courtesy of Old Lisbon

Behold the five stages of croquetas. Stage 1: croqueta de queso. Filled perhaps with goat cheese, it is otherwise a glorified mozzarella stick. Stage 2: croqueta de pollo. Now we're talking! Meat, baby! Stage 3: croqueta de jamón. This is where most of us live day-to-day. Good, but it could be better. Stage 4: croqueta de chorizo. All the delights of ham, with an additional hit of smoke that is the signature of this Spanish sausage. Stage 5: croqueta de bacalao. This is it. You have arrived, especially with one of Old Lisbon's bolinhos de bacalhau ($10.99). These empowering little fritters forgo the breading of their Cuban counterparts and include meaty bits of Portugal's beloved salt cod in a slightly sweet batter. With one in hand, there's nothing you can't do.

Photo by Zachary Fagenson

With so many Italian places strewn across town, it's amazing it took so long for a proper one like Antonio Vecchio's to pop up. Now going strong for more than a decade, Gusto Fino Italian Café is a regular haunt for cops, Gables office types, and everyone in between who's in need of some on-the-go nourishment. Vegetarians can rely on the eggplant fresh ($8.95), made with grilled eggplant, roasted red pepper, provolone cheese, greens, and pesto. Vinny Boombatz types can't resist the Italian job ($9.95) and its pile of Genoa salami, Parma prosciutto, and provolone. Vecchio is also on hand taking phone orders and encouraging you to come up with your own creation. It's still a free country, isn't it?

Courtesy of Daily Bread Marketplace

Some people spend years driving down South Dixie Highway before realizing this Middle Eastern bakery and café is there. It hides in plain sight. And like the more-than-four-decade-old place, Daily Bread's falafel ($5.95 sandwich, $7.95 platter) are magic. Some falafel boast emerald-green interiors fragrant with parsley and sumac. Others perfectly balance a crisp shell with a fluffy interior. Still others include both velvety puréed chickpeas and toothsome bits of the whole legume, creating a delightful textural contrast. Daily Bread hits the sweet spot on all three targets via golden-brown, slightly oblong fritters that are so good you won't even notice when you burn your mouth because they've just been pulled from the fryer. The platter is the way to go if you're looking for the most varied falafel experience. Take some bites with the lemony tabbouleh overflowing with grassy parsley. Or just add a touch of vinegary onion. Whichever way you go, the result is always the same: pure, meat-free delight.

Vanessa Valdes

This Coral Gables restaurant has long been the spot to watch belly dancing while chowing down on delicious Middle Eastern cuisine. But Maroosh's hummus is excellent enough that it's worth taking it to go even if there won't be any hips shaking nearby. The $5.95 hummus appetizer plate is a sublimely blended mix of chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice garnished with olive oil and paprika. For $8.95, the menu offers meat with your hummus, and for $7.95, you can have the hummus with foul (which is basically hummus with the chickpeas substituted for fava beans). The hummus goes well with the warm pita bread Maroosh serves, but if you're going light on carbs, try it with falafel or tabbouleh — with or without belly dancers. The place is open Tuesday through Saturday and is closed Monday.

Courtesy of La Gringa Taco Shop

A proper burrito is excessive in all the right places. A soft tortilla is stuffed with all the delicious opulence of Mexican-American fare. It's a marriage of meat, carbs, and vegetables that makes for one hefty food bomb. No wonder the name means "little donkey" in Spanish; the burritos at La Gringa Taco Shop perfectly describe the appearance of the bedrolls that donkeys carry. Flagler Street might not be the first spot on your list to find a well-crafted burrito, but you'd be remiss to overlook these. For $7.50 apiece, burritos come with the same meats used to stuff tacos: braised carnitas, marinated pollo, smoky barbacoa, tender carne asada, al pastor, and spicy chorizo. From there, it's pretty straightforward. The meats are mixed with melty cheese, a spice-infused rice, and your choice of salsa and/or guacamole. No crazy add-ons. No overbearing sauces. Just a straightforward, simple preparation, and that's probably what makes them so good.

Courtesy of Lolo's Surf Cantina

There are many places to get a great taco in Miami, but Lolo's Surf Cantina has an especially satisfying and interactive experience. The restaurant, owned by Richard Ampudia (hailed as the godfather of Mexican street food), offers straightforward Baja fish tacos, but you must order the whole fish for the most viscerally authentic experience. A whole snapper is lightly fried and presented intact. Once you've taken your Instagram photos of the creature, it's filleted upon request and served with fresh, warm tortillas and a host of accoutrements: fresh salsas and sauces made in-house, avocado, and an herb salad. Dig in and make your own creations. Priced at $29, it's more than enough for two — and so much more fun than a trip to the Taco Bell drive-thru. Lolo's opens daily at 8 a.m. for coffee and offers tacos from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Readers' choice: Coyo Taco

Nicole Danna

Finding a solid Caribbean restaurant in Miami is about as easy as stepping out your front door and ambling to the nearest street corner. But making truly authentic mofongo — a dish of mashed fried plantains and crunchy pieces of pork shaped into a ball — is an art form not many have perfected. El Conuquito Restaurant looks like something straight out of the islands. This colorful, family-run café has been serving Dominican and Puerto Rican classics for more than 12 years. The menu offers three varieties of the Latin comfort food, beginning with a traditional mofongo con masitas de puerco ($12). Soft, subtly sweet green plantains are mashed and rolled with tiny nubs of pork sausage and molded into a massive sphere before it's given one last dip in the fryer and served. There's also mofongo de longaniza ($12), the same dish topped with a creamy, seasoned, gravy-like caldo made from chicken stock. The dish looks more like a melting snowball than a garlic lover's dream. But the best seller by far is the mofongo de camarones ($16), served chunky with small pieces of pernil buried like treasure. It's topped with a single tender shrimp and doused in a sauce similar to the traditional al ajillo. Pro mofongo eating tip: Ask for a lemon wedge for an acidic kick and a side of bread to help soak up the extra shrimp and garlic sauce.

Photo by Zachary Fagenson

Decades ago in the city of Medellín, Isabel Amaya's grandmother used to prepare arepas on a wide metal plate, spreading the batter thin before popping it into an ad hoc oven made of stacked logs. The result was almost a pancake. "It was crispy and tender, the perfect bread for eating anything," says Amaya, whose family has run this Colombian restaurant and takeaway spot since 1997. The bumpy white arepas the kitchen grills are the next best thing to her grandmother's. They look more like biscuits than the traditional fried corn dough rounds that Colombians have created to suit Americanized tastes. They're the perfect vessel for plowing through one of Macita's homemade morcillas. There's something about the creamy, fatty blood sausage studded with rice that — when combined with the tender-inside, crunchy-outside arepa — makes each bite an escape from the noisy dining room.

Photo by Zachary Fagenson

Dagoberto Estevill's frizzled potato strings place him far above Miami's frita kings and magicians. The tiny strands are like little crisp, salty capsules holding puffs of air that crunch the second you touch Dago's frita cubana ($4.50). They come showered over a perfect patty with just enough Spanish paprika to fill your nostrils with their smoky aroma — and enough grease to tie each bite together. Then the julienned potatoes come on like a summer afternoon squall, soaking up the patty's seasoning while dancing around the scattered chopped onions. How does Dago make them? He won't say. "¿Pero, te gustaria más?" he inquires from behind the chest-high counter inside his pastel-blue cafeteria, Fritas Domino la Original. "Claro," is the only reply. Pop a few sticks into your shirt pocket for a snack later on.

Photo by Zachary Fagenson

At first blush, there doesn't seem to be a thing wrong with a baleada for breakfast, particularly when for five bucks you can snag one of the thick whole-wheat tortillas from this compact North Miami Beach cafeteria where women rightly rule. Yet consider the history of this breakfast benchmark. The chewy, pillowy tortillas are thought to have first appeared in the early 20th Century near the banana plantations of Central America. Women pushing ramshackle carts would sell them to farmworkers striking out in the hot sun for a brutal day's work. For many, the thick tortilla with perhaps a smear of black beans was all they could afford. Jennifer's Cafeteria takes some of the sting out of the story via gently fried eggs, refried black beans, and — if you like — an ultrafragrant and spicy chorizo tangled up with melty cheese. Be sure to give thanks to those who paved the way.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®