First impression: If visiting New York City means eating at the city's best deli (Carnegie? Katz's?) and if dining in Chicago means a steakhouse (Gene and Georgetti? Morton's?), then eating in Miami means a visit to Versailles. There may be better Cuban restaurants, but few come with Versailles' pedigree or list of famous visitors — Presidents Reagan and Clinton among them. This year marks the landmark restaurant's 40th anniversary — four decades of serving oversized portions at surprisingly inexpensive prices.
Ambience: The etched mirrored walls, chandeliers and upholstered metal chairs are more diner than royal château, but who cares. In 1971, this kind of oversized dining hall might have been grand. Now it's a charming and comfortable throwback for good eating. At 10 o'clock on a Friday night, you'll see elegant elderly couples dressed to the nines, families with children and tourists in shorts.
Starters: The best way to sample appetizers is with the fried combination for two ($6.95), which is really enough for five. You'll get meat and cheese-filled turnovers, delicious yuca fries, mariquitas (freshly made plantain chips) and some of the best ham croquetas in South Florida. I can't eat in a Cuban restaurant without ordering tostones ($2.95), the twice-fried green plantains that are wonderful dipped into mojo (garlic sauce) and creamy mayonnaise-based cilantro sauce. Start your meal with a bowl of the hearty Galician white bean soup ($3.75) and you'll wonder how you're ever going to finish dinner. You'll also taste Cuba's connection to classic Spain.
Entree excellence: Where to start? My go-to Cuban entree is classic lechón asado ($9.95) or roast pork. Here, it's always moist and always served with black beans and rice, fried plantains or boiled yuca with mojo. It's also topped with a piece of crispy fried fat from the roast. I love the imperial rice ($7.50), a casserole dish with boneless chicken, yellow rice, hard boiled eggs, green peas and pimientos topped with a dollop of mayo. The Classic ($11.95) gets you a sampler of nicely seasoned ground beef picadillo, roast pork, sweet plantains, ham croquetas, yuca and tamales along with white rice and black beans. Paella Versailles ($16.95) combines shrimp, chicken, calamari, clams, white fish and yellow rice. Baby churrasco steak ($13.95) starts with a nicely sized piece of marinated strip steak that's quickly grilled. It's tender and served with garlicky chimichurri. I'm also a big fan of vaca pollo ($9.95) — grilled and shredded chicken with onions — which substitutes chicken for the beef in classic vaca frita, which translates to fried cow.
Side issues: Most dishes come with very good moros, black beans and rice mixed together or, or my preference, separate servings of white rice and black beans.
Sweet!: Some people believe Versailles is a better bakery than restaurant. So leave room for tres leches ($3.25), chocolate mousse ($3.75), flan ($2.95) or puding de pan con frutas ($2.95), a dense bread pudding. A visit here wouldn't be complete without piping hot café con leche ($2.25) or less milky cortadito ($1.50).
Service: Fast and efficient. Most of the servers are veteran waiters and know what they're doing. Forget that they're not always friendly while doing it.
Insider tip: Each night of the week brings a list of different specials, although Oxtail veal stew ($12.95), makes it on the list every day. Look for Catalonian meatballs ($6.75) on Thursdays and macaroni, ham, chorizo and cheese ($7.95) on Saturdays.