Nestled within towering glass-and-brick canyons across this country are illuminated urban nightlife scenes replete with bistros, bars, pubs, clubs, and fine-dining establishments. This isn't the case in downtown Miami. We're not talking about pretty Brickell and its merry Mary Village chain gang of eateries. Nor are we speaking of the lower tip of Flagler Street, where Il Gabbiano, PrimeBlue Grille, Area 31, and Manny's Steakhouse have set up shop; excepting the last, these places are set away from the streets that dummy developers designed in a manner more conducive to cars than cafés.
No, we mean the real downtown, those senescent blocks between Biscayne Boulevard and the Miami-Dade County Courthouse that hark back to the time when discount electronics stores ruled.
Some praiseworthy restaurants in this neighborhood do serve dinner, such as Soya y Pomodoro, Bali Café, La Loggia, and Thai Churros. But daytime ushers in a wonderfully bustling lunch scene that has recently seen the addition of a new fast-food pasta place, a beachcomber's bar, a sandwich shop, and an Indonesian joint. What do they have in common besides a downtown address? Lunch costs $5.99 or less.
Dibyo Kasiyadi, a former cruise worker from Jakarta, opened Matahari Café eight months ago. Kasiyadi's clientele includes nearby office employees, but his ship comes in, so to speak, whenever ships come to Miami's port and Indonesian, Indian, and Filipino mates bound toward the petite, simply arranged eatery.
Start with tahu isi, a pair of fried pastry pockets puffed with a light, steamy mix of fried tofu and scallions ($1.95). There are two other appetizer choices (spring rolls and gyoza), a trio of broth-based soups, and a dozen-plus lunch specials (most $5.99 and all accompanied by a mound of white rice), all freshly cooked and invigoratingly seasoned. Indonesian staples that are served include grilled skewers of chicken or pork saté with peanut sauce; chili-and-coconut-seeped beef rendang; and rice noodles stir-fried with kecap manis (sweet soy), peas, scallions, carrots, and choice of chicken or pork (bak mie goreng). The priciest item, nasi rames ($9.99), brings steamed rice surrounded by beef rendang, curried chicken wings, a sambal-slathered salmon steak, sautéed kale, and a crisp shrimp cracker. Those attracted to vibrantly hued victuals should try the trippy es cendol, a Javanese beverage/dessert of shaved ice, palm sugar, coconut milk, jackfruit, glutinous yuca, and bright green spätzle-like squiggles of tapioca starch. When Matahari Café gets packed with cruise workers, it is no less colorful.
Shaka Jon's is nearby, but in a little beach-shack Shangri-la of its own — a separate entity from the adjacent food court on the mezzanine level of Flagler Station. The fun and funky atmosphere created by owner Robert Cvetkovski offers a fitting backdrop to chef Ian Wolinsky's informal lunch menu of burgers, barbecue chicken, fried chicken, chicken fingers, chicken fajitas, and the "amazing Shaka sandwich." The last turned out to be turkey on rye with coleslaw and thousand island dressing, but they were out of rye. And thousand island. Your choice of any of the items comes served with hand-cut fries and homemade coleslaw for just $5.99.
The burger is hand-formed and char-grilled, the slaw homemade and pleasurably peppered with celery seed, and the fries actually fresh-from-the-fryer potato chips. "These are the fries?" I asked. "Yeah, they're round fries," our waiter responded. Whatever — they were tasty, as were fajitas: tender strips of chicken breast and pepper/onion sauté served with tortillas and rice.
If, like many professional journalists, you enjoy boozing it up at lunchtime, Shaka's is happy to oblige with two-for-one island rum runners all day — except for the day we visited, when the bar was out of pineapple juice. We were willing to have rum runners without tropical fruit juice, but it turns out Shaka was likewise lacking orange juice and triple sec. We ended up with a glass apiece of rum and cranberry juice, which I can boldly predict will not be this or any other season's trendy cocktail. The discombobulated but otherwise festive bar also advertises two-for-one drafts and well drinks during daily happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m.
Some folks might see a sign touting "15 different pasta dishes starting at $2.99" and say, "Wow!" I see it and think, Uh-oh; just call it professional instinct. The establishment making this claim is Viagio Pasta Restaurant, a European-based franchise hoping to cash in as a healthier alternative to burger-themed chains. It surely sports a warmer interior design than the competition; a contemporary look of light wood tables and richly colored banquettes lines each side of the room.
The pasta used is Panzani, which those with picayune inquisitiveness might wish to know is Czechoslovakia's best-selling brand. Viagio boasts a state-of-the-art system that produces "al dente noodles in less than 30 seconds"; I'm no technological wizard, but it looks pretty much as though a cook in back dunks baskets of precooked noodles into boiling water. Diners go to the counter, choose from among a few basic cuts (such as penne, fettuccine, and spaghetti), and select an accompanying sauce (Alfredo, pesto, meat, etc.). The pastas are all quite common, but when the price for a plentiful portion peaks at $5.99, you can't expect hand-cut chitarra with chanterelles.
You can, however, expect better than overcooked penne arrabiata with a warm, salsa-like sauce that would seemingly pair better with corn chips. And I must admit, the thought of creamy bacon-bit sauce simply never occurred to me until I tried Viagio's fettuccine carbonara. The pair of three-buck offerings comprise spaghetti with olive oil and mac 'n' cheese, the latter aptly Velveeta-ish and a legitimate gut-filling substitute for the Big Mac.
Also on the limited menu are viagellones, which are pressed panini sandwiches, and fast-foody salads with packaged dressings. Combo lunch deals pair pasta with salad ($8.99) or panini ($9.99). La Loggia, located next door, also offers a $9.99 lunch special. Just saying.
Should your concept of comestible bliss involve sandwiches, you'll be happy that Jimmy John's debuted a couple of months ago across the street from the courthouse (another location exists at 125 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables). J.J.'s was started in 1983 by a very young Jimmy John Liautaud, who parlayed his Charleston, Illinois sub shop into 700 franchises nationwide. Still, I don't think Subway has to panic quite yet: Jimmy's makes good, inexpensive subs, but they don't live up to billing as "World's Greatest Gourmet Sandwiches."
The décor is clean and modern, with a retro-Americana reliance on posted slogans and sayings that attempt to please (or distract?) customers via cuteness. "Freaky Fast, Freaky Good" reads one. Freaky fast, yes; to paraphrase Satchel Paige: You can flick off the light switch and your sandwich will be ready before the bulb goes dark. Freaky good... well, the meats are thinly sliced, the mayo is Hellmann's, the mustard label reads Grey Poupon, and bread is baked fresh in-house. It is a soft, pale, unexceptional loaf; thickly sliced seven-grain bread is probably your better bet, but then your sandwich becomes a club, not a sub. The former boasts more meat and clocks in at $5.99 each; an eight-inch sub is $4.99. The J.J. Gargantuan, at $7.99, claims to be "Huge enough to feed the hungriest of all humans!" It is indeed stocked with plenty of Genoa salami, smoked ham, capicola, roast beef, turkey, and provolone, but it's the same length as the others, and each of the three tomato slices inside was barely larger than a quarter. Still, the sandwich is tasty and certainly sating enough. Tuna is good, too, freshly made and mixed with minced celery and onions. An "unwich" brings "same ingredients and price of the sub or club without the bread." Shouldn't it cost less?