El Pimiento
Photo by Jacob Katel
There is more to Miami Lakes, which is squeezed between Hialeah and Miramar, than residential neighborhoods, golf, and a shrine to sports legend Don Shula. Residents have been hiding a shopping-center tapas gem for almost four years. Complete with a Spanish flag, cork-covered tables, and two terra cotta walls decorated with wine bottles for the picking, the quaint locale whisks patrons off to Spain even though it's located just a few feet from a convenience store. Three employees run the 12-table restaurant most nights; they recommend just the right wine to accompany more than 60 tapas including croquetas de bacalao ($5.95), tortilla española ($5.95), and garbanzo frito ($7.95), in that exact order. For those looking for a fuller meal, the suburban hush-hush also serves larger dishes such as paella valenciana ($26.95). Owner, part-time chef, and Spaniard Mylo Gonzalez remembers every face and makes sure visitors return to his little piece of Andalusia. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.
Before you even smell the chicken roasting or the souvlaki on the rotisserie, you'll see Tara Reid's face. There she is, mugging it up in a red velour tracksuit. And there she is again, next to Mickey Rourke. They're just two of the celebrities gracing Sultan's picture wall. This does not bode well — just another couple of emaciated stars' favorite hangout. But then you taste Sultan's falafel wrap ($7.75). The reaction can best be summed up in a series of slow-motion shots: Customer grabs fat spliff of a pita, bites crisp falafel inside, slathers tzatziki sauce all over face, head explodes. Cut to customer saying, "Tara Reid was right." Years of midnight falafel runs in college probably warped a lot of people's idea of what a good falafel is. That was dry, chewy, sustenance food. But blazed late at night (this place is open till 5 a.m.) or sober during the day, you will still get a head trip from Sultan's falafel. Tear into it with gusto. It's worth the mess.
Buena Vista Bistro
All right, so this place isn't a Latin American musical mecca in the heart of Havana. Hell, it's not even in Little Havana. Nor is it a social club. And no, you won't find Juan de Marcos González shaking maracas while downing a pastrami on rye here either. In fact, if you can find a knish, a Dr. Brown's soda, or a black-and-white cookie being consumed anywhere inside of this cheery, French-influenced delicatessen, we'll rewrite the Torah and say that you, not Moses, parted the Red Sea. That's because you won't find any New York-style staples in the Buena Vista Deli — from its yellow-umbrellaed porch to its clean, white interior that includes blackboard cabinets scribbled with colorful chalk. But what you will discover is fresh, fragrant slices of goat cheese and mushroom quiche ($4.95), rich duck pâté spread on a French baguette ($6.50), grilled chicken panini overflowing with pesto and sautéed portobello mushrooms ($7.50), and a Niçoise salad packed with ample amounts of hard-boiled eggs, tuna, anchovies, and green beans ($7 for a large). Can't decide? BVD has great combo options such as any sandwich/panini with any salad or soup du jour for only $10.50 or any quiche and salad for $7.50. Or if you feel like indulging your sweet tooth, tame it with a delicate but piled-high cream puff ($3.50), a chocolate eclair ($3.50), or any of the baked-daily goods displayed by the cash register in a pastel array reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Plus everything available for purchase at this place, other than the bread, is homemade, which is enough to make any Cuban utter, "Oy vey!"
It's a two-way tie between Norman Van Aken's Coral Gables return (with son Justin) via Norman's 180, and in downtown Miami's Marriott Marquis Met Two tower, Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne (DB Bistro copped this category last year all by itself and let's hope will not be cited again next year). How often is it that two chefs of this caliber open shop in the same town during the same year? If the name of that town is Miami, never. Just more signs of our rapid ascent as a gastronomic destination and our increasing good fortune.
La Provence
In France, somehow, there are fresh-baked baguette sandwiches — made with care — at almost every major train station. That such a delicacy is sold alongside pooping pigeons and napping backpackers seems like it should be illegal. At La Provence, you get the authentic European treat without having to, say, step over a hobo or pay a euro to use la toilette. Located a couple of blocks from the Miracle Mile shopping district, this bright and tidy café-style shop sets itself apart by attention to detail. There are not a million options, simply six or seven really great ones. Choose from prosciutto with Brie, chicken with avocado, or mozzarella with ripe tomatoes and basil. They are available at half- or full-size, on paninis or whole-wheat bread, ranging from about $5 to $10. Hours are Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Come for the bread, not the pigeons.
El Arepazo 2
Don't let the old cafeteria look of this eatery dissuade you from walking in for an arepa. After all, you just made the trip to this nondescript strip mall in the heart of Doral. The Venezuelan hangout, where émigrés congregate to play dominoes or discuss big news back home, makes tasty arepas with a slightly golden crust and a steaming-hot, soft interior. The best part is that you can fill your arepa with just about anything you crave. Choose from fresh Venezuelan cheeses — try the guayanés — and meats such as carne mechada (shredded beef) and chorizo. It's the closest you'll get to eating at a Caracas-style arepa bar in Miami.
It's all over you, that great stink of South Beach called pretentiousness. Your only hope is to step into the down-home oasis that is the 11th Street Diner. The tackiness of Ocean Drive hasn't seeped into this retreat where comfort food with retro flair has been served since 1992. The Airstream-style aluminum façade suggests authenticity, and the diner delivers. Frequent coffee fillups, shiny red booths, all the quintessential diner-ness is in place. What makes the 11th Street Diner exceptional, however, is a menu that retains the unfussiness of the best diners but doesn't resort to artery-destroying, greasy-spoon tactics. The "farmer's scrambled" ($9.25) is cheesy, veggie-filled, and satisfying, and even the bacon and sausage staples don't send you into a food coma. Dig into the "3 pair" ($9.95), which includes two eggs, two pieces of bacon or sausage, and two pancakes or French toast. It's the Noah's Ark of breakfast food.
Cafe Bambini
"Cool! You mean we can eat pizza and ice-cream-type stuff and drink chocolate milk and then slide and tumble and climb and watch a puppet show and dress up like a ballerina or a cowboy? Yay! But what are you gonna do while we play, Mom? Dad? Hey, you're just gonna leave us inside here? You aren't gonna watch us? You mean, there's a baby-sitter here? Yay! We'll go play with her. We like her better than you anyway." Does that sound better than an average day in your life? The kids are being fed for only $4.95 per plate, plus they are being looked after and are so distracted with games and toys that they don't even want to be near you for a couple of hours. All the while, you sip Segafredo coffee; munch on fresh empanadas ($2.68 each), sandwiches, and salads; and enjoy some adult conversation without the sounds of Elmo and Big Bird in the background. Bless the folks behind Café Bambini; they made a place that works for hungry kids as well as adults.
The Alibi
Natalia Molina
Does a Philly cheesesteak sandwich — thinly sliced rib eye, grilled onions, and Cheez Whiz on an Amoroso roll imported from Philadelphia — taste better at 3 in the morning than at any other time? No. It tastes better at 3 in the morning because you are eating it at the Alibi, a food concession within funky SoBe hangout bar Lost Weekend. It tastes better because co-owner Bill Sisca is from Philadelphia and partner John Ross is a CIA-trained chef. Two more reasons: It costs just $8.95, and you are eating it with a side of the freshly made crinkle-cut fries ($4.95) with an available side ($1 extra) such as chipotle or truffle oil or more of that Cheez Whiz (can you really ever have too much?). Plus you are getting a taste of your mate's shrimp poboy sandwich. It tastes better at 3 in the morning because you are keeping the night alive by ordering drinks from the bar while you goof around at the pool table and you are already thinking of capping off your late-night Dagwood-inspired binge with one of John's girlfriend Kristie's now-famous strawberry shortcake cupcakes — another house specialty — and of course you'll buy a second cupcake because (A) they're so good and (B) it's one for $3 but two for $5,and you'll wonder if it wouldn't make sense if you took a bacon-chicken Philly or an all-beef hot dog to go (only five bucks!), because at that point, it'll be around 5 in the morning (closing time at the Alibi), and breakfast will be, let's face it, just around the corner.

Best Wine Selection in a Restaurant

The Forge

The Forge
billwisserphoto.com
The Forge for decades has had one of the most impressive wine cellars in town. However, with the relaunch of the "new" Forge a few months ago, enophiles on a budget have a reason to celebrate. Along with its revamped menu and décor, the Forge has introduced an enomatic wine system that allows patrons to sample more than 80 wines for a fraction of the cost of buying the whole bottle. The eight stainless-steel-and-glass wine stations are divided up by varietal and taste (think Red Powerful). Patrons simply insert a black Forge card into the machine and choose which size pour they want (from one to five ounces). From there, this upscale vending machine dispenses the wine directly into the glass. Ever wanted to taste a superexpensive wine like Opus One? Well, now you can for $13 for a one-ounce sip. Serious tipplers need not worry, though. There are more than 600 bottles on the main wine list, and owner Shareef Malnik's renowned cellar is still intact. Despite the economy, customers still pay more than $5,000 for bottles such as the 1975 Château Haut-Brion, Premier Grand Cru Classé. Ask for a consult with executive sommelier Gino Santangelo, who has been with the Forge for 35 years. Not only can he suggest the perfect wine pairing with the bone-in 18-ounce filet mignon, but also he leads private tours of the wine cellar. Regardless of whether you are a wine novice or a snob, spending time at the Forge's grape-friendly bar will leave you tipsy and well educated.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®