Cheap chow: an eats guide for the recession

 

Four places where you can feast when there's wallet famine.

canela image
Canela Cafe: experience Spain for less than ten bucks. Photo: courtesy Canela Cafe.
 

By Dinkinish O'Connor

Recession blues can bring out the dark side of people's culinary appetites. During the 2000 recession, I caught a militant, carrot-toting vegan in a grimy diner with a half-pound cheeseburger in his mouth. Lucky for Miamians, no matter what your dietary affiliation, our city is a harem of $10-and-under experiences.

After you've stuffed your last $10 in the beefy cheeks of some exotic dancer at Club Madonna, grab some loose change then walk a couple doors south to Cheeseburger Baby (1505 Washington Ave., South Beach;305-531-7300), where ambience highlights include sizzling beef crescendos against the soothing odes of Axl Rose; airbrushed walls; the cashier's reptilian Mohawk; a drink menu that includes a 40-ounce Old English; and 6 a.m. closing from Thursday through Saturday.

For $2.50, you get a 21/2-.5-ounce cheeseburger made of certified Angus beef (well, that's what it says on the
poster behind the counter). The made-to-order beef patty tastes fresh and its subtle seasonings leave room for the toppings to explode on your taste buds; you won't even need ketchup. The frozen fries are nothing special; however, right out of the fryer, jeweled with coarse salt, they're divine at $3.50. If you're operating on a bigger budget, the half-pound burger is $5.50. The cheeseburger is $6.50 and you can choose from American, cheddar, Swiss or pepper jack cheeses. For an extra $1, you can get anything from grilled green peppers to chili.

From the garlicky sautéed mushrooms and spinach to the lightly-breaded eggplant topped with mozzarella ($9.95), Canela Café is one of those local Spanish-Cuban dining experiences that make you want to move to Madrid or Havana immediately. Even though the venue is lost inside a Baskin-Robbins plaza, once you sit down and take in the bamboo-cradled plants, romantic torches and rustic Mediterranean ambiance, this unprepossessing restaurant captures all the discovery of Paulo Coelho's By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. And it's cheap.

There are several dishes available for under $10 (especially for lunch) and the menu's entrée portions are large enough to share. Many of the dishes are delicately seasoned with salt, fresh lemon juice, light olive oil, white wine and garlic, capturing the essence of the Mediterranean but are paired with sides like tostones and yuca fries. Try the tasty breaded tilapia that is marinated in the house mojo marinade and choose two sides ($9.95 for lunch). The grilled asparagus, for example, is cooked al dente and lightly blackened for a subtly smoky finish.

There's also sweet, fried plantains, rice and black beans, tomato and onions, and ensalada rusa (potato salad). If you're splitting the bill, stick with the house red wine ($28 a bottle). The extensive menu and décor is reflective of owner Margarita Vasallo-Gomez's traveling adventures, having lived in Seville, Spain, and grown up in Morningside. Miami.

"Count The Blessing of Being Alive'' is written on the mural at Naomi's Meals To Go & Sidewalk Café (650 NW 71st St., Miami;305-573-8053). It is one of several inspirational sayings on this cafe's wall that easily couples as an outside gallery exhibit. Amid the aromas of rich meat stews and soups are images of Caribbean women in straw hats carrying baskets of vegetables, drummers and mango trees. There are trumpet flowers everywhere in every imaginable color, so beautiful, so Miami.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounding the venue at all times of the day is a testament to the taste of the food. For $2 you can have a salacious slab of macaroni au gratin, a Haitian-style macaroni and cheese that is boiled in Carnation milk. Add a few slices of fried king fish ($5) with a few lime wedges, which make all the difference in flavor.

The menu changes, but there's always something wonderfully cheap like slices of boiled breadfruit for $1 each. Breadfruit is like a yellow yam with a creamy texture. The menu is a mix of Haitian, Creole and Jamaican recipes and includes dishes like sautéed red snapper with rice and beans ($7), a rich, buttery dish that comfortably feeds three, so get a bottle of ice-cold Freixenet, sit at the picnic table and have a wonderful feast for a grand total of $7 each.

Don't you hate it when you go to a smoothie joint and instead of getting a banana shake, you get a baby powder-tasting concoction for $7? At Richard's (124 NE Second Ave., Downtown Miami; 305-798-2014), you get a custom made 16-ounce smoothy smoothie for $3.90.

Slices of papaya, strawberries and banana and freshly squeezed apple juice, for example, are thrown into a blender with ice and abracadabra -- a fruity smoothie. I like the banana and peanut butter shake that's made with skim milk and low fat yogurt (I asked for two bananas and still paid $3.90). It's filling and I felt like I was getting over on those powder-pushers. If you like your fruits extra sweet, be sure to ask owner Rafael Marrin to add a shot of sugar.

Marrin has been making smoothies for more than three decades. On the wall of this tropical hole-in-the-wall is an article from the late defunct Miami Beach Sun Reporter called Apple A Day, in which Marrin was interviewed at a smoothie venue where he worked in South Beach back in 1982.

Richard's has fruits, veggies and The Poor Man's sandwich ($3.99).

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