It's difficult to say what makes a dish great. It could be a delicate balance of acid, sugar, and spice or unhindered decadence without distraction. Given the variance in what could go into a single dish and how many forms one can take, it's almost impossible to fairly compare most dishes to one another. Composing such a list is an unenviable task, one that requires taking mental stock of a year's worth of indulgence. It includes quick bites at Cuban bakeries; parts of long, elegant meals; and fast lunches consumed with smartphone swiping.
Many of this year's best dishes tell a story. The tale could be in the food itself and how it bolstered the city's culinary matrix. The dish could also be a totem for its cook and restaurant, and in a single bite express everything about who made it and where that person came from. Of course, it's almost impossible to corral the best of this past year into one area, yet the dishes that follow are ones that gave pause and, most of all, continue luring diners back for more.
1. Backyard pakora at Ghee Indian Kitchen. What else is there to say about Ghee chef/owner Niven Patel that New Times and seemingly every other food-interested publication across the nation hasn't said ad nauseam? His people hail from India's tropical lush state of Gujarat, where the produce is second to none. He lives in Homestead with a working farm behind his house, and his restaurant is a perpetually packed combination of the two. No dish better exemplifies this life than his backyard pakora ($8). The fritters are a combination of the huge taro leaves Indians know as elephant ears and onion slivers, with a crisp chickpea batter to hold it all together. 8965 SW 72nd Pl., Miami; gheemiami.com.
2. Estrella pasta at Upland. Of all the dishes at Justin Smillie and Stephen Starr's South of Fifth haunt, the one rife with creamy chicken liver is most shocking. The house-made estrella pasta ($21) builds on long tubes of extruded dough boasting a star-shaped cross section, hence the name. The toothsome noodles are cut to a manageable size and tossed in a simple sauce of chicken livers enriched with sherry, rosemary, and sage. 49 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-602-9998; uplandmiami.com.
3. Spicy black miso ramen at K Ramen. Burger. Beer. Miami has a serviceable selection of ramen. Yet most choices involve the thick, sticky pork-bone broth tonkotsu, which is produced by running boilers for hours on end. Thus, much of the ramen comes at a hefty price. Now enter K Ramen's spicy black miso. It starts with chicken carcasses that are boiled with kombu, leeks, shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, and other aromatics to create a fragrant, delicate broth that by itself would suffice as the base for a fine chicken soup. Next comes a heroic dose of salty black miso that turns the brew an evil ebony. A dose of chilies and cracked sesame seeds lends an alluring spice and a nutty flavor that pairs smartly with the miso and clings to thin, chewy noodles that diners can slurp until 2 a.m., all for a mere $14. 150 20th St., Miami Beach; 305-534-7895; sbe.com/restaurants/locations/k-ramen-burger-beer-south-beach.
4. Miang Kham at Atchana's Homegrown Thai. Miang kham means "perfect bite." And at Atchana's in Coconut Grove, there's no better way to describe the $14 dish owner Atchana Capellini has been waiting decades to serve. One of the many small dishes arranged on a large plate holds wrinkly pale-pink dried shrimp. In another are toasted coconut flakes. Yet another bears tiny beige cubes you later learn are bits of ginger and garlic. Even the leaves look different. Rather than the ruffled bright-green fronds of buttery iceberg lettuce, betel leaves are deep green and spade-shaped, with an almost unnoticeable flavor. But when they're all combined with a few bits of crushed peanuts, sliced shallots, a squeeze of lime, and a dash of spicy-sweet tamarind sauce, the flavor rings true to the name. The coconut's sweetness underlines the dried shrimp's salty savoriness. The ginger and shallot add a spice that's hemmed in and rounded out by the coconut and sour tamarind. It may have taken a while for this longtime Thai restaurant owner to put it on her menu, and now that it's there, you have quite a bit of catching up to do. 3194 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 305-774-0404; atchanas.com.
5. Kitfo at Awash Ethiopian Restaurant. This dish of raw beef ($12.99), served with the rolled, fermented bread called injera, house-made cheese flecked with spinach, and a fiery seasoning, is one of Ethiopia's national treasures. And such is what Awash's owners Fouad and Eka Wassel want to show you at their Miami Gardens restaurant. To eat it, you tear off a piece of injera and pick off a hunk of the ground meat about the size of a walnut. Then grab a bit of cheese, preferably the verdant one flavored with collard greens and garlic. Finally, dab it all in the spicy mitmita, and pop it in your mouth. Repeat until satisfied. 19934 NW Second Ave.,
Miami Gardens; 305-770-5100.
6. Corned beef sandwich at Zak the Baker Deli. Sure, there were avocado toasts, but when Zak Stern turned his Wynwood bakery into a Jewish deli, Miami soon learned that brisket brined for five days in a salty bath fortified with coriander, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves and then steamed until tender was actually the best accompaniment for the bearded baker's sourdough. Add onto your corned beef sandwich ($16) a thick slick of spicy mustard and enjoy with a pickle, and you might never think about avocado toast again. 405 NW 26th St.,
Miami; 786-347-7100; zakthebaker.com.
7. Vol au vent de tuna at Gilbert's Bakery. Furrow your brow if you like, but the best Cuban pastries are filled with a slightly salty tuna salad. Known as either a menesier de tuna ($1.25), with a thick, crumbly, glazed crust, or a vol au vent de tuna (90 cents), with a fluffy, buttery, sugar-slicked puff pastry, they can be found at Gilbert's Bakery, where owner Gilberto Arriaza continues his family's traditions decades after their Havana bakery was seized by the Castro regime. Though this strange-sounding snack is generally made to be enjoyed during Lent, Arriaza says they're available throughout the year by special order. 3340 Coral Way, Miami; 305-442-2427; gilbertsbakery.com.
8. Lebanese flatbread at Noor Bakery & Deli. The pliable but crisp flatbread Jamal Saleh serves by the hundreds at his Fort Lauderdale bakery are just like those he grew up eating on the streets of Beirut. Though civil war forced his family to flee their homeland, Saleh eventually found his way back to the flavors of his childhood when he opened Noor Bakery & Deli in the early 1990s. Today you can hear a cacophony of languages — Arabic, Kreyol, and Russian — calling out orders for flatbread sandwiches. If you try only one, make it the za'atar with salty Akwai cheese ($2.50). After the bread emerges from the oven, it's slicked with a thick green paste of olive oil and the spice blend made with ground thyme and sumac, giving it the aroma of fresh-cut grass and leaves. The cheese provides the seasoning, some heft, and an obvious reason to stay in your seat and order one, two, or 12 more. 4691 Ravenswood Rd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-986-1944.
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9. Lavash at Stubborn Seed. At Top Chef winner Jeremy Ford's new South of Fifth restaurant, he and pastry chef Dallas Wynne coax the Central Asian bread lavash ($6) into one of the neighborhood's best bites at a price that barely buys you a Coke at nearby competitors. Wynne turns the usually chewy, pliable bread into more of a cracker that and Ford and company coat with an ultrasmooth, ultrarich chicken liver mousse punched up with onion and bourbon and whipped with a heroic dose of butter. The ingenious finishing touch comes in the form of a chili jam packed with sugar, salt, and smoke that's created by cooking down a kitchen sink of spicy peppers with the fish sauce caramel that's common in Vietnamese cooking. The stuff is good enough to eat by the spoonful, but be careful: You never know who could be watching. 101 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 786-322-5211; stubbornseed.com.
10. Fried mackerel at Sherwood's Bistro. At Barclay Graebner's Little River bistro is a fish dish as it should be. A quartet of meaty Boston mackerel ($18) is encased in a delicately crisp crust and served whole in a frying pan with nary more than a wedge of lemon and a smattering of diced tomato and onion. The acid, of course, plays perfectly with the moist flesh that slips away from the fishes' skeletons with ease and is neither too dry nor too oily for even the novice who might wince at such a plate. 8281 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-359-4030; sherwoodsbistro.com.