Editor's note: Periodically we will publish capsule reviews like those below in addition to our weekly full reviews. Contributors to this installment include Lee Klein, Pamela Robin Brandt, Greg Baker, Becky Randel, and Karen Figueiredo. More than 430 capsule reviews of local restaurants can be found by clicking on Dining on the navigation bar to the left, scrolling down to the lower right, and searching our Dining Guide.
Chuck Wagon Restaurant, 11230 SW 137 Ave, Miami; 305-386-1555. Open daily 7:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. In Miami you can get a pan Cubano and café con leche just about anyplace, but an American breakfast requires a bit of a search. So lovers of corned beef hash and biscuits with gravy, rejoice, because Chuck Wagon can satisfy your yearnings for a great morning meal. The menu offers an abundance of choices: eggs with bacon and sausage or Kentucky ham, omelets with cheese or even chili, blueberry pancakes, chocolate chip waffles, and walnut French toast. Can't decide? Order a "Chuck Wagon Grand Slam" -- two eggs, bacon or sausage, home fries or grits, and toast or biscuits with sausage gravy -- for the amazing price of $6.15. If you have a lighter appetite, there are breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal, or English muffins. And if you simply can't live without café con leche, don't worry -- Chuck Wagon has that too.
Costa Mar, 18250 Collins Ave, Sunny Isles; 305-933-5900. Open Monday through Thursday noon to 11:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday noon to 1:00 a.m., Sunday noon to 10:00 p.m. Chef Juan Adames relies on his Spanish roots at this contemporary, cosmopolitan seafood restaurant in Sunny Isles. The dining room is sharply attired in lemon yellow walls, with cool-blue artwork and a small stage for flamenco, karaoke, and live music that wails Thursday through Saturday. The cuisine can be uneven, but you can't go wrong with the codfish croquettes, or a caesar salad prepared tableside. Main course fish dishes include grouper in champagne sauce, seafood in a clay pot, and a filet of snapper in saffron sauce. Costa Mar's signature paellas are okay, but we bet Adames served more stunning versions during his days as personal chef to Venezuela's presidents. Mrs. Adames is the pastry chef; try her meringue-topped dulce de leche.
Front Porch Café, 1418 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-531-8300. Open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Amid the craziness of Ocean Drive, Front Porch Café stands out as an exceptionally civilized place for dining. On the quieter end of the strip, Front Porch is a simple, peaceful café offering an array of delicious fare. Its Sunday brunch is quite possibly among the best on the Beach, and the pancakes are not to be missed. The yogurt/fruit/granola cup is light, wholesome, and tasty (note: This yogurt is real, not the sugar-induced sludge to which we've become accustomed). Coffee is replenished without your having to ask (and rest assured refills here are free, unlike other eateries that shamefully charge). Munching on brunch goodies at a friendly restaurant on the Beach without having people literally walk into your food is a good way to start your Sunday. Lunch here is also great; salads are creative, healthy, and satisfying, and the mashed potatoes are a cult favorite (they melt in your mouth). I highly recommend the hummus -- filling but not too heavy (no risk of a stomachache afterward). The service, though friendly, could he a hair quicker, especially if you sit outside, but then this is South Beach and this is a quiet neighborhood café. The staff is extremely welcoming to children and seems totally unfazed by accidental spills, so feel free to bring the little ones. Whether it's lunch with friends or co-workers, a fun family brunch, or a quick (but tasty) dinner someplace slightly away from it all, Front Porch Café makes the perfect spot.
Il Mundi, 46 Curtiss Pkwy, Miami Springs; 786-337-8885. Open Monday through Friday 2:00 to 10:00 p.m., Saturday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. With a cozy, tastefully art-laden interior and idyllic outdoor seating (on Miami Springs' wide traffic circle in the rustic downtown retail district), this erstwhile coffee shop had been an inviting spot to cap off an evening with dessert. Minor changes are made to the menu every few weeks, but all of his creations are at worst interesting.
The standard Italian opener known here as "mozzarella caprese" ($5) features vine-ripened tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil along with garlic, basil, and oregano; scallops gratin ($6) are served on the half-shell; and escargots ($6) in garlic butter are sided by a freshly baked baguette. A less common offering is the "Spanish omelet" ($7) with fried garbanzo beans, while our choice of appetizer is the olives, which are roasted with garlic, chorizo, and spices and served with a white cheese. The four salads (all less than $10) are substantial enough to be meals: The "Composition" mixes roasted portobello mushrooms with white asparagus, tomato, artichoke, and shredded cheeses (topped by a phenomenal blueberry dressing); the shrimp caesar consists of romaine hearts and asiago cheese; the spinach is served warm and includes caramelized onions; and there's a prosciutto and goat-cheese offering.
For those pairing a starter with an entrée, there are less-filling (and less than $10) items: a vivid "shrimp enchílado," ravioli of the day, or piglet shanks with a lemon-wine sauce. Other entrées are plenty filling: The filet mignon ($15 for eight ounces, $18 for ten ounces) dinner includes moist mashed potatoes infused with bacon; the lobster ($14) includes rosemary potatoes; the rack of lamb ($14) comes with a lively slaw made from corn and four colors of bell pepper. Our favorite aspect of Mundi remains the coffee and dessert; we've eaten at other restaurants and then headed over for java and sweets many times. Chef Carlo recently added "Nona's Apple" (a sugary treatment topped with raisins and walnuts) and "Banana Delight" (with a crme brùlée type of topping). Both, as well as many other desserts, feature vanilla ice cream that is absolutely out of this world.
Macaluso's, 1747 Alton Rd, Miami Beach; 305-604-1811. Open Tuesday through Saturday 6:00 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m. It's not an Italian restaurant. It's Italian American, what people in New York's burbs (like Staten Island, where chef Michael D'Andrea grew up) commonly call a "red-sauce joint." But that's no diss when the sauce's tomatoes are naturally sweet D.O.P. San Marzanos. And other ingredients boast the same high quality. The dried pasta is De Cecco (and always cooked al dente, not overcooked and mushy). Cured cold cuts, like the San Daniele prosciutto, are Negroni. Olive oil is top quality, first cold-pressed extra virgin. The favored cheese is Locatelli Pecorino Romano -- so aromatic that the term imported doesn't begin to do it justice; in fact just one sniff exports you to southern Italy. Recipes, from the chef's grandmother, are tasty renditions of simple, honest, homey fare, like rigatoni with broccoli rabe; generously ricotta-stuffed ravioli with fresh peas, chicken, and mushrooms in a lemony white sauce; and an excellent -- and never precooked -- veal cutlet. One warning: The chef is not happy to alter Grandma Macaluso's recipes. So, dieters, fuhgeddaboutit.
Maiko, 1255 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-531-6369. Open Monday through Thursday noon to midnight, Friday noon to 1 a.m., Saturday 1:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., Sunday 1:00 p.m. to midnight. One of South Beach's oldest sushi bars is still one of its most traditional -- no Nobu-like nuevo Latino/Japanese fusion items and (we're thankful) minimal tacked-on Thai: only two tasty tom yum soups with shrimp or chicken, a few forgettable red curries, and the winner, Singha beer. Otherwise the menu reads much the same as it did in the early Nineties -- except the prices, some now double. The scrumptious sashimi appetizer, once customizable with the diner's choice of fish (say, all hamachi) for the same nine bucks, now ranges from $11 for the chef's mixed assortment to upward of $14 for custom plates; hamachi runs a stratospheric $18. But there are welcome changes too, like a "King California Roll" that substitutes real Alaskan crabmeat for the usual loathsome surimi that sushi bars commonly call crab. The salmon remains especially buttery and the hamachi supersilky. In terms of freshness and taste, Maiko remains a cut above the neighborhood competition.
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Old San Juan Restaurant, 1200 SW 57th Ave, Miami; 305-263-9911. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. The menu at this sophisticated, moderately priced family-style restaurant touts many favorites of the expatriated, and its old-world charm gives the impression it could be located in the middle of the historic neighborhood after which it's named. Puerto Rican cooking is defined by a mix of indigenous tropical ingredients occasionally boosted by bold dashes of Spanish spices, a pairing clearly evident in morcillas con guineas or blood sausage with boiled plantain. The $8.99 lunch buffet is a boffo way to enjoy island specialties ranging from garbanzos with pigs feet to piñón, a sort of plantain lasagna. Selections change daily, but the buffet consistently offers three different meats, four starches, and a couple of rice dishes (brace yourself for some serious carbo-shock). The traditional mofongo, a plantain mash, is treated with reverence and served with chicken broth for dipping. You can try it plain or in tandem with lobster and octopus, but most prefer the version riddled with crisp pork rinds. A petite take-out shop in the back allows you to bring a little of the island home with you.
Raja's Indian Cuisine, 33 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; 305-539-9551. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Décor is unassuming at this downtown lunchroom -- it's basically a hole-in-the-wall, albeit a clean and cheerful one -- and most of the roughly dozen dishes served daily are steam-tabled, not made to order. Still, since most Indian food is relatively slow-cooked rather than quickly stir-fried like that of most other Asian nations, it survives steam-table simmering quite well. Raja's $4.69 combination platter is among downtown's tastiest lunch options, and there are three South Indian house specialties found neither on the steam table nor in any other Miami-Dade Indian restaurant: dosai, uttapam, and idli. These mouthwatering ground-rice pancakes are served with a choice of several stuffings and/or toppings (the rolled potato-filled masala dosa crêpe and the thicker onion-packed uttapam are particularly good) plus sides of sambar (a soothing vegetable-packed puréed lentil dhal) and spicy/sweet coconut chutney; among the few made-to-order items, they are well worth the ten- to twenty-minute wait.
Roberto's Taco Shop, 405 W 49th St, Hialeah; 305-821-6717. Open 24 hours daily. A very good year for tacos was 1964. That's when Roberto and Dolores Robledo and family opened their original Mexican Taco Shop in San Diego. Their mission statement then has remained the same to this day; the far-flung Roberto's Taco Shop chain calls for "fresh, authentic, quality ingredients, simple food at modest prices, and satisfying portions." Roberto's tacos encapsulate these qualities within their hard little U-shaped shells and soft tortilla wraps. The grilled chicken and beef tacos will satisfy any case of the munchies, but grilled marinated fish, juicy carne asada, and plump pork carnitas in our preferred soft tortillas will have you shaking your head at how delicious fast-food tacos can be. Prices are more than modest: $1.95 to $2.25 for a generously sized shell, or three smaller tacos for $1.99 (a dollar more with guacamole or sour cream). A wide array of hot sauces is available.
Villa Havana, 3398 Coral Way, Miami; 305-446-7427. Open daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. "You go to Versailles for the people," said a friend of ours while tipping the last of his garlic shrimp from fork to mouth. "You come to Villa Havana for the food." It's true that the elemental, inexpensive Cuban fare is what has kept the lines running long for years at this restaurant -- for instance, a $4.95 lunch plate of tender ropa vieja (con arroz y maduros, claro!) is among the best in town, certainly at this price. But Villa Havana has other things going for it: The place is clean, unpretentious, and well lit. The vested and bow-tied waiters are fast, helpful, and occasionally flirtatious with the women. And if you are looking for something a bit more upscale than rice and beans, the menu includes several lobster dishes in the $15 to $19 range. "They have a ham shank that will bring tears to your eyes -- the best one outside Alabama," said that friend of ours while downing a working-class glass of sangria. "You come to Villa Havana for the food," he repeated.