Petit Rouge
Aran S Graham
Neal Cooper doesn't look, act, or speak like a Frenchman. Fair enough: He isn't French. His prior restaurant, Il Migliatore, and his eponymous eatery from 1993 were both excellent; neither, however, was French. Mr. Cooper did dabble in Escoffier and the French classics at the Culinary Institute of America, but more important, he knows how to operate a restaurant that regardless of ethnicity, delivers what people want: Delicious food and wine at a good value served efficiently in a pleasing environment. At Petit Rouge, this translates into a charmingly rustic 24-seat bistro and petite eight-seat patio; into some 70 wines starting at $28 a bottle and by-the-glass choices from $8 to $14; into crunchy baguettes, textbook French onion soup, salmon tartare, ris de veau in lemon-caper sauce, rashers of calf's liver with bronzed onions on top, truite grenobloise, and frisée salad with lardons of bacon and an impeccably poached egg. Entrées run $20 to $24, making the homemade tarte tatin or impossibly smooth pot de crème that much harder to resist. Chef Cooper may not be fluent in French, but Petit Rouge speaks the language like no other place in town.
USA Seafood and Car Wash
Step out of Miami and into Port-au-Prince at USA Seafood and Car Wash, a character-driven Little Haiti joint notable for its giant parking lot. This place is popular for its take-out, so don't let the Styrofoam containers and plasticware put you off. Try the griot. The fried pork chunks are plentiful, have a nice fat-to-meat ratio, and are spiced for a kick. We recommend the side of white rice, bean sauce, and crisp, greaseless fried plantains; it all adds up to a mountain of food that serves two or three at an absurdly economical price of about $6. Other fine options include the tender-boned chicken in sauce, with goat, oxtail, or legume. Make sure to ask for some pikliz, a traditional spicy vinegar coleslaw; grab a cavity-sweet banana soda; and take your to-go order off to the far wall by the car wash. Sit at the concrete table, relax, and enjoy the sights and sounds of one of Miami's most vibrant neighborhoods.
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You have to look pretty darn hard to find chow from the place where Columbus thought he had arrived. Sure, there are plenty of the walk-up cafeterias selling café cubano. And you can find yuca fries. But you could drive for miles and never find any chai lassi, raita, or garlic nan. Luckily, there's a small Indian restaurant called Imlee in a nowheresville strip mall in Pinecrest with some pretty damn good korma, vindaloo, and koftka curry. We usually start with paneer porka: wonderfully soft cheese that's been battered, fried, and then steeped in spicy, tomatoey goodness. Depending on our mood, we vacillate between the creamy mixed vegetable korma and the tasty lamb koftka curry. And we always get a side of raita and an order or two of pillowy nan. A frosty Kingfisher brew is required to wash it all down, and if there's room, we try the falooda ice cream. Made from rose syrup, it's what luxury would taste like if you could put it on a spoon.
Las Culebrinas
Eat at a Cuban restaurant and expect big portions. It's never just a palomilla steak; it's always some kind of gazelle on a plate. In this respect, Las Culebrinas doesn't disappoint. You'll get enough to satisfy a recently arrived, starved balsero. But it's in the execution where you'll get your money's worth here. Cuban food is typically pedestrian; there's only so much you can do with beans and rice. Maybe add some capers to the beans, or get adventuresome with the seasoning; it'll taste good no matter your skill level in the kitchen. But this locally owned mesón — which has locations on SW 27th Avenue, on West Flagler, in Pinecrest, and in Hialeah — serves a staple like vaca frita ($12.95) over a bed of fufu, AKA mashed plantains. Or try something sticky such as pork chunks ($12.95) on a cool bed of avocado sauce. It's a mix of flavors that shouldn't work yet feels as homey as Cuban Spanglish. Las Culebrinas also serves tapas. These aren't bite-size meals, though. Tread carefully if you're a light eater, because these aren't your abuelita's tapas. Las Culebrinas is for all those times when you've finished your saucer of fried garbanzos (here sautéed over sliced ham) ($7.50) or that queso Manchego (in robust portions here) ($7.95). Leave it to Cubans to do justice to a Spanish tradition.
Versailles Restaurant
Photo by Phillip Pessar via Flickr Creative Commons
Cuban or not, if you live in Miami, you have tasted croquetas — those delicious, deep-fried nuggets of meat and béchamel. You know, the ones neatly piled next to the pastelitos de guava at every bakery, gas station, and birthday party. The real quest is to find the diamonds in the Cuban-pastry rough. So it seems only logical for the standout croqueta de jamón to be found at the mecca of Miami's Cuban community: Versailles. The treats are offered inside and at the adjacent bakery, but hit up the outside restaurant window for the authentic experience. Lean in, ask for dos croquetas de jamón con limón, pay the $1.70, and crack some jokes — chistes — with the window's regulars. Open since 1971, Versailles has done much more than serve as the Cuban-American epicenter for protests and celebrations; the Calle Ocho staple has pumped out hundreds of Miami's finest 85-cent fried-meat cylinders daily. Chicken and codfish options are also available. Versailles is open 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. For the full effect, take one croqueta, squirt with desired amount of lime, place between two crackers, and squish. Stay awhile — salsa music seems to help the croqueta digestive process.
El Rey de las Fritas
Bueno. Bonito. Barato. Those who don't speak Spanish, feel free to Google. The three-word alliteration loosely means "pretty darn tasty and cheap." Any way you put it, when it comes to the best sandwich in the Magic City, nothing comes close to a frita. And who else would make the best but the king? El Rey de las Fritas makes just about the best frita this side of Havana. You might have been thinking that ham concoction called a "Cuban sandwich" when you began reading this item, but we have a surprise for you. The Cuban hamburger here is a spiced, chorizo-infused patty served on a warm Cuban-bread bun with diced onions and piled high with crunchy, golden shoestring potatoes. The meat is tender and juicy, the fries are hot and crisp, and the secret sauce (good luck finding out the ingredients) makes you want to lick your lips, fingers, and anywhere else it might fall. Some tourists mix with the mostly local crowd sitting around a long counter and surrounding booths, having a boisterous, or Cuban, chat over a delicious feast. The cafecito, of course, is a typical after-frita reward. The menu is gringo-friendly, displaying all selections in both Spanish and English with pictures, and almost everything costs less than $4 (a frita goes for $3.25). Open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and with a handful of locations from Doral to Hialeah, plus the flagship on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, there is no excuse not to stop in to try a frita.
El Rey Del Chivito
If Dr. Victor Frankenstein had been born an unnaturally hungry Uruguayan food fanatic and not an Austrian alchemist hell-bent on cobbling together a humanoid creep show from dead body parts, he might have invented El Rey del Chivito's trademark creation, the Chivito Rey Emperador. Basically a monstrous mountain of random foodstuffs, the Rey looks like it was dredged from the kitchen's scrap bin: creamy potato and peas, garden salad, shoestring French fries, blobs of mozzarella cheese, 16 ounces of churrasco beef, bacon strips, ham chunks, and a pair of sunny-side up eggs. To a certain extent, this peculiar platter is a dementedly deconstructed version of the OG chivito steak sandwich minus the soft roll. In another way, however, it's the wildly outsize offspring of a crazy culinary mind, namely resident Doc Frankenstein and owner Aron Wolfson. Submit to this strangely delicious $18.90 family-style serving. The Rey will feed your entire brood — mom, dad, kiddies, grandma, and nanny, plus dog. But be careful or it just might come alive and consume you.
Midtown
To think that one year ago, this area had only Subway, Lime Mexican Grill, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and a Starbucks counter inside a Target. Not only has the number of dining venues more than tripled since then, but also the quality of entries has been impressive. Sakaya Kitchen, Mercadito Mexican, and Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill are three of the most exciting joints to jump onto our scene in some time. Primo Pizza serves fantastic pies, Sweet Times Café is a little gem, and the Cheese Course already boasts the city's largest selection of curds and whey. With so many condo units in the neighborhood finally filling up, you can bet there'll be plenty more dining options to come. Plus maybe even a standalone Starbucks.
The arrival of gourmet food trucks to Miami made hungry stalkers out of even brown-baggers. Some of them sit by their computers, refreshing Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, waiting for the message that tells them where the truck will pop up. An internal debate follows: Should I go? Do I have time to go there and get back to work? Admit it. You've done it. Food on wheels isn't new, but these trucks sell food such as pork belly burgers and make finding their location part of the dining experience. It all began last December when chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's GastroPod Miami, Ingrid Hoffman's Latin Burger & Taco, and Flavio Alarcon's Yellow Submarine appeared in our dining consciousness. The trucks quickly gained followers and fans. Famous chefs such as Michael Schwartz and later Jonathan Eismann then followed with vending carts. They appeared at the art walk in the Design District. A Miami street food fest is said to be in the works. So what's next? A truffle truck? A foie gras cart? Who knows? But these mobile eats are likely to be around for some time.
GastroPod Mobile Gourmet
Jeremiah Bullfrog ain't no Mister Softee. He ain't no Dairy Queen either. Yet his GastroPod foodmobile, a shiny silver converted '62 Airstream trailer, attracts streams of enthusiastic followers wherever it goes — as if he's the Pied Piper of foodies or something. He ain't that either, but the Miami native is a damn seriously talented chef; locals still talk about his celebrated Bullfrog Eatz in Wynwood. But now you can relish his outrageously tasty fare at single-digit prices. To wit: The "old dirty dog" — a smoked short-rib hot dog plunked into a potato bun and topped with sweet/spicy slaw — costs five bucks. The bánh mì taco — with oxtail, trotters, country pâté, and pickled radishes — is $3. A sloppy José with brisket and "curry in a hurry" (vegan curry with rice) are the high-end items at $7 and $8 apiece. Heck, the GastroPod even has an immersion circulator for sous vide cooking. The silver bullet has been known to park around Biscayne Boulevard and 18th Street, but your best bet is to tune in to Twitter to find out where this roving gourmet kitchen will strike next.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®