You know the place: Low-pile carpeting, travel-poster art, fake flowers on the tables, menus with a few misspellings, banquettes in only slightly better condition than old auto seats found in a junk yard. But all of these are forgivable because the food is good and the prices low. And sometimes these modest establishments transcend the cheap-good-eats category by offering specialties and service not commonly found even at some of Miami's more chichi places. My dining companion and I encountered two such examples in recent months.
Out in the hinterland of Kendall is a restaurant that uniquely combines two of the world's great cuisines - Peruvian and Cantonese. Called Chifa, the restaurant derived its name from the Chinese expression chi fan seek, which means "to prepare the rice to eat." And despite the seemingly odd culinary coupling of cultures, nothing that unfamiliar is on the menu - except fried pigeon ($10.95), which didn't tempt us at all.
The Peruvian element is in the seasonings, chiefly chilis and cilantro, although the food is not spicy-hot by any means, and the spices are as much Chinese by way of India and Burma as they are Peruvian. (If spicy-hot is what you crave, choose one of Chifa's seven Szechuan dinners.) The Cantonese is definitely the stronger influence, and true to the cuisine of the homeland - not Americanized, nor even South Americanized, to any great extent. For example, flour is not used to thicken sauces, so the food is not overpowered by the viscous gravylike substances many Chinese restaurants seem to think Americans expect.
Appetizers range in price from $1.25 for an egg roll to $11.95 for cam chi ha, a half-dozen deep-fried rolls stuffed with shrimp, chicken, and pork. We decided to try the fried chicken wings, which go for $2.95 per half-dozen. These babies were not actually wings, but plump, meaty chunks of boneless chicken coated in deliciously sweet paprika. Remarkably ungreasy, the meat was as moist and tender as if it had been stewed. Served with a lemon dipping sauce spiked with ginger, the "wings" were addictive, and we were nearly full to capacity before we received our entrees.
Many of the main dishes at Chifa are soups, though not all are billed as such. I sampled a house specialty, for example, called cam lu won ton, defined on the menu as a dish of fresh shrimp, roast pork, chicken, and duck in a sweet-and-sour sauce atop a bed of Chinese ravioli ($9.50). What arrived at the table was a bowl containing all of the aforementioned plus bok choy, water chestnuts, and mushrooms in a broth that tasted mainly of the natural juices of the duck and pork. The ravioli were especially tasty, and the noodle wrappers kept the chicken filling from being overwhelmed by the stronger-flavored meats. My dining companion tried sweet-and-sour duck Peruvian style ($8.95), and its accompanying sauce - which had a bolder, burnt-orange hue - was subtle, perfectly balanced, and exquisitely light. Loaded with duck, the dish also contained pineapple chunks, carrot slivers, scallions, and snow peas, and was served with a generous portion of white rice.
Desserts take a decided turn toward Peru; many small cakes offered, such as humita dulce, a sweet corn tamale, for $1.75. But on the beer front, Chifa is perhaps the only restaurant between here and Lima to offer both Tsingtao and Pilsen Callao and Cristal ($2.60 apiece) - which was enough to make a fan of my dining companion. He drank these last Peruvian brews with his meal, and had a Chinese Tsingtao for dessert. We plan to return to Chifa at least enough times to become included in the photo collages of happy customers the restaurant has pinned to the wall.
Closer to town on Southwest Eighth Street is another popular neighborhood haunt, but with an Italian flavor: The Pasta Factory Company. One step inside the two-room restaurant and any suspicion that the name is a gimmick disappears. Antique-looking pasta machines, visible to diners through a glass wall, churn dough into myriad shapes. You can also watch chefs hand-stuff ravioli and roll gnocchi as you dine.
Our waiter provided the old-world style of splendid service as if born to a long line of Italian waiters. And where else in town can you get homemade pasta plus garlic bread and a tossed salad for $4.95? The most expensive dinners on the menu are spinach spaghetti with shrimp scampi, and veal parmigiana with pasta, both of which are served with garlic bread and a salad and priced at $8.95 - the cost of an appetizer at many of Miami's tonier restaurants. But the starters here are outrageously reasonable: We began our meal by sharing a spinach pie ($1.25), a huge, piping-hot turnover bursting with creamy filling. The crust was buttery and flaky, proving that the Pasta Factory can deal with dough in many forms.
For his main meal, my carnivorous dining companion chose a dish of sausage, peppers, and mushrooms ($6.95). Two plump, sizzling links of spicy Italian sausage shared his plate with mushrooms and colorful green and red peppers. On the side was a hearty portion of linguine ladled with a thick, perfectly seasoned marinara sauce. For my part, I chose fettuccine Alfredo. The noodles were eye-opening fresh (the difference between this pasta and the dried, boxed variety is immediately apparent), cooked to a perfect, slightly chewy stage, and swimming in a sinfully rich sauce of butter and cream. A half-carafe of chianti (burgundy, chablis, and rose are offered, as well as beer) was the perfect accompaniment. We skipped dessert, but gelato and homemade flan are offered.
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At the Pasta Factory, you not only get your choice of pasta (vermicelli, spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, fusilli, spinach spaghetti, spinach linguine, spinach fettuccine, or rigati); on most of the house specials you may also choose from a list of coatings, including tomato, meat, or Alfredo sauce, oil and garlic, or butter and cheese. Marinara, mushrooms in wine, sausage and tomato, white clam, red clam, pesto, beefaiola, and shrimp scampi sauces are available for a nominal additional charge.
These two are prime examples of the city's hybrid, cross-cultural restaurants, and raise the question of whether Miami is a tossed salad or a melting pot. But then again: Who really cares, as long as we can eat this interestingly, this cheaply...and this well?
CHIFA CHINESE RESTAURANT
12590 N. Kendall Dr, Kendall; 271-3823. Hours: Daily from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
THE PASTA FACTORY
5725 SW 8th St, 261-3899. Hours: Sunday through Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to midnight.