MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- South Beach simply doesn't do subtle.
From the beaches (and beachwear) and architecture, to the art and the attitudes, Miami's South Beach is all about big and bodacious. And the restaurant scene is no exception. World-class chefs -- homegrown and imported -- have created an enviably impressive buffet of choices, many of them embedded in a daunting list of swank-heavy hotels.
Which isn't always a good thing. While Miami proper has plenty of options for great hole-in-the-wall grub -- some drawn from the area's rich Cuban culture -- South Beach itself can feel like a wasteland if you just want great food with flair, but without having to get all gussied up for a fine dining experience.
But if you are willing to wander a few blocks from the beach -- including some stretches that seem deserted -- there is great grub to be found.
It just requires some suspension of disbelief. That's because both eateries -- My Ceviche and La Sandwicherie -- are quite literally holes in walls. There are no indoor options at either place and the exteriors are heavy on grunge (and not in a '90s-Kurt Cobain-hip sort of way). But get over it. These places are totally worth it.
Start at My Ceviche, located on a desolate (though somehow not discomforting) chunk of Washington Avenue (the company also has two other locations in Miami). You're looking for a doorway (and not much more) that opens onto a closet-sized counter for placing orders. That's the entirety of the restaurant and you'll need to eat your food outside, most likely standing.
Who cares? This is ridiculously delicious and fresh ceviche with a have-it-your-way vibe. Start by picking a portion size (medium or large), then a protein (fish, shrimp, octopus or a combination). Then the fun begins. You chose one of six ceviche styles (or ways of dressing it). The rocoto (a blend of lime juice, rocoto peppers, cilantro and red onions) is splendidly tangy and savory. Ditto for the tradicional (citrus juices with avocado, tomato, cilantro and jalapeņos).
You also can order ceviche "bowls," which serve the same options over your choice of coconut jasmine rice, mixed lettuces or cilantro quinoa. And if seafood isn't your thing, the chicken tacos are excellent (the order of three is perfect for one person), as is the spicy mango slaw (which isn't a "slaw" in the traditional sense, but rather a salad large enough for a meal).
A little closer to Miami Beach's Lincoln Road shopping hub is La Sandwicherie, a joint so minimalist it doesn't even offer a doorway (though it does offer outdoor stools and a small counter at which to eat). From a long bank of windows cut into the nondescript building, some of the area's hottest sandwiches are served up 21 hours a day (closing only from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. each day).
Though La Sandwicherie offers salads and smoothies, the attraction is the sandwich menu (once again built around a customized vibe). Pick your bread (French, croissant or wheat) and your filling (more than 20, including sliced meats, cheeses, avocado, smoked salmon, pate, etc.), then your toppings -- listed on the menu as "your choice" of lettuce, tomatoes, green and hot peppers, black olives, onions, cucumbers, cornichons, mayonnaise and vinaigrette.
But understand one thing about La Sandwicherie: The toppings really aren't intended as a choice. When you place the order, the server will ask, "And all toppings?" That's really more a statement than a question. Roll with it for total deliciousness. And be sure to dress your sandwich with the mustard vinaigrette served on the side.
Both My Ceviche and La Sandwicherie are excellent lunch spots when you need a quick break and a bite away from the beach. Most of the sandwiches cost less than $7, and the medium ceviches start at $11.75.