The most apt adjective for many Miami restaurants is overrated. With a nonstop public-relations machine grinding out release after release of hyped-up claims about this place and that, and food bloggers eagerly rewording the PR praises in exchange for unspecified future favors, the public is fed more than enough reminders about just how great each new dining establishment really is (even when it isn't).
But not every restaurant has a firm passing out megaphones to the media, and sometimes places like these get sort of forgotten by the public. This is true of the quintet we have selected as under-the-radar eateries, although each one of these is on the minds of enough loyal locals that business is just fine. It's the rest of us who may have forgotten how good these places are.
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The team of Chika Abe and son-in-law chef Johnson Teh have been cooking up a tasty menu mix of East and Southeast Asian cuisine at this Gables spot since 2006. The eclectic collection of small plates come from Thailand, Japan, China, Vietnam, and Korea, which could mean sushi/sashimi, vegetables in red curry sauce, sweet-and-sour-glazed lamb ribs, Korean barbecue rice, spicy beef glass noodles... Wherever the point of origin, the flavors register as fresh and assertive. Abe and Teh have also long impressed with Lan Pan-Asian at Dadeland Station -- which, really, is another stellar under-the-radar place to dine.
The name Cheen-Huaye (chen-why-ay) means "only here," which rings truer than ever now that the other Yucatecan restaurant Burritos Grill Café has closed. Maya, oh maya, how we love specialties such as cochinito pibil (pork marinated in recado rojo, cooked in a plantain leaf, and served with pickled onions); poc chuc (grilled pork in achiote sauce); and sopa de lima ("lime soup"), a spicy chicken soup with avocado and tortilla strips. Chicken tamales and mahi tacos are worthy as well. Cheen-Huaye is a labor of love for Mérida native Marco Velasquez and wife Magna Vieira, and the vibe comes through.
This place has all the properties of a budget dive -- cramped little 42-seat space in an ugly old strip mall with a bunch of stuff piled up on the horseshoe-shaped bar. What differentiates it from others of this ilk is that Salmon & Salmon charges more for its food than most Peruvian restaurants in the city. Also, the food is better than most. Fabio Salmon and his son José opened this location in 1980 (Fabio has since passed away and Jose's wife Liliana joined in). Ceviche is the big seller, and it is satisfying in traditional citrus/cilantro/red-onion fashion. Papas a la huancaína is likewise classically prepared, as is a standout tacu-tacu -- a patty of rice, mashed red beans, onion, and spices capped with salsa. Try it paired with pan-fried trout. The wine list brims with bargains.
Owners Neslon and Mayneth "Fifi" Sanchez cook some of the freshest fish in town at their Normandy Isles neighborhood seafood restaurant. Fish such as grouper, hog snapper, and mutton snapper are snatched from local waters and iced in coolers -- along with some imported niceties such as Alaskan black cod and Nova Scotia scallops. Choose your catch, and it will be weighed in order to determine price. Then it gets griddled and plated with salad and a choice of rice and black beans or mashed potatoes. More involved preparations are also available on the lengthy menu -- seafood over pasta, shrimp in garlic sauce, and a popular house paella crowned with a Florida lobster tail -- as well as a few steak and chicken items for those who foolishly spurn the seafood.
Scott Fredel is an avid fisherman and accomplished professional chef, which is a terrific pair of attributes for the owner of a seafood restaurant. That's likely why Pilar (named for Hemingway's fishing boat) has oh-so-quietly been consistently filling seats since first opening in Aventura in 2003. There is no reinvention here, just very fresh fish paired with a few heightening ingredients. Yellowtail snapper comes with grilled asparagus and roasted pepper vinaigrette; scallops are seared and served with citrus butter and shaved fried onions; shrimp gets wok-fried with vegetables in chili-peanut sauce. All seafood entrées are under $20 -- what a deal! -- as are meat dishes such as grilled pork tenderloin, beef short ribs, half of a pan-roasted organic chicken, and a surprisingly (for a seafood joint) delectable skirt steak. There's a handsome dining room and good service too.