Best Of :: Food & Drink
In his work "A Partial Explanation," poet Charles Simic expounds on his desire "to eavesdrop/on the conversation/of cooks." We'd sure love to hear what the chef's talking about in Casa Grande's kitchen. "Give that customer more of the ropa vieja," we can imagine him instructing his line cooks. "He could use some meat on his bones. Pile some more black beans on top of that buttered rice for the girl out there. She's too skinny. And grill her mother an extra-big palomilla. A woman her age could use the iron." OK, so maybe we're rationalizing. Maybe we're finding an excuse -- or a partial explanation -- for eating every speck of the gigantic empanadas and tamales and following up with the flan for dessert. Everyone needs something to justify gluttony, and to be honest, the well-prepared fare at Casa Grande is justification enough.
Come for lunch, stay for dinner, and don't stop eating until your belly's busting at this friendly Brazilian spot run by a Turk. First you head to the buffet table, where the beef stew, salads, soup, rice and beans, and vegetables are more than enough for the average diner. Then waiters bring long skewers of grilled chicken, sausage, and tender sirloin to the table and fill your plate as often as you want, in a style called rodizio. The buffet with chicken and sausage costs only $3.95; adding sirloin raises it to a whopping $7.95. At dinner during the week, $9.95 gets you unlimited servings from the buffet and five kinds of grilled meats. On weekends, when reservations are required, you get the rodizio feast plus a live floor show, followed by dancing to a samba band -- all for $29.95. Middle Eastern food is served in the adjoining dining room. It's an awesome deal, even if you can't match the local attorney who comes here twice a week and eats three whole skewers of meat, washed down by three pitchers of iced tea.
You want the spice? You can't handle the spice! That's how most Thai chefs feel about Americans in their restaurants. Order chili-laden fare medium strength, the food comes out mild. Ask for it extra hot, it just might verge on medium, if you're lucky. That's not enough for even the lamest endorphin rush. Well, gringos with iron palates who are tired of being the objects of discrimination can relax. Siam Gourmet makes no distinction among its customers. So if you order your tom yam kai soup -- a hot 'n' sour broth blended with lemongrass and chicken -- medium, it'll be positively murky with spices. Beef massaman curry is so powerful even the potatoes in the stew can't dumb down the blast. And zesty yam pla meuk, more commonly known as "jumping squid," is aptly named. But it's the customer who'll be doing the jumping -- through hoops, if necessary -- for a soothing, creamy Thai iced tea.
Your first indication that this will be a steep evening comes when the gargantuan doorman directs you (or, better yet, your boss) to the desk "where you can take care of the entertainment fee," which starts the evening off with a $10 per-person charge. The handsome maitre d' with the vaguely foreign accent gives you the once-over and places your party in the back row near the window while saying, "Nice sight from here, no?" Yes, this is a genuine supper club, complete with pricey food (osetra caviar: $45, linguine with clam sauce: $23) and expensive drinks ordered before and during the show. Look beyond the food to the performance, for it's the real justification to spend this kind of dough. Ms. Bishop is a talent worthy of the classic supper clubs of New York City with her incredible vocal range and spot-on delivery. This café chanteuse can also be as funny as her mood dictates, like when she made fun of the ancient retirees from Pembroke Pines in their matching powder-blue suits. But then Bishop made it all right by dedicating to them a heartfelt version of "The Man I Love." Your boss won't love the check, but it is, after all, the least he can do.
It's tough rolling out of bed in the morning, but if you can make it to your car, a piping-hot (or ice-cold) cup of coffee or espresso is within arm's reach once you pull up to the small white building that houses Expresso -- The Gourmet Drive-Thru Coffee Shop. Groggy drivers are greeted by the bracing aroma of fresh-ground, whole-bean coffee being turned into espresso and the gurgle of frothing milk. Those two main ingredients can be combined into a basic cappuccino or latte or spiced up for specialty drinks such as the cinnamon-infused Snickerdoodle or the Dizzy Mocha Delight, a combo of espresso, steamed milk, and dark chocolate. And the drinks can be ordered over ice for a cooler caffeine jolt. Freshly brewed coffee is also available, from French roast to flavored varieties tinged with vanilla, hazelnut, and numerous other enhancements. Carafes of java can be ordered to take into the office, and if you combine a pot of joe with a selection of fresh bagels, pastries, cakes, and fruit, you'll be hailed as a hero when you get to work.
The turn-of-the-century mansion and gardens, which recently underwent a dazzling renovation, set the mood before you even walk in. Once inside, you pass through a cathedral-ceilinged bar before encountering a series of lovely dining rooms, which meld seamlessly with the tropical gardens spread over three acres. The south room is the best -- intimately lit, painted with birds and foliage, one wall open to the pond below. Outside, widely spaced tables are perched on gazebos above cascading pools. The contemporary Florida cooking and the smooth, knowledgeable waitstaff live up to the setting. The reasonably priced menu, which changes weekly, includes appetizers like hearts of palm salad with jicama and passion fruit vinaigrette, and barbecued center-cut pork chop with sun-dried cherry salsa as an entrée. The wine list is excellent, the dessert selection fine. But the burbling waters and dense foliage are what help put you in the mood. And the moonlight helps, of course. Arrive early to avoid a lengthy wait, and ask for the very private two-top next to the firecracker bush. You can even spend the night in one of the cozy villas at the edge of the gardens. If this place doesn't do the trick, find yourself another mate.