Grateful Bread and Moises Bakery: One serves hearty fare, the other tasty empanadas

At one end of a strip mall on NE 125th Street, David Dodge sells a shoe called the Z-Coil, which has a spring in each heel. It cushions every step and relieves pain, he says. At the other extremity, from a place called Grateful Bread, he provides healthful whole-wheat loaves for himself, friends, family, and whoever else in the neighborhood has a craving. He started the bakery this past April and stocks only a few other items, such as pita, hoagie-like rolls, and cinnamon buns. All are freshly milled from organic wheat, rye, kamut, and spelt; all are gluten-free and taste better than they look, especially the cinnamon buns (although they'd no doubt be better with some frosting).

But man cannot live on bread and therapeutic shoes alone. That's where chef Mari Gomez comes in. She's a self-professed "wetback" from northern Mexico who toiled on Texas farms as a child and then moved about the States with her family. Mari did most of her growing up in Brooklyn and later traveled while learning the cooking trade. She made it to Miami last spring, about the same time David Dodge was looking for someone to prepare breakfasts and lunches at his new bakery. Since Ms. Gomez began cooking there in June, a steady stream of locals has discovered that Mari really cooks!

The dining room adjacent to the bakery features bare white walls, a white ceiling, three tables draped with red-and-white checked tablecloths, and ten chairs. Breakfast begins at 7 a.m. with standard specials such as two eggs, two slices of whole-grain toast, and home fries for $2.99. But better is an "Aztec" combo of two eggs, corn tortilla, black beans, plantain, pico de gallo, cheese, and home fries ($6.95). Mari marinates fresh strawberries for the house-made whole-wheat pancakes, which also come with real maple syrup ($6.95). Freshly pressed orange and carrot juices are poured individually or blended ($2.50). The weekend brunch menu includes various whole-grain crêpes and regular or vegetarian eggs Benedict on a whole-wheat English muffin.


Grateful Bread and Moises Bakery

Grateful Bread: 927 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-873-6440. Breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Moises Bakery: 7310 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-868-0548. Open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Lunch brings the usual salads, sandwiches, and such, but they are unusually tasty. Even something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich excels by way of wholesome bread, ripe tomato, sautéed onions, and pesto spread. It's the best $3.95 sandwich in town. And the best $4.95 sandwich might be the pounded steak pressed in panini-like bread with red onion, tomato, and mozzarella cheese. Going up the price ladder: Steak asada ($5.95), the plate piled with black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, rice, and cheese; and bistec empanizado ($6.95), the same steak smothered in sautéed onions and plated with black beans and thinly sliced potatoes skillet-cooked to a golden brown.

As pleasing as the regular menu items are, those in the know will go with one of the three or four daily specials. The grilled cheese sandwich and bistec empanizado were both culled from this list, as was the finest meal to be found here: Mari's sancocho, a staple stew of various South American and Caribbean cuisines (and the Canary Islands of Spain) that generally features large chunks of meat mingling with like-sized root vegetables. This version, referred to as "Colombian and Mexican style," boasts richly flavored chicken broth chock-a-block with chicken leg and wing and hefty hunks of potato, sweet potato, yuca, plantain, cabbage, and corn on the cob; freshly minced cilantro and red onion are sprinkled on top. When the waitress first brought this huge bowl of food to the table, we were astonished it cost just $5.95. When she also placed a plate of saffron brown rice dotted with garbanzo beans alongside, we assumed there had been a mistake. Not only was that not the case, but also a whole-grain roll came with the meal.

Our strongest recommendation from the regular menu is chicken Veracruzano, whose tender breast meat is bathed in a sauté of tomatoes, peppers, onions, olives, capers, and parsley — accompanied by rice, beans, and steamy corn tortillas. You can get tilapia prepared the same way.

We very much enjoyed a bright, moist square of carrot cake with creamy frosting for dessert, as well as an unfrosted slice of banana bread. After lunch, you might consider trying on a pair of those Z-Coil shoes. That way, the next time you're hungry for tasty yet inexpensive food, you can literally hop right over to Grateful Bread.

We often hop to Moises Bakery when yearning for a Venezuelan-style empanada. Like Grateful Bread, it's a small bakery with only ten seats, but similarities end there. For one, this North Beach spot has been around since 1991. The shelves are stocked to the gills with import market goods from South America, the display cases stuffed with assertively colored desserts of every stripe, and the countertop piled with sandwiches of varying shapes. The owners are Chilean-born Philip Coleman and Portuguese-born Joachim Bras, both raised in Venezuela. The specialties of the house — other than the steamy espressos poured all day — are empanadas modeled after those from Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela. The Argentine kind is the familiar baked half-moon packet sealed with braided dough — the crust in this case is pale and anything but flaky. Moises' Chilean empanada seems to be made from the same basic water/flour dough, but it's shaped like a burrito. The fillings are similar too, whether they are ham and cheese, melted cheese, or chopped beef flecked with raisins and olives and potently seasoned with cumin. But the Venezuelan version rocks — the half-moon dough tasting of corn meal, fried to soft consistency, and plumped with moist shreds of chicken or beef. As the juice drips down your chin, you'll think about just how well your $3 have been spent.

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