Dining out in Miami and Fort Lauderdale doesn't have to mean a second mortgage on the mango plantation. Just follow the locals to these nine spots-where a full meal costs less than $12
Since the 1990s, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and above all South Miami Beach have developed no shortage of swank restaurants catering to the "beautiful people" (physically or financially-some of America's highest household incomes are found on Miami's residential islands). Overall, though, Miami is America's poorest large city, so there's also a dizzying variety of more affordable dining options. It's a little tougher to find good quality for rock-bottom prices in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, but plenty of regular folks-including immigrants and students-live there, too. And they manage to scrape by on considerably less than Gloria Estefan, Rosie O'Donnell, and Ricky Martin. The immigrants in particular have set a-bubbling a culinary melting pot whose strongest dishes hail from Latin America and the Caribbean. Especially in the Miami area, you'll find heaping helpings from Argentina to Trinidad, with an obvious emphasis on Cuba. Even Fort Lauderdale, infamous for its spring-break madness, has managed to shed some of its white bread, surf-and-turf reputation.
Since 2001, this cavernous space has seen a steady stream of diners round-the-clock (as well as folks crowding the counter up front for fancy pastries and Argentine sweets, and surfers at the Internet terminals in back). It really gets hopping in the wee hours, when club-goers most appreciate the Latin fare turned out to a pop-music beat.
The menu is dominated by specialties of Cuba, owner Mairely Rodr'guez's homeland, and dishes are similar in quality to those at Puerto Sagua, the longtime landmark just below South Beach. But the setting here is spiffier (green-tile palms on cool white walls, exposed ceiling ducts, mod light fixtures) and the location is central-two blocks west of Ocean Drive, three blocks south of the chichi pedestrian mall known as Lincoln Road, and three blocks north of the distinguished Wolfsonian Museum.
The frita cubana (Cuban-style hamburger, $3.70) and Cuban sandwich (cold cuts and pickles on French bread, run through a sandwich press, $5.55) are top picks from the sandwich menu. But the best deals are at the steam tables, with lech-n asado (succulent roast pork) and about a dozen other items for $5.55, including two sides (rice, beans, potatoes, plantains, cassava, or sweet potatoes). E la carte platters, most of which cost $9, include the same sides along with the likes of chicken and steak. Tropical calls itself La Casa del Churrasco (House of Steak), and for good reason. The vaca frita (fried flank steak with onions, $9) is less crisp than at other Cuban restaurants, instead playing up tenderness and flavors of lemon and garlic; the picadillo a la criolla (ground beef sautZed with olives and raisins, $5) is hearty and rich; and the joint's former Argentine influence shows in the high quality of its 12-ounce steak platters ($14.95).
Tap Tap 819 5th St., South Beach, 305/672-2898; 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 4 p.m.-midnight Thurs.-Sat., 4-11 p.m. Sun.
Haitians are another major Caribbean ingredient in Miami's cultural stew. But most of the Haitian restaurants are in dicey neighborhoods. So, Katharin Kean founded Tap Tap eight years ago, both to introduce the general public to kizin krey~l and to give middle-class Haitian-Americans a nice place to enjoy it. The result is a mini-maze of five dining spaces, painted in cheerful primary colors and named after local artists and various Haitian voodoo gods. Tap Tap's funky, friendly vibe couldn't be further from the attitude of the rest of South Beach-especially on Thursday and Saturday evenings, when live bands do their thing.
And the food? It's not unlike Jamaican, with subtle twists and sometimes different spicing. The stewed beef ($8.95) and chicken ($5.95) are delicious, but you'll also find tender goat (grilled, $12.95, and in a more elaborate creole-style stew, $8.95) and conch (same preparations, for about a dollar more). All main courses come with at least two of the following: rice, beans, fried plantains, or cassava fries. Soups, salads, and sides involving other Caribbean staples like okra and pumpkin are also reasonably priced. For dessert, try the blancmange ($3), a coconut pudding with an almost cake-like consistency.
Scotty's Landing Chart House Dr., off South Bayshore Dr., Grove Key Marina, Coconut Grove, 305/854-2626; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. weekends.
Coconut Grove, once a charming 1920s harborfront town of wood cottages and cobblestone lanes, has finished its long, strange trip from boho hippie hangout in the '60s and '70s to a land of Starbucks, Armani, and the mansions of Madonna and Stallone. Enough of the charm lingers to make the Grove something of a party magnet-especially on weekends-but there's also the lure of a historic mansion (Miami's oldest) called the Barnacle, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Vizcaya Mansion, the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium, and Key Biscayne, with its Seaquarium.
Fortunately, there are a handful of refuges from high prices and plastic atmosphere-Scotty's Landing foremost among them. For 12 years, Scotty Wessel has run a weathered bait shack and an open-air dining area that's basically a dock under a green-and-white canopy, flanked by banana trees and coconut palms (you can even pull up in your boat). The clientele is made up of weekend boaters, grizzled old salts (especially around the bar), and slick, young investment bankers who all sit under overhead fans and watch the yachts slipping in and out of the marina; unspoiled Grove Key is in the background, Miami Beach is across the bay. Friday through Sunday, bands set up under a nearby banyan tree and serenade everybody with island rhythms. It's a great spot for knocking back a cold one at sunset (drafts from $2.35).
This is some of the area's freshest, most unfancy seafood. The cracked conch is nice and moist ($6.95 with fries), and the 10-ounce grilled blackened mahi steak with fries and salad ($10.95) is another favorite. There are plenty of other mahi and conch options (including conch fritters jazzed up with a touch of Scotch bonnet, $4.75), as well as shrimp, clams, oysters, and calamari. Scotty's can be a little stingy with drinks (no refills at meals, no happy-hour discounts), but there's no better place to soak up the flavor of old Coconut Grove.
Versailles Restaurant 3555 SW 8th St., at SW 36th Ave., Little Havana, 305/444-0240; 8 a.m.-2 a.m. Sun.-Thurs., 8 a.m.-4:30 a.m. Fri. and Sat.
First things first: It's pronounced "vehr-sigh-yes," in the Spanish manner. This vast, must-visit landmark has reigned famously over the western end of Little Havana's Calle Ocho, the heart of Miami's Cuban exile community, since 1971. The ambience is heavily Latin, with glass chandeliers and etched, backlit mirrors that mean to suggest the original Versailles but wouldn't have kept the Sun King up nights. You get 'em all here: gray-hairs, blue-rinses, families, sleek young Yucas (young, upwardly mobile Cuban-Americans). It's not the finest Cuban food in town, but it's the best mix of good solid fare and an entertaining local scene.
Start with the smoky black-bean soup ($2.55) or a plateful of crunchy/velvety croquettes (ham, chicken, or cod, $4.95), followed by a house specialty, lech-n asado (juicy roast pork, $8.75) or a more acquired taste such as lengua asada (ox tongue in wine sauce, $8.95). Daily specials start at $5.25, and most entreZs include sweet plantains and white or yellow rice. On a larger scale, the two surtidos cubanos (Cuban samplers, $10.95) come with two entrZes apiece, accompanied by a croquette and the standard sides. Whatever your pleasure, wash it all down with sweet, herbal Materva soda ($1.10) or an Hatuey beer ($3.25).
After your feast, stroll around the galleries and shops of Calle Ocho-old guys in starched guayabera shirts will be playing dominos in (where else?) Domino Park, cigar rollers will be making stogies the old-fashioned way at La Gloria Cubana. Nearby, the Latin American Art Museum is also well worth a look.