La Palma Calle Ocho
Maureen Aimee Mariano

In a far-off land called Little Havana, there is a humble abode called La Palma Restaurant. Inside, past twisted blue wrought-iron railing and through an enchanted forest of characters that range from Cuban princesses to chain-smoking serfs, is a window above a granite counter — a ventanilla, if you will — staffed by women who transform into witches if you don't speak their native tongue and guard, with troll-like glares, three croquetas.

The first, filled with fish, is perhaps a tad strong, evoking the smell of Papa Bear's trout breath in just a single bite. The second, chock full of chicken, is too weak, like a girl with blond locks who's about to receive a major beatdown from a family of violated grizzlies. Yet the third, stuffed with ham, is just right, making a possibly long wait and awkward conversation with La Palma's pleasant waitstaff well worth it.

And although the croquetas at this Calle Ocho joint lack centers filled with flecks of parsley, wild mushrooms, or Manchego cheese, like at other (and pricier) local spots, they're still the most magical in all the land. Silky and smoky with a crisp fried crust, these scrumptious golden brown nubs allow your taste buds to live happily ever after. Plus, at 86 cents each, one or even ten of them is no hair off of your chinny, chin, chin.

Half Moon Empanadas

Juan Zavala Jr. and his wife Pilar would sometimes sit around with friends in their native Argentina and ponder dinner-by-delivery choices. Inevitably it would come down to pizza or empanadas, and just as inevitably, they'd choose the latter. It occurred to Juan that maybe some of the 40 million Hispanics living in the United States might be thinking along the same lines. Long story short: Light bulb goes off, and some time later, the couple opens Half Moon Empanadas on Washington Avenue. "The first and only in Miami Beach," Pilar claims, "that makes the empanadas entirely from scratch, in house." Patrons can observe workers carefully crafting the turnovers through an open window in the back of the clean, contemporary venue. The empanadas come baked or fried, their flaky crusts filled with all manner of ingredients that are both traditional (beef, chicken, or ham and cheese) and nontraditional (smoked pancetta with mozzarella and plum sauce). Price is $1.99 each, six for $9.99, and a dozen for $17.99. Half Moon is open most days 11 to 11 and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. — and yes, they deliver.

Go-Go Fresh Food Cafe
Leah Gabriel

Go Go's flaky pastry pockets are the stuff of local legend. Located in an unassuming strip mall on Alton Road, the cheery, mod café belies its humble location. Though the empanada spot boasts dozens of varieties of the Argentine treat, it's the reasonably priced banana-Nutella variety that takes the savory-sweet dichotomy to a new and satisfying level. Filled with slightly ripened banana and oozing hazelnut cream, the dessert pastry is like a French crêpe gone South American. Fusion at its best. Empanadas are a recession-friendly $2.25 each.

Sure, Sang's might be located on a dodgy strip of NE 163rd Street, and yes, the waitstaff is more efficient and gruff than friendly and welcoming, but if you're looking for authentic Cantonese and regional Chinese eats, this is the place. The no-frills interior has the requisite red and gold accents, but focus on the plate where dim sum delicacies such as stuffed eggplant, pork dumplings, and curry octopus are served daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dim sum and dumpling selections set you back about $1 to $3 apiece.

The Chinese Restaurant

There's no "bamboo," "lotus," "moon," or "panda" necessary in the name of this beloved Kendall institution. And you won't find lizard kebabs, barbecue scorpions, or any kind of weird Beijing street food on the menu. The only thing this take-out restaurant, nestled in the Crossings shopping center, serves up is simple American Chinese carry-out classics that come hot and plentiful. Years of doing it right have earned this spot a small, suburban cult following. Try the honey chicken, egg roll, and spare ribs combination dinner that comes with pork-fried rice and your choice of won ton or egg drop soup for just $10.50 plus tax. Or sample one of their recession-friendly (all under $7) lunch specials that range from tender shrimp in a creamy lobster sauce to moo goo gai pan. An abundance of lo mein, foo yung, chop suey, and vegetarian dishes is also available. But be forewarned: Like the Seinfeld episode that shares this eatery's name, it's difficult to pop in for a quick bite before a movie; placing an order in person can be a timely ordeal. So don't wait — order your chow now.

China Palace

In the Year of the Ox, we were shocked when a mystical dragon flew through the door of our lobby, singed our receptionist's hair, and dropped a box full of fortune cookies that amazingly described (in broken English, of course) our favorite Chinese carry-out joint, China Palace. In fact, the fortunes were so accurate we decided to share some of them with you:

Your greatest fortune is the large number of items on the menu that span like wing of crane. China Palace has all the basics from a rainbow of lo meins to kung po frogs' legs ($10.95).

• There is a true and sincere friendship between you and your stomach. This is why you should want China Palace's standout items and you should order creamy crab Rangoon (8 for $4.95), crispy roast duck ($10.95), and fluffy, never soggy, well-spiced honey-garlic chicken ($9.95).

Plan for many large pieces of pork, beef, crab, and shrimp in your future by ordering fried rice. All portions also very giant. Your winning lottery numbers are 6, 8, 13, 32, 29, 41.

You will inherit some money or a small piece of land. But you may still take advantage of special dinner platters served with soup and fried rice that are never more than 8 American dollars.

A quiet evening with friends is the best tonic for a long day. So is food put quickly in the body. This is why it is good that China Palace never takes more than 45 minutes to deliver tasty meals to the mouth.

You will step on the soil of many countries when eating here because our Cantonese and Szechuan cuisines are authentic here too.

In the end, there are three things that last: faith, hope, and satisfied hunger; and the greatest of these is satisfied hunger, which you will get after eating at China Palace. LEARN CHINESE: Pot sticker = Guo-tie (also very good and cheap too!).

Red Koi Thai & Sushi Lounge

Red Koi Lounge opened its Miracle Mile doors earlier this year to fierce competition from Gables staple Bangkok Bangkok. But its combination of friendly servers, fiery duck red curry, and budget-friendly lunch specials has helped the feisty newcomer attain a loyal following that packs the black-leather-and-bamboo dining room on weekends. Sure, there's sushi on the menu too, most of it pretty good, but it's Thai staples such as ginger scallops and spicy beef salad with lime juice and crunchy scallions that inspire return visits. Curries go for $10 to $27.

Yoko's Japanese Restaurant

Unlike other temples to Japanese food on South Beach, Yoko's is a relatively humble pioneer that has consistently churned out high-quality staples such as nongreasy tempura, buttery raw fish, seared yakitori chicken skewers, and plump shrimp shumai. Come here for Japanese comfort food like fried pork katsu, barbecue eel, and heaping bowls of udon noodle soup. The tatami mat décor and warm yet formal service is the closest Miami gets to a typical Tokyo neighborhood haunt. Yaki soba with shrimp is $15.

Izzy's Cubi Thai

Izzy's fills that odd dining niche for those days when you can't decide whether you're feeling like ropa vieja or panang curry. Luckily, at Izzy's, you can have both, simultaneously if desired. Located in the once-classic Sherry Frontenac Hotel in North Beach, the sparsely decorated joint boasts a lengthy menu of Cuban and Thai classics that range from skirt steak with tostones and black beans all the way to pad thai, a sweetly sour mee grob, and a lovely coconut soup bursting with shrimp and vegetables. And it's cheap. Ropa vieja is $9; green curry goes for $11.

Fogo De Chao

Let's hark back to the days when meat was served in portions the size of Hyundais. Better yet, let's just mosey on over to Fogo de Chão, which loosely translates to "stuff of the face." Or maybe not — our Portuguese isn't so hot — but we know a great cut of meat when we eat one. The way it works, as most Miamians know, is a band of servers comes to the table hauling long skewers of fat, juicy meats, and provides continuous slicing privileges for those who want it. There are some 15 Brazilian-style cuts in all, our favorites being the picanha (prime sirloin), beef ancho (prime part of the rib eye), tender pork ribs, pork sausages, leg of lamb... well, guess we like it all. The meats here just seem fresher, moister, and more flavorful than those at other eateries of this type. Diners are likewise lassoed by fresh breads, side dishes, and a ridiculously extensive salad bar. The whole shebang costs $46.50 ($26.50 for kids) — not a bad deal when broken down to price per pound.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®