Live Free or Dine

July is the month for celebrating the existence of America, and I'm all for it. I like where I live. I like the principles on which the United States was founded. I've always believed in the strength of diversity and individualism, and though some of our constitutional rights fail us or are twisted to suit nefarious purposes, the intent -- freedom -- remains intact. Yes, my patriotic voice whispers. Go America.

Only problem is, I hate the Fourth of July. Traffic, crowds, fireworks that sound like thunder. The obligatory barbecue. Burgers and dogs and corn on the cob. I can hardly stomach the thought.

So this year I praised America in my own way -- by visiting the local melting pots for dinner. For Part II of my restaurant capsule rehab project, I checked out places that (like so many of us) have dual nationalities, more than one cultural influence, or an assimilation factor. I found what I expected despite the seemingly conflicting elements: distinct and unique personalities that could flourish only in America.

Maria's Greek-American Food Shop
1363 Coral Way; 856-0938. Open Monday -- Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

I kept trying to discern what's so American about Maria's Greek-American Food Shop. The Greek part is easy to figure: prints of the islands hanging on the green- and white-latticed walls, the Mediterranean folksongs on the sound system, the Aegean brand beer. The tasty eggplant salad, a cold and potent starter spiked with garlic, scallions, and dill and served with quartered pita bread warm from the grill. And the souvlaki, juicy pieces of boneless pork or chicken speared kabob-style and partnered by authentic tzatziki, yogurt dotted with cucumber.

Then I tried the spinach pie, a geometry of chopped spinach and feta cheese, the lid of phyllo dough as limp as if it had just come out of a microwave. Ditto the galactobourico, another soggy square, this one with custard and a warm honey sauce. That's pretty American of 'em, I thought. So was the pastitsio, bland noodles layered with ground beef and a scant bechamel blanket, which tasted like Hamburger Helper and which was accompanied by canned string beans with a tomato sauce and yellow rice doused with same. And the souvlaki's garnish, browning iceberg lettuce cushioning feta cheese, was something I might expect in a greasy spoon, Greek or American.

Lunch specials -- a different one daily -- might be the best way to go. Stuffed peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves, Greek-style meatballs or beef tips with orzo (rice-shaped pasta), all served with pita bread and a bargain at $5.95, bring in a healthy crowd of local business people representing practically every nationality in Miami.

Ruen Thai and Sushi Bar
947 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 534-1504. Dinner nightly from 5:30 to 11:00 p.m., Friday -- Sunday until midnight.

The staff at Ruen Thai is eager to serve you. So eager, in fact, that they might ask for your order five times in as many minutes. Take no notice of them; the newly installed sushi bar and expanded menu require all your attention.

Unfortunately, the two sushi products I ate -- a fishy, lukewarm shrimp tempura roll (fried shrimp, asparagus, and avocado) and a skimpy Boston roll (boiled shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and spicy mayonnaise)-- were not great justification for this new let's-just-add-a-sushi-bar trend. The combo of mediocre offerings and competition from other Washington Avenue spots might prevent this suddenly sushi one from taking off.

Thai fare here is much, much better. Yum woon sen, for example, an appetizer of clear noodles tossed with ground chicken and whole shrimp, served warm over cool iceberg lettuce and garnished with bean sprouts. The noodles were al dente and delicious, spiced with hot pepper, onion, scallion, and lime juice. Another pasta starter, mee krob, was excellent as well. Rice vermicelli was fried to a crisp finish, then coated with a honey-sweet sauce that tasted like candy. Whole shrimp and bean sprouts added texture. A vegetable curry was a fresh and plentiful main course, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and onions drenched in a delightfully piquant coconut milk sauce that soaked into steamed aromatic rice.

With its remarkable hand-carved teak tables and luxurious curries -- pan-fried grouper with broccoli, pork with sweet peas, and shrimp massaman with sweet potatoes -- Ruen Thai has been a South Beach staple for years. Not even sushi can spoil that.

Biscayne Wine Merchants & Bistro
738 NE 125th St., North Miami; 899-1997. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30.

A stately dining room redolent of Europe, this North Miami eatery moved several years ago from its Biscayne Boulevard location but kept the name. It also kept its main feature, the wine gallery in the back, a bacchanal's delight from which diners can pick and choose among innumerable bottles to complement the daily menu items or blackboard specials -- or to take home. And though wine prices might be slightly higher than at the liquor store, they're reasonable for a restaurant; the selection makes it all worthwhile.

European with a bit of brash America thrown in might be the best way to describe the culinary offerings, ranging from pate to pasta to pork chops. Gazpacho was a chunky version, so thick it seemed more like salsa. This was a very refreshing starter, barely spicy but flavorful with celery, onions, and cucumbers ground into the tomato broth. An arugula salad was also exquisitely fresh, the tear-shaped peppery greens unaffectedly crowned with rings of white onion and a dash of olive oil.

Chicken crustaces, a regular menu item, was delightful. A boneless chicken breast had been stuffed with creamy leeks, dill, and crabmeat, then rolled in bread crumbs, deep-fried, and sliced into ovals. A light, buttery dill sauce was an apt garnish, along with a plentiful supply of roasted potatoes and vegetable stir-fry, an oddly Asian but tasty accent. For $11.95, this was a generous dinner, its only detraction being the substitution of imitation crabmeat for the real thing.

Accompanied by the same side dishes, a sole special wrapped in phyllo and doused with a lemon-butter sauce was another big serving, the pastry as long as a ruler. The mild white fillet had been overbaked, however, resulting in toughness. Fortunately the lemony sauce helped keep it moist. Another special entree, seafood over linguine, was a surprise in both size and preparation. Swamped in a delicious olive oil-white wine sauce, the tangled mass of long, flat pasta was perfectly al dente. A dozen fresh clams ringed the plate, while medium-size shrimp and handfuls of bay scallops drifted throughout.

Dessert, displayed enticingly on a wheeled cart, was disappointing -- the pretty banana-walnut layer cake we dug into was stale and listless. You might want to ask how long these cakes have been sitting out before you assay one. Or simply order a glass of sauterne or port for your sweet. When it comes to the grape, Biscayne Wine Merchants certainly leads the way.

The Strand
671 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 532-2340. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 6:00 to midnight, Friday and Saturday until 1:00 a.m.

This South Beach veteran -- the Grand Old Man of elegant dinner settings on the remade Riviera -- has long seemed confused, wrestling with its reputation as a clubber's martini spot and its desire to be known for fine dining. I last passed through its doors a couple of years ago, when the atmosphere was like that of its neighbor Mezzanotte up the street: austere lighting, white linens, and a raucous crowd that didn't care that the service was more attitude than expertise and the down-home/upscale fare merely fair. Then came a much-publicized shift last year to a pan-Asian menu (in keeping with the trend that swept the Beach in the forms of Nemo, Lure, and Pan Coast). Though the bar was as busy as ever, it appeared that the Strand was struggling.

Struggling to provide seats for all its customers, I should say. Even in midsummer the restaurant is overflowing. Pastel-washed walls, huge displays of flowers, and subtle lighting are all complemented by chef Mark Barnett's eclectic summer menu, which borrows from the world's cuisines.

A warm goat-cheese souffle was an ideal starter. The small eggy round, baked to order, was puffy with air but dense with ripe cheese flavor. An assortment of vegetables (including a sheaf of asparagus laid crosswise over the top), brushed with olive oil and grilled, added summer panache to what could be misinterpreted as a wintery treat. Spring rolls, testimony to the Asian influence, seemed a touch lighter and equally delicious, the chopped shrimp, avocado, shredded carrots, mint leaves, bean sprouts, and lettuce wrapped Vietnamese-style in stretchy rice paper. Served cold, the salad rolls were garnished with a dull peanut sauce and a vivacious rice-wine vinaigrette that packed a better wallop.

Though you can still find classic Strand entrees such as meat loaf, they might well be overshadowed by the grilled filet mignon. This prime example of beef was a beautiful medium-rare, bursting with juice and natural flavor. Not overly large, the meat was garnished with a thyme chimichurri sauce and mashed potatoes so smoothly whipped that they ribboned like whipped cream. I also loved the pan-seared Moroccan-spiced salmon, a rosy fillet glazed with chipotle chilies and citrus juice. The result was a tangy, sweet-crusted piece of fish perched over a molded scoop of vegetable couscous and layered with grilled asparagus. Stunningly fresh.

Desserts are homemade, and fantastic. Don't miss the candied apple tart afloat in caramel, and a dense chocolate torte as rich as Thomas Kramer. For a restaurant that never really went away, the Strand has made quite a comeback.

Cafe Bistro
10121 Sunset Dr.; 595-3663. Open for dinner Tuesday -- Sunday from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.

This two-story Continental/ Italian restaurant has something very American about it -- the Twenties-theme decor. Prohibition, zoot suits, the whole works. Mementos hang on the walls, dot the shelves, and jazz up the menu in the form of descriptions such as "on the lamb," and "flapper snapper."

Though Prohibition isn't in effect here, the atmosphere is more restrained than the souvenirs of uninhibition might suggest. That extends to the food, as well. Complimentary garlic bread, crusty with Parmesan and spices, was sliced into finger-thin strips, making it seem like more than it was. An appetizer of stuffed mushrooms comprised four of the white button variety stuffed with a combination of breadcrumbs, onions, and (fake) crabmeat. Though the flavor was nice, the mushrooms hot and juicy, a smattering of the real thing might have boosted this starter to a higher level.

Caesar salad is served with main courses, with garden salads priced at a dollar extra. Shouldn't it be the other way around, one wonders? The answer might lie in the addition of zucchini, red onions, and sliced mushrooms to the romaine in the dinner salad; the caesar has only croutons to accompany it. Both salads were pleasingly fresh, though bottled Italian dressing (none of the dressings is homemade) could easily be improved upon.

Entrees run the gamut: chicken, veal, beef, fish, seafood, pasta, and pizza, not to mention vegetarian items such as meatless meatballs. We enjoyed the veal Pompeii, a tender breaded filet topped with tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions, and bacon and smothered in cheese -- a twist on veal Parmesan. A side serving of capellini with marinara sauce made this a generous portion. Medallions of monkfish shaped like sea scallops, a special that evening, were breaded and sauteed with a buttery scampi sauce. The monkfish's mild flavor and chewy texture were enhanced by an abundance of garlic, and wild rice was a good match for the sauce (pasta with garlic and olive oil was another option), but this boon to the taste buds didn't treat the wallet as well: The diminutive serving wasn't worth the $18.95 price tag.

Cafe Bistro's dessert menu is cleverly concealed under the glass top of the table, revealed when the shell-shape liner plates are removed at the end of the meal. Fudge layer cake baked with four different kinds of imported chocolate tops the list; a low-fat cheesecake dotted with chunks of brownies finishes it. Sandwiched by chocolate -- you'll hear no quibbling from me.

Chifa Chinese Restaurant
12590 N. Kendall Dr.; 271-3823. Open Tuesday -- Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:00. Open Sunday from 1:30 to 10:00 p.m.

Gringos might get a little confused at Chifa. Though it's written mostly in English, the extensive menu is Peruvian Cantonese. Even familiar dishes such as mu shu pork and chicken with black bean sauce become exotic when labeled mussu and tausi. The Asian offerings, made by Peruvians of Chinese descent, are supplemented by Latin specialties, a polite but hardly necessary bow to the largely Latin clientele that watches Peruvian television while happily downing fried rice in the plain, paneled dining room. Chifa, which comes from the Chinese expression chi fan seck, or "preparing rice to eat," is aptly named. Customers should prepare themselves to eat plenty -- not only is the food generously portioned, it's tasty enough to warrant over-ordering.

A bowl of asparagus soup, for instance, was enough for two to share. Chicken broth, practically boiling, was rife with white asparagus, nuggets of juicy chicken, and swirls of egg. A rich and satisfying beginning, but we couldn't resist ordering steamed dumplings, too, six tender pasta envelopes stuffed with chicken, scallions, and water chestnuts. A fragrant soy-based sauce, dotted with freshly grated ginger, was perfect for dunking.

Servers are willing to explain dishes and make recommendations, and if you're not at home here, it's best to ask. We almost ordered both cam lu won ton (a combination of duck, shrimp, roast pork, and chicken over fried wontons) and chicken lo mein with sesame sauce, not realizing they were both sweet-and-sour. Our waitress suggested substituting the house special taipa for the cam lu. Good idea. This mostly meat dish, consisting of juicy skin-on duck, chicken, roast pork, shrimp, bok choy, and water chestnuts, was delicious, sauteed in a light brown sauce and served with white rice. The lo mein was tasty, as well, a variation on the expected. Egg noodles were first pan-fried, then doused with an intriguing scarlet sweet-and-sour sauce and mixed with large hunks of boneless white-meat chicken. Sesame seeds added textural sparkle, while snow peas and scallions glimmered green in the red.

You can rely on the standard fortune cookie to end your meal, but the counter up front has trays of homemade Peruvian cookies and cakes. Easy enough to grab on the way out, and no lottery numbers or inane cliches in 'em, either.

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