Barbe-Cuban
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Barbe-Cuban

If you want a bite of Denise Paredes' baho ($10), you'd better ask in advance. Weeks in advance. In fact, there's a waiting list for it pinned to the icemaker at Las Mercedes Restaurant. The hopeful line up, desperate for this taste of home. This stomach-distending casserole is Central America's analog to Italy's timpano. A verdant banana leaf replaces the massive round of pasta dough. Indeed, there's no pasta, meatballs, or sausage here. Instead, spears of yuca are boiled into submission with heaps of garlic. Then come mounds of sliced beef brisket, ripe and unripe plantains, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and orange and lime juices. The whole thing is sealed up and boiled for hours. When it emerges, top it with the fermented cabbage slaw called encurtido, and dig in. But wait, before you do, secure yourself a good spot for the post-baho nap. Paredes says she makes it only once a month because it's so time-consuming. But the truth is, the stern master of this cafeteria knows sending her regulars back to their jobs in a food coma would be bad for business.

Ivan Dorvil has cooked for P. Diddy and Lil Wayne. He has manned the stoves at high-end South Beach spots and at Haitian institution Tap Tap. He has emerged victorious from reality cooking competitions. But the Haitian-born chef is at his best inside his eponymous North Dade restaurant, where he plays cook and host for a loyal crowd that returns time and again for a bill of fare that starts in the Caribbean and stretches out across the globe. Don't miss Dorvil's griot ($14) and tasso ($16). The fried chunks of pork and goat offer supremely crisp crusts encasing juicy meat. No other cook seems to have Ivan's ability to bring these Haitian classics to this perfect point of equilibrium. With a deft hand, he grills and fries red snapper ($22) and all other manner of Caribbean fish, leaving them supremely moist. Then comes a smattering of crunchy, blistering pikliz that hurts so good. He amps up a similarly styled seafood stew with funky salty miso. It's a quick visit to Asia, but soon you're back home with sweet boniato pudding á la mode ringed with sugary caramel ($7).

Readers' choice: Tap Tap

Zaika Indian Cuisine
billwisserphoto.com

Warm naan that melts in your mouth, delicate and perfectly spiced tandoori and paneer, and sweet pistachio ice cream to top it all off. From start to finish, Zaika is an impressive mix of flavors and textures that will satisfy the palates of even the pickiest Indian food lover. In just a year, the eatery has become well known for its array of delicious cuisine, affordable prices, and cozy ambiance. It even offers outdoor seating. The chefs, who have worked in India's renowned Taj Mahal Hotel, offer innovative options of classic dishes, all cooked to order (i.e., as spicy or mild as you'd like). Meat lovers should try the chicken tikka masala ($16.95) and lamb vindaloo ($16.95), while vegetarians won't want to miss dal makhani ($12.95) and palak paneer ($13.95). For dessert, try the homemade pista kulfi ice cream ($4.95) or gulab jamun ($4.95) — milk dumplings in a rose-flavored sauce. A vegetarian lunch special, served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., runs $8.95, and one with meat goes for $9.95 to $12.95.

La Pupusa Factory has been bringing home-cooked Central American and Salvadoran grub to the 305 for more than two decades. The Hialeah eatery serves more than just stuffed corn tortillas that are the most traditional Salvadoran dish. Here, you'll find everything from baleadas Hondureñas — pancake-like flour tortillas replete with fried beans, cheese, and your choice of meat ($3.50 to $7.95) — to appetizers including a chicken cornmeal tamale ($3.75); fried tacos topped with Salvadoran-style coleslaw ($8.95); and chiles rellenos, green peppers stuffed with beef served with rice and beans ($14.95). But if you want to have a bite of it all, go for the bandeja Garcia ($14.95), which brings a pupusa, fried taco, tamale, cheese, fried beans, cream, chorizo, and a corn tortilla. The portions can feed an entire Central American country, so sharing is strongly encouraged. But whatever you do, leave room for el postre. Try the sweet corn pudding called atole de elote ($3.75) or the quesadia ($7 for a whole, $2 for a quarter). Not to be confused with the cheesy Mexican dish of similar name, the quesadia is a rich, sweet dessert cake. By the end of your meal, you'll feel so satisfied you'll forget you're in the middle of "La Ciudad Que Progresa."

Le Zoo
Courtesy of Le Zoo

Restaurateur Stephen Starr knows what people want. Indeed, when he opened Le Zoo in Bal Harbour Shops toward the end of 2015, he knew Miamians were hankering for a classic French eatery with great food and service. Naturally, he knew the vibe and decor were equally important, so he created a breezy and uplifting space that's a cross between an archetypal Parisian bistro and a seaside Saint-Tropez café. Starr, who also owns Makoto and Continental in Miami, along with more than 30 restaurants across the nation — also knew to hire the right chef: Craig Wallen. One of the toque's best dishes is the classic trout amandine ($27). A gorgeous trout fillet is evenly fried and coated in a hazelnut butter, lemon, and almond sauce and proffered with toasted almonds and al dente green beans. What makes it soar is that the fragrant sauce doesn't mask the fish, which is flaky and delicate on the inside and crisp on the outside.And surprise, surprise, Starr couldn't have picked a better-suited pastry chef than Kelli Payne. Her profiteroles ($11) will make you feel like a kid again.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, calzone, or even tortellini, there's Bella Napoli. The low-key restaurant has been serving tasty Italian treats at bargain prices in South Beach since 1980. It's harder to find a more delicious homemade gnocchi at any price in Florida than the one served in tomato, meat, pink, or alfredo sauce for $10 here. The pizzas are solid, and the calzones are exceptional not only in flavor but also in size. Though the wine list and ambiance won't make a first date think you are a baller, if that first date can appreciate the simplicity of a house chianti and garlic rolls that melt in your mouth, he or she might be a keeper.

Asador 5 Jotas
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The burning heart of northern Spain flickers on the edge of Little Havana. Here, at Asador 5 Jotas, owner Javier Eseverri has created a meat-wrapped wonderland flecked with nearly two dozen types of tapas and a veritable ocean of vino tinto spanning bright, reasonably priced malbecs to big, bold budget riojas. Where you fall is up to you, but don't even think of approaching the hulking chuletón de buey ($24 per person) without a full glass. The aged rib eye arrives sizzling on a hot stone paired with peppy roasted red peppers that add a hit of acidic freshness. Piquillo peppers play a similar role alongside grilled lamb chops that come thick with smoke and rosemary's grassy sweetness. If meat isn't your game, opt for a clay red cazuela of the hard-to-find baby eels called gulas ($11) laced with plenty of garlic and tiny sweet rock shrimp. Whichever way things go, Eseverri is there to ensure you get the finest Basque hospitality — and that you don't guzzle too much wine before heading for the door.

The sun lingers high overhead. Heat mercilessly beats down on the Miami Beach sidewalk, and a crowd grows inside this pintsize café. They're restless with anticipation. It's only moments from the match between Brazilian soccer powerhouses Palmeiras and Santos. You can hear it in the announcers' voices. You can feel it in the room as wave after wave of frosty beer bottles emerge from behind the bar. Then come the baskets of puffy, stretchy pão de quejio ($14.95), followed by steaming bowls of moqueca ($16.95) trailing the pungent aroma of nutty dende oil. Boisterous tables seem to be quelled by their feijoada ($14.95), filled with knuckle-size hunks of pork. Then there's opening whistle and a piercing shout. You see a splash of beer mist through the air, followed by a volley of those little cheese balls. Just another weekend at Varanda's Brasil Café.

Lung Yai Thai Tapas
Photo by billwisserphoto.com

Too often, Asian cuisine means underseasoned rice, overly greasy noodles, and cloyingly sweet sauces. Enter Lung Yai Thai Tapas, where a small countertop offers guests an up-close view of chefs crafting refreshingly authentic dishes. It opened in Little Havana in late 2015 and has since been building a loyal base of customers who return for a true taste of Thai culture. The narrow indoor area and outdoor patio seem a modest space, but there's big power in the kitchen. Chef Veenuthri "Bas" Trisransri was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine in 2007 and has an extensive background in Asian cuisine that he learned from his grandfather. From his years in the restaurant industry, Chef Bas knows that the development of deep, complex flavors can't be rushed, which is why dishes such as the palo moo ($12) and tom yum soup ($5) take hours to reach perfection. It's quality Thai food that's both affordable and casual, and the tapas style will tempt diners to sample everything on the menu. A meal at Lung Yai Thai is a crash course for the palate; come with a sense of culinary adventure, and leave with a newfound appreciation for real Thai flavors and a full stomach. Lung Yai Thai is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m. and ends at midnight except Friday and Saturday, when the restaurant stays open until 2 a.m.

Eat Greek Souvlaki
Courtesy of Eat Greek Souvlaki

Eat Greek Souvlaki owner and chef Dimotakis Vasilios was once just a small-business man. But over the years, he has extended his kitchen genius across Miami-Dade County with locations in South Beach, Wynwood, and Brickell. In addition to serving souvlaki, he also offers abundant portions of colorful salads, overflowing gyros, juicy meat, and fresh seafood platters, along with other Greek classics. There's even a special section for the calorie-conscious — "Spartan Health" — which consists of proteins like fish, turkey, and chicken paired with items such as olives, figs, grapes, green vegetables, whole grains, and wild rice. Think grilled shrimp with spinach brown rice and fresh beets served with dolmadakia, also known as grape leaves ($13.99 to $27.99). Forget the diet and get the baklava ($4.99) for dessert. One bite, and the urge to yell "Opa!" will strike. Don't resist.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®