Alma Mexicana

When Mexican food gets fussy, we frown and ponder with dismay that it is considered "nouveau" cuisine. We like our Mexican cheap, easy, and cheesy, without any fusion or confusion. This is exactly what Alma Mexicana serves — casual, homestyle fare that's fast and tastes damn good. Occupying a former tattoo parlor, Alma appeals more to a clientele interested in indulging wicked cravings than to those who frequent healthful fast-casual chains. It's small but cozy; you can dine-in, or if you prefer to lick the escaped fillings of a burrito off your fingers, have it delivered and eat every last morsel in privacy. Stop in anytime for a Mex fix. There are breakfast burritos ($6) with beans, eggs, cheese, and a choice of tocino (bacon), papas (potatoes), chorizo (sausage), or bistec (steak). Then there's the notorious "smothered burrito," doused in a house-made green chili sauce and covered in melted cheese ($9.25). It's almost impossible to choose one among crusty tortas ($7.50), simple quesadillas ($6), and "super" nachos that are so overloaded with cheese and thin slices of carne that they appear to be sliding off the plate ($10.25). Or you can make your own taco combo starting with corn tortillas topped with onions and fresh sprigs of cilantro ($2.50 per taco). Try the seasoned shredded chicken, the veggie, or both pork renditions — pastór (marinated chunks) and traditional carnitas. Grab a Mexican Coke or horchata to complete the experience.

Fritanga Montelimar

Miami boasts a solid percentage of Nicaraguans. That means in addition to the great Cuban and Argentine joints around town, there are places such as Fritanga Montelimar. At this Kendall cafeteria, you can eat yourself silly without the bother of pretentious restaurant frills. You stand in line and wait your turn to let the ladies behind the counter ask, "¿Que quieres, niña?" They serve your food on Styrofoam plates, and you eat it with plastic utensils. It's like elementary school all over again — with better grub, of course. The tasty and affordable home-cooked comida here dazzles. For $10, you'll enjoy a delicious meal and feel like you have five new Nicaraguan abuelitas. Grilled pork, sweet 'n' sour lengua, plátanos, and indio viejo (corn and pork stew) will get your mouth watering. And if they don't, you should probably get that checked out. It's the kind of place where you're allowed to get messy, and if need be, scoop up the sauces with bread (and your hands). Homemade chimichurri and gallo pinto (rice and red beans) will make you think, Why did I not find this place sooner? It's OK. That's why we're here.

Tudor House Restaurant

Miami has no shortage of excellent hotel restaurants, from Zuma to Hakkasan to DB Bistro Moderne. But Tudor House is different from the rest. For one, it is located in what used to be the lobby of the Tudor Hotel (now Dream South Beach Hotel) — a charming little deco dining room, but not exactly the Fontainebleau. It is cozier and more personal than the larger hotel restaurants and thus friendlier to locals. Service is sharp, cocktails are smooth, and the cuisine — conceptualized by New York star chef Geoffrey Zakarian and orchestrated with aplomb by chef/partner Jamie DeRosa — is on par with that of the bigger players. Pretzel rolls that start the meal are reason enough for a visit, but what defines this fare is the impeccably delicate preparation of flawlessly sourced ingredients. Pea soup exemplifies the style: a warm bright-green purée perked with lime marshmallows, crunchy English peas, and aromatic coriander seeds. Ethereal entrées are plated with no less precision — from black grouper cheeks in a colorful playpen of baby vegetables to branzino fillets flashed with fava beans and Cerignola olives. A most welcome distinction between Tudor and the skyscraper hotel restaurants might well be the price: Main courses start at $21, and few rise above $30.

Blue Collar
Photo courtesy of Blue Collar

Want to protest unreasonable restaurant prices (you know, $14 apps, $34 entrées, $9 desserts)? Occupy Blue Collar. That is, sit your tired, working-class behind in one of the 25 indoor seats (or take a seat outdoors if you like). Express your unwavering support of value-driven, friendly neighborhood restaurants by indulging in a plate of eggs and beans with smoky bacon and Berkshire sausage, Big Easy-style shrimp and grits with Nueske's bacon, a bowl of tagliolini with pancetta and clams, or crisp-skinned snapper with rock-shrimp/vegetable fried rice. All dishes are under $20 (except "white collar" weekend specials), and there are 20 — count 'em, 20 — vegetable sides listed on the chalkboard for $4 apiece. A can of salt-of-the-earth Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors Light goes for $3, and craft brews are $5. An unlimited thermos of Panther coffee can be gulped for $3 and matches well with homemade berry cobbler ($7). If taking a political stand always tasted this good, the one percent would be working for us.

Plate

Times have been tough in Miami. Gas prices keep going up, the cost of living is through the roof, and our wages haven't gotten any higher. But we still have to eat — and if we can, eat well. That's why Plate is here. It's the perfect spot to grab a breakfast wrap or hearty lunch for a very decent price. Plate is adamant about keeping things high on the health scale, so you know the food won't add to your waistline. How does turkey picadillo with brown rice sound? Good, right? It costs $5.95. That just went from good to amazing in two seconds. Whole-wheat pan con lechón for just a little more than six bucks is a must. Grab one of the signature smoothies, such as the Coral Way (with OJ, strawberries, banana, and fat-free yogurt), to wash down your nutritious, inexpensive meal. Let's put it this way: At Plate, you'd have to try hard to make a lunch for two cost more than $20.

— I'm so glad we could get together at this cozy little 24-seater for our tête-à-tête.

— You can thank my shrink; he told me to quit having intimate dinners for two unless there was another person around.

— It's such a charming room, dimly lit with a chandelier and flickering candles, decorated family photos on the walls. It makes me think I'm dining at home. And the service is so personal; they really seem to care about each diner. Shall we start with a drink?

— I thought you'd never ask.

— Paul Goerg Blanc De Blancs champagne is served by the glass. Let's each have one and share a crispy duck confit salad with grilled apricots ($15) while we decide what to eat.

— If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it probably needs more time in the microwave.

— Ha-ha, very funny. But I was hoping we could cut down on the jokes tonight and have a serious, personal discussion. First let's decide the menu. The flavors are intense here. A lot of the ingredients used by chefs Horacio Rivadero and Christian Alvarez are locally sourced and organic.

— I like organic farmers. They till it like it is.

— The vanilla butternut squash soup ($11), by the way, is to die for. Plus I've had the pan-roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes and morel mushrooms ($22). It's divine.

— I'm just wondering: Do chickens think rubber humans are funny?

— Can't you be serious for a second? I mean, that's really what I wanted to discuss with you tonight. I can't go on like this. We come to this most romantic of places and all you can do is make inane wisecracks. We're through. Do you understand? I mean, we'll have our meal first, of course — I'm not giving that up for you — but then that's it. And believe me, I will never go out with a comedy writer again. Never!

— So two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: "Does this taste funny to you?"

Villa Azur Restaurant & Lounge

Villa Azur, like the Côte d'Azur it's named for, is beautiful, chic, and stylish. It also has impeccable service. From the moment you stroll through the 12-foot-tall drapes and are greeted by a beautiful hostess, you're treated like the celebrity your mother always hoped you'd become (instead of a part-time barista). Before dining, have a cocktail at the softly lit bar, where an attractive bartender will make you a perfectly poured cocktail. Not sure what to have? Ask for a recommendation. Maybe he or she will recommend the signature drink, made with French champagne and freshly muddled fruit. Or maybe you'll discover a new favorite wine. When you're ready to dine, you'll be assisted by the knowledgeable and helpful waitstaff. Did we mention they too are all good-looking? Don't see your server? No worries, because anyone will answer menu questions, bring you another martini, or deliver an extra plate. It's as if everyone at the restaurant received a master's degree from Cornell and DNA from Villa Azur co-owner Olivier Martinez and his bride-to-be Halle Berry.

Swine Southern Table & Bar
billwisserphoto.com

Taste Bakery & Café, which opened on South Beach in 2001, was John Kunkel's first Miami Beach restaurant. Three years later, he sold Taste, which is still going strong, and started Lime Fresh Mexican Grill. Lime proved very popular, which led to the opening of 15 other locations in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Eight years after founding Lime, Kunkel sold the chain to Ruby Tuesday for $24 million. He stepped down as CEO but remains involved with Ruby Tuesday and Lime's further growth. Last year, Kunkel and his 50 Eggs Restaurant Group opened Yardbird Southern Table & Bar to critical and popular acclaim. Next up is Swine, a pork-centric spot in the former Les Halles space on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. And after that, Kunkel is looking to launch another fast-casual chain featuring Southeast Asian street food. He is creative, passionate, successful, and driven to keep doing more. What else could you ask for from a restaurateur?

The Dutch
billwisserphoto.com

The Dutch is an American-roots-inspired restaurant (and oyster bar) that takes homestyle foods such as roast chicken and braised short ribs and then shapes them for big-city palates. It is a partnership among New York restaurateurs Andrew Carmellini, Josh Pickard, and Luke Ostrom (who operate a Dutch in New York's SoHo neighborhood) and Karim Masri and Nicola Siervo of Miami's Quattro Gastronomia Italiana, Sosta, and Wall Lounge. Although the Dutch premiered November 14, 2011, it is new in ways beyond the opening date. For instance, let's compare a typical stale restaurant concept ("old") to the Dutch ("new"):

Old: The head chef previously helmed the kitchen at a place called Fondue & Brew.New: Andrew Carmellini is a two-time James Beard Award winner with a few hugely popular New York City restaurants, a couple of cookbooks under his belt, and national recognition as a topnotch culinary talent.Old: Flowing white drapes, monochromatic décor — a sophisticated-chic look.New: White brick walls lined with bookcases, blond-wood tables, bursts of color, and an elegant yet casual look.Old: Fried calamari ($15), followed by macadamia-crusted grouper in mango sauce ($30).New: Lobster salad with palms hearts, mangoes, and cucumber ($22), followed by crispy branzino ($28).Old: A square of tiramisu ($8) or a commercially produced, sugar-laden wedge of cake with raspberry purée squiggled on the plate ($8).New: Fresh pies baked daily ($12), toasted-almond panna cotta with yuzu sauce and fresh raspberries ($12), or any or all of seven artisanal American cheeses ($12 to $19).Old: Lots of hype, not much else.New: Lots of hype, with the food, drink, ambiance, and attitude to back it up.
Edge Steak & Bar
Photo courtesy of Edge Steak & Bar

It used to be that a steak house was a steak house was a steak house. Now it's a place that uses organics, sears Kobe meat at 1,500 degrees, and offers innovative sides. Edge Steak & Bar does much of this. The dining room is sleek and stylish, with an outdoor terrace and private event rooms. Vegetables are sourced locally, and chef Aaron Brooks brings in prime meats and seafood. There's no Kobe, but you can get a Black Angus filet mignon, a prime churrasco steak, slow-smoked pork ribs, and a Creekstone Farms Edge burger (with homemade pickles and house-cut fries) — all cooked on an infrared grill (that would be 1,800 degrees, if you're counting). Innovative sides? Try quinoa and fire-roasted corn salad or chorizo and cheddar croquetas with romesco sauce. And Edge brings a spin of its own to the modern steak-house formula: Meats (and some fish) are categorized into small, medium, and large cuts. So a six-ounce Boston cut prime strip steak is available for $20, same size filet mignon is $27, a seven-ounce butcher's cut filet is $25. If you're feeling hungry, a 12-ounce New York strip is $33, and a 24-ounce bone-in tomahawk steak is $45. Smaller portion options mean you can opt for a more healthful, better-balanced, and non-obscenely priced meal. That's what we call an edge over the competition.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®