On a scale from one to ten, the décor at Raja's hovers somewhere around zero, meaning nothing -- but it's very, very clean. Nonetheless this hole-in-the-wall is a tiny treasure well worth preserving. Yet considering the now-you-see-them-now-you-don't pace at which downtown development is obliterating low-rent operations, one cannot help but worry about Raja's. And it's not just because the mom-and-pop luncheonette is unique, or because the Kandaswamy family, who hail from Tiruchchirapalli, south of Madras, run the county's only South Indian restaurant. But to find a better version of this fare anywhere south of Manhattan's Little India would be more difficult than trying to pronounce the owners' hometown. Although the steam-table curries provide fine instant gratification, the must-not-miss items are the $4.35 dosai (light, lacy, thin rice/dhal-batter crpes wrapped around buttery spiced potato filling); slightly thicker fried uttapam pancakes ($6.99), crisp-edged but springy in the middle and topped with chilies or onions; and fat steamed idli patties ($5.50) ideal for dipping in Raja's sweet chutneys and salty sambars. A glass of excellent mango lassi ($2.50) will make the twenty-minute wait for these custom-crafted snacks pass painlessly.
Healthy fast food is an oxymoron. When describing those who frequent unhealthy fast-food restaurants regularly, you can take away the oxy. Eating is pleasure, so what's the rush? Yes, you have a point -- lunch hour lasts only so long. And sometimes you just do not have time to linger over dinner. But if you are going to go the dumb fast-food route, you might as well do it smartly by heading to Giardino Gourmet Salads. It's a little place with seating for only about two dozen, but that's because Giardino specializes in the speediest of dining options -- take-out. Take-out salads, mostly, which are prepared faster than you can say Big Mac. There are 31 predesigned combinations based on a variety of lettuce greens, from a simple caesar spiked with bacon, to seafood salad with lemon-dill dressing, to Asian salad with tahini-curry dressing. Do-it-yourself types can customize their own salads. Choose from traditional fixings like tomatoes, cucumbers, and grated carrots, to more unusual garnishes such as Japanese seaweed flakes, shredded coconut, and baby corn. Countless such toppings line the counter along with more than 30 housemade dressings and 18 types of croutons, which means the number of potential creations one can concoct is nearly infinite -- slightly more than infinite should you decide to roll your salad into a sandwich (there are rice paper wraps and flour tortillas to do so; take that, Subway!). Middle Eastern selections like tabbouleh and hummus are also on hand, as are better-than-to-be-expected desserts -- especially the frothy fruit mousses. A giant greens-based salad is $9, medium-size is $7, and a generously portioned small version is $5. Eat your heart out at KFC, or treat it gently at Giardino.

Best Inexpensive Italian Restaurant

Il Migliore

Il Migliore Trattoria
Devin Peppler
This humble neighborhood trattoria in Aventura boasts all the attributes one seeks in Italian dining: simple, rustic Tuscan décor; friendly, knowledgeable, efficient service; a great selection of "25 wines for $25"; and, most pertinent, perfectly executed Italian cooking. Chef/owner Neal Cooper's streamlined style of cuisine reflects the European tradition of freshness over flair and the Old World idea that honest ingredients are beautiful as is. In other words, Il Migliore's spaghetti pomodoro needs only sweet, ripe, fire engine red tomatoes to impress. Eggy fettuccine noodles rely simply on earthy wild mushrooms and a light perfume of white truffle oil. Juicy slices of grilled skirt steak, tenderloin of pork, and lamb chops are minimally, and quite seductively, dressed in varying outfits of garlic, lemon, olive oil, and fresh herbs. Hell, this place would have to be considered one of our finest eateries if only for its crunchy, golden brown homemade French fries that come absolutely inundated with fresh herbs. Main courses are heartily portioned, yet almost all are priced less than $20.
Neil Simon once said the only three sureties in life are death, taxes, and everybody loves Italian food. That explains why it is tough getting a table at Macaluso's. After all, in this town nobody cooks up better booty from the boot-shape country than this strip-mall restaurant on Alton Road. "Just say no" is the mantra here: No lunch hours, no reservations, no menus, no substitutions. Yet when it comes to chef/owner Michael Vito D'Andrea's Staten Island take on homespun Italian classics, all one can say is yes, yes, yes. Aromas of garlic and tomatoes waft from the open kitchen into the spare, square, osteria-style dining room, and so do thin-crust pizzas bearing golden edges, al dente pastas embellished with just enough sauce, and house specialties such as fluffy meatballs, prodigious prawns perked with spicy hot peppers, and a peerless tiramisu. Appetizers range from $10 to $20, entrées from $19 to $38. Waiters are well versed in the menu (they have to be; it's their job to recite it in full to each table) and knowledgeable about the wide range of Italian wines. Drink up -- the only other things you have to look forward to are death and taxes.
An estimated half of our nation's tomatoes come from Florida. Many are shipped from fields in the Redland's agricultural area less than an hour outside downtown Miami. Yet even in peak season, most supermarket specimens (including those at expensive specialty stores like Epicure) are ethylene-injected, semigreen things that are hard and tasteless. You might as well eat a baseball. Try this stand's produce instead. Most people discover Robert Is Here because it is located on the road leading to the main gate of Everglades National Park. The story: Six-year-old Robert Moehling Jr.'s farmer-father stuck him on the roadside with a table of surplus cucumbers. The first day, there were no sales because the youngster was not visible above car windows. The next day, armed with large signs reading "Robert Is Here" painted on hurricane shutters, he sold out by 11:00 a.m. Roughly 45 years later, Robert is still here (when not working the farm), as are genuinely red-ripe tomatoes and a host of South Florida's other mainstream crops. You will also find an array of weird and exotic tropical produce: Monstera deliciosa, black sapote, anon (sugar apple), canistel (egg fruit), et cetera. In addition he sells locally produced jams, sauces, and flavored honeys. Children love the giant tortoises and iguanas in Robert's minizoo out back. And everyone loves Robert's thick milkshakes, made from key limes, strawberries, or whatever else is in season.
If the tasty, inexpensive food at this hole-in-the-wall located in the back of a Jamaican market is not enough reason to journey to the far-off reaches of Kendall, the chance to hang out and schmooze with proprietor Audrey "Mama" Chai surely should get your rear in gear. As delightful as her modest little eatery, she will make you feel like a family friend who just dropped by for a meal. And a good meal it will be. Dig into callaloo with saltfish, a sturdy soup that eats like a stew, featuring the spinachlike callaloo and chunks of pungent salt cod. Or get your saltfish with creamy, buttery ackee, a staple fruit of Jamaican cuisine with the texture of softly scrambled eggs. Jerk chicken and goat curry are Caribbean comfort food, Mama's home cookin'. For a really great deal, check out the lunch specials available until 2:00 p.m. priced at only $5.75.
Once upon a time, the lands just northwest of Homestead promised agricultural bounty. Fields of tomatoes, strawberries, and tropical fruits stretched along Krome Avenue as far as the eye could see. The times certainly are a-changing. A recent tour of the Redland, west of South Dixie Highway, revealed a sad, startling dearth of U-pick farms and an influx of new development. Where farms once flourished stand plant nurseries, new buildings, and definite signs that urban sprawl is quickly taking root in the southland's fertile soil. Robert Moehling, proprietor of Robert Is Here, a bustling produce stand farther south, presents one theory. "The U-Picks are closing because the insurance rates are too high. Farmers just can't afford to let customers pick on their property anymore," he says while busily stacking tomatoes. Rachel Grafe, one of the friendly German Baptist women who work at Knauss Berry Farm, offers her own reasoning. "Farming is going out in South Florida. A lot of the farmers here are selling out to developers, and the farmland is just kind of disappearing," she says. Thankfully there's still Knauss Berry Farm, with its sweetly old-fashioned red-and-white structure that defies the drumbeat of progress. Urbanites with a hankering to pluck produce off the stalk are welcome during the season -- mid-November through April 30, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. -- to pick plump tomatoes for $1 per pound and sweet strawberries for $2 per pound. Although the shop also sells lettuce and juicy onions, the real lure of Knauss is the wafting scent of baked goods. No visit is complete without a purchase of sticky cinnamon buns. A mere $6.30 buys a dozen, or shell out $8.50 for twelve pecan rolls instead. A succulent strawberry rhubarb pie costs $7.30, and the fresh-baked honey wheat bread is $2.70 a loaf. The traditionally dressed German Baptists greet every customer with a friendly smile and a helpful attitude that is just as refreshing as the fruity milkshakes they sell.
Taquerias El Mexicano
Courtesy of Taquerias El Mexicano
You might think tacos are the specialty here -- they usually are at tacquerías. Plus this place serves eight types, including spicy pork, steam-cooked beef, and roast chicken, as well as a mean brain taco, but we mention that only so you will note this joint's allegiance to authenticity. But what sets Taquerías el Mexicano apart from other local south-of-the-border eateries is not only its tasty take on tacos, tostadas, and tamales, but also harder-to-find specialties such as braised lamb, spare ribs in hot sauce, succulent roast pork, and a slew of robust chicken stews. There are seven brands of Mexican beers to choose from too, but that's not all: Breakfast here is the bomb. Try the chilaquiles, which are tortilla chips simmered in green sauce and smothered in scrambled eggs, cheese, sour cream, rice, and beans. That's quite a meal for $4.95, and a buck more will bring an exemplary café con leche. Can you say that about your favorite Mexican restaurant?
This used to be known as the place to go for stone crabs when you couldn't get a table at Joe's main seafood house next door. It still is, but over the years, Joe's Take Away has emerged as a worthwhile destination in its own right. The sweetest of stone crabs are packed up with mustard sauce, melted butter, a bib, and a bag of Joe's signature assorted rolls. The fried chicken sandwich flies with the best and is only $5.95. Half a bronzed rotisserie chicken, lacquered with Asian-style barbecue sauce, comes with corn muffin, coleslaw, and potato salad for $6.95 -- accompanied by a bag of those rolls, as are all orders. Classic salads (caesar, chopped) are gargantuan, and fresh seafood (oysters, crabcakes, grilled or fried fish) are what Joe's is known for -- well, that and the famous sides of creamed spinach, fried green tomatoes, and steak-house potatoes (hash browns, lyonnaise, and so on). One of the world's great key lime pies is available at the extensive coffee bar and bakery section, as is chocolate pecan pie, giant cookies, biscotti, and a heavenly angel food cake with chocolate chips and chocolate whipped cream. Wines, beers, and espressos are poured too, which means you can grab a table inside the brightly lit shop and turn your take-out foods into an eat-out dinner -- just like at Joe's main restaurant, except without waiters or wait. Plus you can get something here that's not available next door: breakfast.
The first symptom of the craving is when everything else you eat suddenly feels like chewing chalk. You suddenly understand why people are addicted to getting tattoos and body piercings -- that desire for stimulation sets in. Mustard and horseradish and onions, endowed with unnamable healing properties, begin appearing in your dreams. Or perhaps it is some primordial connection to the sea, this sudden craving for brine and salt and fish oil that insistently pesters and will not shut up. This feeling can be satisfied only by entering Arnie and Richie's and witnessing the slabs of Nova Scotia and belly lox and sable sprawled in a glass display case and sniffing that smell, the one that separates the lover of flavorful food from the finicky hipster. You sit down and await your platter; spread the cream cheese carefully on your toasted onion bagel; layer it with the pink fish, a ripe tomato, and some onions; love that you are going to smell like this all day. One bite and you're transported to the tenement housing of your ancestors, to their love for the pungent, for the pumpernickel and rye. You utter a silent thanks for their persistence, which took them from the ice fields of Eastern Europe all the way here, to paradise, where you honor them through eating. Most dishes cost less than $10; breakfast ranges from $3.50 to $7.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®