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Chewing Old Clothes (& Liking It)

Do you know how a restaurant or hotel becomes all your own when you discover it for the first time? I had that experience last week in Miami when my friend Javier Vargas and his wife Grace took me out to the Versailles Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Miami's "Little Havana." The Versailles has been there for 37 years, but it was the first time I experienced it and now it's my favorite "new" place in Miami. I think I'll have to go back there every time in town.

An ornate place of chandeliers and cut-glass panels, the Versailles looks every bit as elegant and fancy as its name suggests, but serious eating is taking place inside its decorated walls. The place seats 480 people, and a staff of men in white shirts and ties and ladies in waitress uniforms is kept scurrying to deliver heaping plates of food to everyone from whole, three-generation families seated at long tables to nicely dressed couples on dinner dates.

They tuck into dishes like "ropa vieja" (old clothes, in Spanish), which is a mound of shredded beef in a tomato sauce with peppers and onions, served alongside a mound of rice and fried plantains. And pigs feet Andalusian style. And ox tails, and Cubano sandwiches. And codfish in tomato sauce on Friday nights. And dozens of preparations of chicken, pork and beef. In fact, I counted 199 different items on the Versailles menu, not counting dessert, which would keep even a hungry How-to Travel Guru busy eating over a month of Sundays.

I did my part by mowing through two thick cutlets of "tasajo" pot roast with chunks of chorizo sausage. And I couldn't finish my mound of spicy Moros rice, black beans and fried plantains. I did, however, make an extra effort to eat a dessert of rice pudding, sampled my son Mike's coconut flan, and topped it all off with a shot of super-sweet Cuban espresso. The tab for my meal came to barely twenty dollars.

Sadly, I was forced to pass on the Versailles take-out counter and bakery, where I was unable to pull the trigger on pastelitos pastries and chocolate desserts and fried croquettas filled with ham and chicken. Like I said, I have a lot of catching up to do with my new favorite restaurant in Miami, and hopefully the Versailles will there for another 37 years.

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