Disclaimer: I grew up in South Florida but am now and avid San Francisco chowhound. While I love the ethnic foods on the west coast, there are definitely some things we rarely get (decent pizza, or pastrami), so once in a while I go visit my aging mother and grandmother.
This trip began, as most do, at the Rascal House on Miami Beach, where we devoured half-sour pickles and coleslaw and baskets of rolls. The pastrami is a lean, generous serving for $9. It's not the Carnegie Deli, but the Rascal rarely disappoints. The real highlight of the meal was a macaroon, which I took home and ate for several days.
Next stop Paquito's on Biscayne Blvd just below 163rd St. I thought it was very strange for a Californian to eat Mexican food in Miami, but my mother wanted to try it. Excellent chips and mild salsa cruda. The sopa de tortilla was lovely: a tasty tomato broth with a little cheese. We shared chilaquiles (ordinary--I prefer a green sauce) and a platter of appetizers. After giving my mom a lecture about "real" tacos in the car, Paquitos promptly served us one of those hard Lowry shell's with ground beef, just like I remember from the 70s. It didn't taste bad, though, and the quesadillas and guacamole were good. Not authentic, but cheap and friendly, with a non-smoking section.
Since I was visiting my great aunts, we had to go to Lichee Garden off Highway 1 and Hallandale Beach Blvd (just north of Gulfstream) for the early bird special at 5 p.m. Four courses for under $10 with ice cream. Lichee serves huge portions of Americanized Cantonese food; we just don't get bowls of fried noodles with duck sauce and mustard much on the West Coast and I dug in. The restaurant was started by a friend of my grandfather's, so the food was familiar if bland. The Szechuan pork was the highlight; Lobster Cantonese was a generous half-lobster in a good sauce that needed more garlic. The lo mein were nice too but needed more spice. Service is very accommodating--just ask for extra cashews or garlic or chopsticks. I was put off by the fortune cookies in plastic wrappers.
Next stop: the Longhorn steak house on University Drive in Coral Springs. (My friends are on a crazy protein diet, so they eat pounds of steak.) Despite the red beeper we were given to wait, which made me feel like a felon under house arrest, the atmosphere is friendly. We were served hot bread and appetizers in minutes. The grilled shrimp appetizer was great, practically a meal. It came with a wonderful cocktail sauce and a fairly tasteless mayo. My hefty prime rib was perfectly rare and came with both au jus and horseradish sauce; my friends' sirloin steaks were huge and came with salads and veggies. Drinks were refilled without asking. In true chain restaurant tradition, we finished the night at Starbucks.
Probably the highlight of the trip was dinner at Steve's Pizza on Biscayne Blvd and NE 121st St. A large pie with two toppings costs around $10. Lovely thin crust, cooked to order; the sauce is a little sweet, and there's enough grease that I'd recommend eating there. But just as good as I remembered (rare enough in this lifetime).
Appetite whetted by the famous Cuban sandwich article in the NY Times, we grabbed Cuban sandwiches at Chico's on W. 40th in Hialeah, a 24 hour diner that serves complete meals too. Very cheap and huge medianoches with good pork. (I really do prefer the bistec sandwiches, though.) I got a side of tostones and asked for garlic; they brought the green platanos with fresh garlic and olive oil on the side, which wasn't what I'd intended but did the trick. The batidos are cheap and good--try the papaya, or get a fresh squeezed carrot or sugarcane juice. I wish we'd been hungrier--the fried fish dinners looked great. Lunch for 3 for $24, including some flan to go.
Finally, we had dinner at Cafe Piccolo's on NE 123rd street, just west of Broad Causeway. The restaurant makes a decent attempt at ambiance, with an Italian and "French" menu. Very pleasant food. The grouper provencale, served over tricolor pasta, was particularly good, although at $18.95, expensive. Portions are huge; it's worth splitting a salad. Service was friendly and attentive, and no one looked down on us for taking everything home. The highlight of the meal, though, was the tarte tatin, a perfectly steamed apple cake. At $4.50, not cheap, but two of us ate it and still had some leftover.
Side note: My biggest complaint about casual Florida dining would be the wine lists. Coming from the overpriced wine world of trendy restaurants, it is a delight to see bottles of wine on restaurant menus for $18 and glasses for $3 and 4. However the wines on these lists haven't changed in 30 years. I haven't seen so many bottles of Chianti, White Zinfandel, and Blue Nun in a long time. Some modestly priced Chilean, French, Australian, or (ah hem) decent California wines would be a great complement to the general unpretentious food. I would have settled for a glass of Woodbridge or a Cote du Rhone...
If you're still reading, when my flight out of Miami was delayed, American Airlines gave us $6 vouchers to go buy breakfast. I headed straight to La Carretta, which doesn't offer its best variety at 6:30 a.m. However the cafe con leche was pretty wonderful. How do they do it--sweetened condensed milk?