The Mahogany Grille

Miami's hip-hop fans are quick to identify our city as part of the "Dirty South." Musically, perhaps there's an argument to be made. But when it comes to cuisine, Miami may as well be North Dakota. It's practically impossible to find a decent soul food joint in these parts. We're talking real soul food — not one of those so-called American cuisine joints that just throws on their menus some ribs and mac 'n' cheese drizzled with truffle oil or baked in balls studded with weird chunks of jalapeños. A real down-home soul food joint has got to have barbecue. It's got to have real macaroni and cheese. And it also should have grits, collard greens, and candied yams. Plus it'd be really nice if the joint weren't a hole-in-the-wall; just because the place is offering down-home cookin' doesn't mean the décor can't be elegant. Mahogany Grille has all of that and then some. The chefs here go above and beyond, offering regional fixings such as Southern fried chicken and waffles (served with a generous portion of sweet potato fries), as well as plenty of jerk recipes, conch fritters, and oxtail stew for island transplants looking for the kind of food mama used to make. And it's affordable. The priciest item on the menu is the $32 rib eye. As the name implies, Mahogany's atmosphere is plush, dark, warm, and inviting. The dessert menu is to die for — any first-time visitor shouldn't miss the butter sweet potato pecan cheesecake. It's as rich, sweet, and decadent as you'd imagine.

Delicias de España

Ten Reasons why Delicias is better than the rest:

10. Quaint, low-key tearoom setting.

9. Spanish-style breakfasts are served, as well as lunch, dinner, and chocolate con churros for merienda (afternoon snack).

8. Dining room leads to Delicias's Spanish import market (both opened in 1997 and seem to expand every few years), which sells thousands of items such as hams, cheeses, sausages, wines, perfumes, ceramics, and a wide array of paella pans.

7. Fresh fish flown in from Spain's Cantabric Sea twice a week.

6. Fabiano Asturiana, a meat-and-bean specialty from Asturia, Spain (native land of husband/wife owners Ernesto Llerandi and Isabel Miranda).

5. Gazpacho andaluz, garlic-laden clams, and peppers stuffed with bacalao and rice, each under $10.

4. Small tray of luxurious Ibérico ham ($25).

3. Large tray of luxurious Ibérico ham ($45).

2. Pastry cases filled with homemade charlottes, tarts, cakes, soufflés, petits fours, truffles — plenty of choices to accompany a steamy café con leche.

1. Monkfish in garlic sauce ($25) and lubina a la plancha (griddled sea bass, $25), langostinos a la plancha (griddled king prawns, $30), served with garlicky roasted potatoes. That's about half what it would cost in your favorite Spanish restaurant.

Bourbon Steak by Michael Mina
Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa

Maine lobster, spice-poached prawns, stone crabs, East and West Coast oysters, littleneck clams, and complete caviar service. That's the raw bar. Lobster, crab, foie gras, and American Kobe beef compose some of the appetizers — each luxe item offered three ways. Such as lobster-bacon-and-shiso-wrapped fritters with yuzu crème fraîche, or butter-poached lobster with chanterelles and corn pudding crêpe, or lobster grilled cheese croutons atop heirloom tomato soup. "Michael's Classics" include whole-fried organic chicken, Kobe burgers, and tapioca-crusted yellowtail snapper. Sides? How about the signature trio of duck-fat fries? Yes, that's fries fried in duck fat. Let's take a breath before getting to the steaks. This is a steak house, after all. An acclaimed steak house, in fact, that celebrated West Coast chef Michael Mina opened in The Fairmont Turnberry Resort this past year. There are all-natural certified Angus beef steaks; American Kobe steaks; and the exquisitely marbled Japanese A5 Kobe steaks. And rack of lamb and pork short ribs and all kinds of cuts. Get ready for the clincher: All meats are poached in fat prior to grilling. Steaks in butter, lamb in olive oil, and pork in bacon lard. It might also be mentioned that the décor is gorgeous, service superb, wine list exceptional — but is that even necessary? And we can close by saying how oh-so-costly it is to dine here — but does that really matter?

Astor Cuba Restaurant & Lounge

More than a decade ago, the Hotel Astor in South Beach was renowned for its Sunday brunch. The food was good, but it was gospel queen Maryel Epps who brought the crowds in. Well, Ms. Epps has once again been belting out soulful tunes at the Astor's "Inspirational Brunch," but this time she is doing so in the new Joley Restaurant, where the cuisine is bright enough to share the spotlight (the chef is John Suley, who trained under Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsey). Diners start with a mimosa and then choose one of nine appetizers (oysters on the half-shell; crisp quail, sweet potato, collard greens, and chorizo); a dozen entrées (eggs Benedict; pancakes with bananas Foster sauce; omelet stuffed with wild mushroom, Parmesan, and white truffle; steak frites); and five desserts (cinnamon walnut coffee cake; lemongrass soup with coconut ice cream). The brunch runs from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the singing from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Performance and meal: $44.

TRUE OR FALSE:

1. Matsuri looks like a dive.

False. Used to be true, but last year the place was renovated. Now it is swathed in soothing woods and exudes a rather upscale appearance.

2. The menu is written entirely in Japanese so non-Japanese diners have no idea what they are ordering.

True. But there is a different, somewhat similar menu written in English.

3. It has been open in West Miami-Dade since 1988.

True.

4. Yaki ika, hotate yaki, madai, and o-toro are the names of Japan's latest pop music sensations.

False. Just some cuts of sushi you won't find at many places other than Matsuri.

5. Matsuri's waiters dress like Johnny Cash.

True.

6. Ankimo monkfish liver is also known as "chopped liver for the goyim."

False. It is, however, sometimes referred to as "Japanese foie gras," and Matsuri's got it.

7. Mori awase is Japanese for "cheap crap," and at Matsuri is an all-you-can-eat-for-$5 buffet featuring fish that doesn't smell so good.

False. Mori awase is Matsuri's top-end sushi assortment, and it offers stellar-quality slices of nigiri.

8. Thirty-five percent of Matsuri's clientele is Japanese-American.

False. It's closer to 40 percent. Or 45 percent. Or maybe it is 35 percent. Hard to say.

9. Matsuri's product is fresher than anyone else's, yet it costs considerably less.

True.

10. Matsuri has the best sushi.

How many damn ways do we have to spell it out for you?

Xixón Spanish Restaurant
Photo by Michael McElroy

Girl: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.

Professor: Again.

Girl: Octopus in vinaigrette never leaves one with regret.

Professor: Huh?

Girl: I eat chorizo in apple sidra and pork sausage frita whenever I read the Bhagavidad Gita with Rita.

Professor: Let's take it from the top.

Girl: Xixón Café serves some two dozen tapas all day, on Coral Way, till 8 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, till 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday without delay, but hey — not Sunday.

Professor: I said "top," not "tapas."

Girl: Fried white anchovies and gazpacho are more macho than a nacho.

Professor: Now you're just being obnoxious.

Girl: Steamed clams, ma'am, with a bocadillo of that damn Serrano ham — and it's no flimflam scam, tapas are $6 to $14 and can be eaten on the lam.

Professor: Okay, maybe we should break for lunch.

Girl: Spanish wines, cavas, and queso Manchego. Let's take the Winnebago, Diego.

Professor: By George, I think she's got it!

Thai House South Beach

Adventures in high-ticket parking and sunburned tourists are just a part of a trip to South Beach. Steps from the din of vacationers is an oasis of amazing Thai cuisine. Once you've removed your shoes and are comfortably perched at a low table inside Thai House, the aromas of curries and peanutty sauces just whisper that what you're preparing to indulge in is well worth a battle through the SoBe hubbub. The exotic names of dishes such as si-oew (your choice of meat sautéed with scallions, ginger, and honey sauce) and tom kha kai (a soup of chicken, mushrooms, lemongrass, and coconut milk, $4.75) will have you blubbering to a waiter, but the staff will gladly walk you through each course. And when your server asks what spice level (from one to four) you want, be aware that four means "can melt a gut of steel," so even three has enough spice to make your eyes run. Instead of trying to cool your tongue with water, try resting your eyes on one of the antique Buddhas or reveling in the feng shui, and the cool just might spring from within. Whether you like your curry red or green and your duck crispy or diamond, Thai House has traditional favorites prepared to accentuate the five essential elements of the fare: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and salty. Plus there are large portions, all items made fresh-to-order, and reasonable prices, with staples such as chicken curry going for $15.95 and pad thai for $13.95. In other words, it's Thai worth the trek.

Orange Cafe Art

It's as American as apple pie,

Find it at picnics, in your fridge, and probably contributing to the fat in your thigh.

Because the fact of the matter is, whether you're poor or rich,

Almost everyone can afford a can of tuna fish.

You can spread it on a Ritz,

Or hide it between slices of bread if you wish.

It's also good on top of salad,

Or straight from the fork, however you like.

Sometimes it's really good, like, ahem at Orange Café,

And sometimes it tastes like that crap you had the other day.

But this Design District hotspot has it down to a science:

Mayo, celery, of course tuna, and then a handful of scallions.

Try it on a baguette, a.k.a. the Rembrandt, for just $5.75 or

Keep it simple and order greens with the atun on the side.

Nestled in the cradle of Opa-locka, Ida's Restaurant might be the only joint in the nation to serve Buffalo turkey wings and Buffalo turkey nuggets. "What Hooters done to chicken, we done to turkey," says Steve Barrett, the restaurant's general manager. His wife, a local cop, is the owner. Ida's offers a generous array of seductively rich Southern cakes and soul food heavy enough to belly-bomb an elephant. But the turkey is key. Five bucks gets you a pair of large wings dressed up in the sauce of your choice (lemon pepper is the way to go) plus fries. Dine in, surrounded by a 50-year-old mural of a hayseed and his girlfriend ricocheting a bullet through a vast countryside. Chat with Steve about all the dirt that goes on around town. Get some coffee. Stay awhile. You're in Opa-locka, baby.

Indomania

Did you know jaja is an Indonesian word for "fishing net," but jaja jaja indicates an AC electrical outlet? Didn't think so. Indonesia isn't the world's highest-profile country, nor is its cuisine globally embraced like that of China, Italy, or Mexico. So it isn't surprising that Indomania hasn't stirred a mania among the masses. The location on 26th Street off the corner of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach doesn't exactly shout out for attention. Neither the humble Dutch husband-wife owners nor the modest, informal setting are the sorts that grab front-page headlines. All Indomania offers is an array of tempting traditional Dutch-Indonesian cooking in a friendly atmosphere and at excellent prices (appetizers $6 to $12, all main courses $20 and under). To wit: Rijstaffel, a plentiful "rice table" with eight plates of different tastes (just $22 per person); nasi goreng, a.k.a. fried rice with a kick; and two exceptional house specialties — duck or snapper steamed in a banana leaf with Balinese herbs. Next time you are looking for a no-fuss place for dinner, aim your radar a bit below the obvious choices.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®