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"It's got to be the most boring, mundane street in South Florida," says Dr. Paul George, an oft-quoted Miami Dade College professor and historian, when I ask about Hallandale Beach Boulevard. "It's more a racetrack to the beach than anything else."
It's true — the first several hundred feet of Exit 18 off Interstate 95 offers concrete blight and strip mall after strip mall. Most buildings are set far back off the massive, three-lane road, which few pedestrians dare to cross, so it's almost impossible to see what's in most of the squat, beige or pale-yellow buildings besides big box stores.
This urban wasteland, however, offers a silver lining for a hopeful restaurateur.
"Rent was $2,000 more per month in Aventura," Falafel Benny owner Ben Regev bellows over the telephone. He opened his small shop earlier this year serving only the fried, ground-up spheres of chickpeas along with chicken schnitzel — pounded thin and fried — and shawarma inside an orange-beige building that's easy to miss while speeding by.
"I used to do catering, and people loved it," Regev says. "I always said I'd open my own restaurant, even in a bad location."
Not only is rent affordable in Hallandale but Broward County's southernmost town also sits at a nexus between South Florida's myriad immigrant communities. To the south is Miami: Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans, all of whom are slowly pushing farther into suburbia. Toward the ocean lies Sunny Isles — home to a growing Russian and Eastern European population. Just south of that is Aventura, with large Jewish and Israeli communities.
Along Hallandale Beach Boulevard, you can find pan con bistec just as easily as bagels with cream cheese and lox. That's a good thing. There's an outpost of Cuban restaurant Padrino's and an Eastern European bakery. Yudy Bakery, a Colombian joint, is the place to go for hot rolls with cheese-infused dough called pandebono, while Nick's Restaurant, a greasy spoon in business since the 1960s, offers a sinfully satisfying patty melt whose grease covers your fingers when you pick it up to take the first bite.
If it's Jewish food you're seeking, look no further than Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop, where smoked, gold-colored fish are on display inside a refrigerated case along with glistening pink sides of smoked salmon waiting to be sliced.
Milton Fuerst opened Sage in 1973 after moving his young family from Queens to South Florida.
"There was no such thing as Aventura when we came," says Harvey Fuerst, the son who today runs the deli and restaurant. Fuerst says his father rented a plane and a pilot to fly over Florida looking for population centers. They settled on Miami and started trawling up and down A1A looking for a place to open a business.
"The Hemispheres was here; the old Diplomat hotel was here," Fuerst continues, "so they decided this would be a good place to open a business."
Over the years, New Yorkers relocated in droves, and the Fuerst family expanded. "The location is still very good," Fuerst says. "Everything involved the location, and we're doing more and more business all the time."
Il Mercato chef and owner Emily Finne jokes about her restaurant, "You can't see it, you can't find it, and it's in a crappy strip mall, but people get excited about finding this hidden place."
She opened the restaurant in a former car-parts store in 2010 with a plan to serve a smart, approachable wine list and a few small plates. The concept quickly grew into a full-service, 60-seat restaurant that offers short-rib tacos, chive spaetzle, pasta carbonara, and seared sesame-crusted salmon.
"Everyone and their mothers thought we were insane to open in Hallandale," Finne says. But with a young son and parents who lived nearby, she said it was a logical choice. Similar to Regev, she says that rent was cheap and that people flock from nearby towns, filling the place each night for dinner.
"I think this one will always stay here."
Here are our picks for the ten best restaurants in Hallandale Beach:
826 W. Hallandale Beach Blvd., 786-202-7560
Farhod Karimov opened Vostok on Hallandale Beach Boulevard in February serving shaslik — a central Asian variety of kebab in which chunks of meat and fat rotate with slices of bell peppers separating each. There were "not enough restaurants serving cuisine like this in Hallandale," he says. Karimov hails from Uzbekistan, a country famous for what he calls "noodle-rich cuisine." At Vostok, try plov, a signature Uzbeki dish that mixes seasoned ground beef with onion and rice. There's also borscht, a classic cold soup made with beets. Try manti, a dumpling variation filled with either beef or lamb before being steamed or fried.
The Knife Steak House
602 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd.
Meat freaks, rejoice! The Knife of Hallandale Beach Boulevard is a small glimpse into the meat-loving world that is Argentina, complete with chorizo, blood sausage, sweetbreads, and veal tripe. If you're not into an authentic parrilla, don't worry — there is plenty of veal, skirt steak, short ribs, and rump roast to go around. For about $25, you get all of this, plus an endless garden of salads and vegetables. You don't have to put something green and leafy on your plate, but if you don't, it's only a matter of time until a friend warns you about the dangers of your lifestyle choices.