South Florida

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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 , with an obvious emphasis on Cuba. Even , infamous for its spring-break madness, has managed to shed some of its white bread, surf-and-turf reputation.

Miami/Miami Beach

Tropical on the Beach 1413-15 Washington Ave., South Beach, 305/532-4242; open 24 hours

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 Rodríguez'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 lechón asado (succulent roast pork) and about a dozen other items for $5.55, including two sides (rice, beans, potatoes, plantains, cassava, or sweet potatoes). À 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 sautéed 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 its 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 kreyòl 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, lechón 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 entreés include sweet plantains and white or yellow rice. On a larger scale, the two surtidos cubanos (Cuban samplers, $10.95) come with two entrées 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.

Guayacán 1933 SW 8th St., at SW 19th Ave., Little Havana, 305/649-2015; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily

They still call it Little Havana, but in parts it's looking more like Central America these days--with Nicaraguan, Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran restaurants popping up right and left. So Nicaraguan food is what, exactly? Find out by pulling into a cute little mini-mall and pulling up a chair in this warm, homey dining room with plank-and-beam cathedral ceilings, red terra-cotta floor, and charming art and tchotchkes on the blue walls. The food can occasionally call to mind Mexican (corn tacos and tortillas, pico de gallo) but can also bop over to the Caribbean before you can say tostones and maduros (fried plantains, salty and sweet). But it has its own savory vibe, too--especially when it comes to roasted meats. The star of the show is chimichurri, a garlic, parsley, and olive oil slurry that when slathered on a succulent churrasco (charbroiled skirt steak, $14.75) adds up to a carnivore's ecstasy. The pork is just as luscious, subtly seasoned in a way that may remind you of Indian tandoori. Seafood abounds too, though it's a little pricier. Splurge just a tad on the abundant platter of mixed appetizers ($13.25); the fried cheese is another treat ($3.75). Drinks can get a touch exotic for gringo tastes--on the order of cacao (milk with cocoa beans), cebada (barley water), and semilla de jícaro (a sweet soft drink brewed from fermented corn). The crowning glory of Nicaraguan food is a decadent little dessert called tres leches ("three milks," $3.25)--a creamy half-pudding, half-cake that's such a Miami hit, it's now a staple of most local Cuban and other Latino dining spots.

At lunch, you can get out of here for as little as $6.75--for an entrée plus rice and beans, bread, salad, and a choice of plantains and other sides; the same meal at dinner starts at $7.95. And if you want a little live música with your food, stop in weekend nights or all day Sunday.

Delicias del Mar 2937 Biscayne Blvd., at NE 30th St., Miami, 305/571-1888; 10 a.m.-midnight

And now for something completely different: Peruvian seafood, a growing restaurant trend. Delicias del Mar is on the eastern edge of the burgeoning design district--already bursting with galleries, and awaiting an elaborate new performing arts center in a year or so--and just north of downtown landmarks like the Miami Art Museum. Under a red-shingle roof and behind a white stucco facade, the dining room has paneled walls tarted up with Peruvian arts, crafts, and photos of Lima and Machu Picchu. The room really comes alive because of the crowd (almost all Latins, but menus are also in English), having a grand old time as Andean music warbles in the background.

The menu lists nearly three dozen delicias del mar (marine delicacies), from a simple fillet of corvina--grilled or fried, with rice and salad, for $9.50--to more complex dishes, such as a whole red snapper served with plantains and salad, for around $13. There's also plenty to satisfy meat eaters (bistec a lo pobre is a delicious kitchen-sink steak concoction crammed with rice, beans, eggs, and plantains, $10), and even vegetarians (papa a la huancaína is a Peruvian classic: diced potatoes in a subtle, creamy cheese sauce, $4). Drink an Inca Cola if you like--it tastes a little like bubble gum, or maybe Red Bull.

Fort Lauderdale

The Floridian 1410 E. Las Olas Blvd., at 15th Ave., 954/463-4041; open 24 hours

Remember Flo, the sassy TV sitcom waitress? Her sisters-in-spirit are alive and well at this 65-year-old diner--which happens to be widely known as "the Flo." Conveniently located toward the eastern end of Fort Lauderdale's fancy Las Olas boutique and restaurant corridor and a short drive west from the beach, it's popular with everybody from neighborhood old-timers to club kids piling in at around 4 a.m.

The Flo is kitschy-kitschy cool; walls are awash in chrome, mirrors, neon signs, and celebrity pix. There are also cute touches like the Champagne Room, an otherwise unremarkable booth mirrored on three sides topped with a crystal chandelier.

But you can't eat crystal. Considering the moderate prices, the variety and quality of the food is impressive. Try the "international" meatloaf platters (dressed up with chili for Mexican, tomato and mozzarella for Italian, and so on; $7.25 with two sides); the mahi sandwich with slaw and fries ($7.95); chicken Alfredo over penne (with soup and salad, $10.25); desserts such as the enormous four-layer chocolate cake ($5.95) and "Atkins" cheesecake ($4.95); and the extensive 24-hour breakfast menu. Also worth noting: a special "gourmet burger corner," from the small and plain ($4.95) to the extra large with blue cheese ($8). The best deals in the house are the 20 hot combination platters, which come with two sides, usually a potato and veggie ($6.25 to $10.95).

Grandma's French Café 3354 N. Ocean Blvd., at NE 34th St., 954/564-3671; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Sun.

In the Gulf Ocean area, north of Lauderdale's main stretch of beachfront, an ice cream parlor called Grandma's was turned into a locally cherished, off-the-tourist-track café. The dining room has French country flavor--yellow walls with blue trim, fleur-de-lis curtains, and soft lighting, and the crooning of Edith Piaf, who seems to regret nothing night after night after night. (The oversize tropical fish tank is a more South Florida touch.) There's also outdoor seating on a cute porch.

The menu lists 16 exquisite, meal-size crepes ($4.95 to $10.95); a particularly tasty one involves Bourgogne escargots with mushrooms and tomatoes in garlic butter ($9.95). But there's more, from a tasty croque monsieur ($7.95, with salad), a meal-size chef salad ($7.95), and a small selection of entrées such as a tuna steak à la Provençale (in lemon and olive oil), accompanied by rice and unusually crisp, rosemary-scented ratatouille ($10.95). The $8.95 daily specials, also with rice and ratatouille, give the word special its meaning back, whether blanquette de veau (veal stew), beef Bourguignon, or salmon in a delicate tarragon sauce. For dessert? Ice cream, in a dozen flavors (one scoop $2.20, two scoops $3.20), chocolate mousse ($3.95), and a silky crème brûlée ($4.95).

Típico Café 1910 E. Sunrise Blvd., Gateway Shopping Ctr., at NW 19th Ave., 954/463-9945; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.

Broward County also boasts more than its share of Hispanics, but up here they tend to be Puerto Rican and Mexican. So it's no shocker that many of South Florida's better Mexican cantinas are to be found in Fort Lauderdale--including this relatively new little spot in a strip mall (in this city, even fine restaurants can be found in strip malls) off a busy thoroughfare just a short drive in from the beach.

Cozy and family-run, the restaurant is a nicely lit space with warm wood floors and adobe walls. Típico does a great job with the Tex-Mex standards--fajitas, burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas. But the menu's also well sprinkled with less common regional goodies such as Tampico-style steak, felicitous inventions like the "Mexican stir-fry" (with ginger sauce, no less), and favorites from elsewhere in Latin America (Cuban-style roast pork, for example).

And the damage? An à la carte platter crammed with entrée and sides, plus drink, comes in at just over $10. There are great specials at lunch (from $5.95), and an early-bird dinner offered from 4 to 6 p.m. ($8.95), the latter of which throws in soup and either soda or a glass of house wine. All in all, a terrific way to keep your budget from zooming north of the border.

Hot spots at lower costs

Even the area's posher nibbles aren't always out of reach. Every August and September, the Miami Spice promotion puts multicourse prix fixe dinners on sale for $29.99 at 60 hot eateries like the Forge, the Blue Door, Yuca, and China Grill (305/539-3000, ). Broward County has gotten into the act with its September promotion, Savor Greater Fort Lauderdale (). Some 20 dining spots--including stylish favorites like Casablanca Café and Bar Amici, along with the very tony likes of Mark's Las Olas--offer prix fixe lunches for $10.03 or $20.03, dinners for $20.03 or $30.03.

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