In the past two month I’ve gone to two opposite sides of the country – Miami and Los Angeles.  And because I’m always thinking about what to eat, I took some time to figure out exactly where to go.

Whenever I’m in a city other than Denver, I try to avoid national chain restaurants.  McDonald’s and Chik-Fil-A are obvious examples, but I also place those fast casual places like Panera and Chipotle in that category.  My philosophy for local food is if I can find it back home, I’ll go somewhere else.

So, when I traveled to Miami for the MSC cruise and to LA to visit NLS for her birthday, I was lucky to enjoy two great places that couldn’t be more different – Cana Restaurant and Lounge, then Shabu Shabu House.

A tall refreshing mojito from Cana Restaurant and Lounge, Miami

Cana Restaurant and Lounge, Miami

Before going on the MSC Seashore cruise, I stayed in the Brickell area.  I would have preferred staying in Miami Beach, but every hotel there was too expensive, so I looked at the closest places to the cruise port.  While I have some familiarity with Miami Beach, especially after the Cruiseworld convention, I knew nothing about Miami.  Keeping up with my tradition of going to Cuban restaurants while in the area, I settled on Cana.

At first, it was a little hard to find, because I didn’t realize that it was on the second floor in the Hyatt Place hotel. In fact, I passed it on the first attempt.  When I finally went inside, it didn’t seem that distinctive, but I loved the large picture windows, where I got to sit at for my meal.

Tostones with shredded beef, avocado salsa, cilantro and red onions

First thing, I chose a mojito, which was probably one of the best I’ve ever had.  It mixed the right balance of simple syrup, white rum, mottled mint leaves and lime juice.  It’s a light and refreshing drink that’s always perfect for a tropical setting…or a semi-tropical urban one like Miami.

It's always great to finish a Cuban dinner with flan

My dinner consisted of fried plantain pancakes called tostones, topped with seasoned skirt steak, sauteed red onions and an avocado salsa. I also asked for a chicken empanada, but it was so small I devoured it in two bites.  But both were infused in warm spiciness that didn’t overpower the flavor the meats.  I finished things up with a creamy caramel flan covered with a syrup that would have been licked off the plate if I hadn’t been in a public place. 

Shabu Shabu House, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, we’ve been to at least a dozen different restaurants.  But none of them are like Shabu Shabu House, which is likely one of the oldest in the neighborhood.

What makes this compact 15-seat venue, with just one horseshoe shaped counter occupying its entire space, so different?  For one thing, each diner gets their own cooking space, with a boiling pot of water infused with dashi broth, where paper-thin slices of beef, vegetables and noodles are cooked quickly.

Shabu-shabu” is Japanese for “swish-swish,” or the sound that’s made when you mix your food in the pot.  It originated in Osaka in the last century, adapting from the cooking method of Chinese hot pots and is a culinary cousin to sukiyaki.  The main difference between the two is shabu-shabu doesn’t take as long to prepare and is lighter in flavor and less hearty.

At Shabu Shabu House, you can cook your vegetables – which for us consisted of nappa cabbage, carrots, and greens – tofu, udon and yam glass noodles in the pot.  Those will take longer to cook than the beef.  You can choose between a medium serving or large serving, with a slight difference in pricing.

But the trick is to take the food out before the meat gets tough or the vegetables mushy.  The noodles are also a bit tricky to take out, so it helps to use the basket ladle for that purpose.  The sesame and shoyu dipping sauces complete the meal.

What’s great about this restaurant is when you get seated, you’ll finish your meal in a timely manner.  We finished ours within 30-40 minutes.

Two different restaurants in two different cities…both delicious.