completes a circle for chef/owner Carmen Gonzalez. In 1988, after testing her culinary skills at New York's Quilted Giraffe, Gonzalez left Manhattan for Miami. She landed in Coral Gables and in January 1989 opened her own restaurant, Clowns. New Times, in a praiseworthy review, had this to say: "The menu is on the cutting edge of what food critics are calling 'Americanized Caribbean.' Gonzalez calls it a blend of Southwestern, Caribbean, and California cuisine, but I prefer to call it Carmen-ized -- it's her creation." Clowns didn't survive, but Gonzalez moved on to executive positions at the Miami Club and the Tamarind Bar and Grill. Then she created a successful catering company. Now the lure of the restaurant business has drawn her back -- back to the creative challenge, to the Gables, and to an establishment of her own.

BEST LOCAL LANDMARK

The Biltmore Hotel.

BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI

Any month where the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

BEST CHEAP THRILL

Chicken wings at Flanigan's.

BEST NOT-SO-CHEAP THRILL

Dining in Paris.

BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI

The original Casa Lario's.

BEST DINING TREND

Any -- as long as someone else cooks.

BEST NATURAL HIGH

Being in my kitchen.

BEST PICNIC SPOT

Crandon Park.

BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI

All the wonderful friends and colleagues I've met in my years of living here, and being a part of the culinary community.

RECIPE

ROASTED DUCK TAMALES WITH VINTAGE PORT SAUCE

Yields: Around 20 large or 40 appetizer-size tamales

1 pack corn husks, rinsed and soaked in warm water for one hour

Roast duck:

1 5-pound fresh duckling

1/2 medium onion

1 bouquet garni

1/2 carrot

5 garlic cloves, whole

3 celery stalks

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse duck under cold water and pat dry. Season both inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff the duck with onion, bouquet garni, carrot, garlic, and celery. Place duck in a cooling rack and roast at 425 for one hour. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and cook for another 30 minutes or until the inside temperature reaches 160-170. Remove from oven and let it cool. Cut or break duck into 8 pieces (2 breasts) for easier handling. With fingers and knife, separate as much meat from the bones as you can. Then, using just your fingers, tear meat pieces into thin shreds roughly one-half to one inch long (as you would for ropa vieja or pulled pork).

Vintage port sauce:

2 cups vintage port

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons shallots, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon chives

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in sauce pan, add shallots and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add port and wine vinegar, reduce by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half. Finish with remaining butter and chives.

Tamales:

(For the masa)

1/2 cup grilled corn kernels

1 medium Spanish onion

1 cup water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Purée the corn and onion with water in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in butter and shortening. Using your fingers, mix in the rest of the ingredients until it all comes together and there are no lumps.

To assemble:

Remove the husks from the water, drain, and lay on paper towels to dry. Tear two 1-inch-wide strips for each tamale to tie them. Lay two husks overlapping on a flat surface; place about 1/3 cup of the masa in the center; place 2 tablespoons of the shredded duck on top. Bring both sides of the husk up over the filling. Twist each end to wrap it up tightly, pushing the mixture to the middle as you tie it up. Steam the tamales covered on a bamboo steamer for 45 minutes. At this point they can be frozen for up to two weeks.

To serve:

Use a paring knife to cut lengthwise across each tamale and push toward the middle to expose filling. Place 2 tablespoons of duck on top and drizzle it with 2 tablespoons of port sauce.

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.

Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant
Power lunch no longer implies Eighties-style business suits meeting over plates of ostrich carpaccio served in white-linen restaurants where the valets earn more than your secretary. If we've learned anything from the dot.com era, it's that sometimes the sweetest deals are scripted in duds that have seen less holey days and sealed not by a slash of the Cross fountain pen but by the clink of two pint glasses topped off with a mousse of India Pale Ale. At Gordon Biersch, one of the only downtown venues to regularly draw the workaday crowd, you can actually find both kinds of players: the stuffed shirt and the beer belly, lunching on pizzas and gourmet salads and fresh-brewed suds. Rest assured they have two things in common -- something on the table and something in the works.

Delicias is a delightful little neighborhood eatery housed in an unremarkable building on Miami's main drag. The food is good and reasonably priced. The tables are covered in Peruvian blankets protected by glass tops. A tragic telenovela quietly plays itself out on a television mounted high on the wall. An old man sits at the counter, slowly finishing his fish soup. And you are sitting at a table near a window, about to order a fresh, expertly prepared ceviche. This place has six varieties (all marinated in lemon juice): octopus, shrimp, fish, shellfish, and combinations. Order it and a drink to go. Take the lot and walk east, down to the water's edge. Eat your grub and gaze out onto Biscayne Bay.

"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

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®