Best Of :: Food & Drink
For decades, you could count on the checkered tablecloth and the bottle of Chianti, the proprietor who knew the latest dish on everybody who walked in the door, the bread soaking in garlic butter, and the 12 kinds of spaghetti all cooked in the same heavy red sauce. Then, overnight, they were gone. Our cozy neighborhood Italian restaurants morphed into places playing trance music and serving vertical appetizers. Today, your chocolate martinis are brought by tattooed hunks, but the tattoos no longer say "Rose" or "Mama"; they're Sanskrit hieroglyphs that translate to "Ohm." Papa Pistola's is a nostalgic glimpse back to that bygone era when a bottle of wine with dinner set you back 15 bucks instead of 50. From the Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Mantovani record sleeves that decorate the walls to the fried mozzarella, pasta fagiole, and homemade gnocchi to the sincerity of the servers and the very reasonable prices (about $14.95 to $17.95 for the entrées), Papa's not cutting any edges. But he's not cutting corners either.
Maybe he lasted only five episodes on The Apprentice, but Brent Buckman, South Florida's own would-be Trumpster, knows comfort food better than most. Buckman, the portly guy with a penchant for irritating Apprentice teammates with his pushy, plow-through-walls approach, has delved deep into the food dimension. He did this both before his appearance on the show, and he has done it after. Buchman's earlier food explorations gave him that soft, endearingly blimpy figure. His later ones helped him lose 64 pounds. The secret, Buckman says, is his patented "four bagel diet." One bagel for each daily meal and a snack (sometimes with low-fat margarine, sometimes with an eight-ounce portion of sliced meat). Stick to the diet and watch the pounds fade away, he says. (Well, there's the diet and there's also a rigorous schedule on the treadmill.) How do you keep up, week after week, a gruelingly monotonous routine of bagels-bagels-bagels? You have to give yourself a once-a-week treat, the Toronto-born lawyer says. For that, Buckman goes to his favorite restaurant, the Outback Steakhouse on Pine Island Road in Plantation. Keep your Tandoori baked pheasant morsels or Peruvian cui au gratin served on sautéed escarole, Brent says. He'll take Outback's Aussie cheese fries, a messy mixture of gooey yellow cheese and fried potatoes. If he's feeling especially decadent, he throws some bacon chips on top and dips each forkful into a bowl of ranch dressing. "The best cheese fries on the planet," Buckman says with ill-concealed longing. "My goodness, they're to die for."
If you want to hustle through your huaraches, thick, fried tortillas stuffed with barbecued goat (two for $7.99), forget it. Be prepared to linger over chips still sizzling from the fryer with two kinds of fresh salsa (green tomatillo and tomato) while -- on weekends, anyway -- a roving band of trumpet players and guitarists serenades your table. Kick back with a beer (you don't really need to go back to work, do you?), reset your watch to slow time, and sample from a foodie's dream menu of delicious if challenging meats to pack into your tacos. Roast pork, fried beef tripe, pork stomach, beef tongue, spicy pork sausage, beef head, stuffed green peppers, pork in red pepper sauce, fish, shrimp, and vegetarian fillings are priced from $1.69 for a single soft taco to $6.99 for the fanciest burrito -- to eat with the seven different bottles of hot sauce on every table and your choice of corn or flour tortillas. Heartier appetites will warm to seven kinds of dinner soups (sieta mares is $13.99), chicken in mole ($8.99), roast quail ($10.99), enchiladas ($9.99), chimichangas ($8.99), and fajitas ($10.99). Cactus and eggs ($3.99) and huevos rancheros ($3.99) are served all day from the breakfast menu. Nobody speaks a word of English, so if you're linguistically challenged, break out your high school Spanish or be prepared to grunt and point.
You're not cheap; you're just smart. And far-seeing. You know how to stretch a nickel till it howls for mercy. Let the grasshopper detonate his wad on some so-called "prime" or "kobe," along with the $9 sides of creamed spinach and the $15 martinis and crme brlées. Come winter, that overgrown cricket'll have his frozen jaws fused together anyway -- you can bet he's not going to be chowing down on steak -- he'll be lucky to be sucking ice water through a straw! While you, my precious, my practical ant, will be crawling in a straight line right to Beef Eater, with all your little buddies, for another plate of $16 skirt steak doused in chimichuri sauce, and maybe a couple of fried eggs on top -- a piece of meat easily enough for two meals... and damned delicious too! And that $15 bottle of wine waiting for you on the table -- go ahead and open it. Open two, in fact, and keep 'em coming. Nothing goes down with a bottle of red better than a little schadenfreude.
Short of having an actual band of winged seraphim fluttering over that perfect plate of risotto while strumming harps and singing hymns, it's hard to imagine how a meal at Serafina could be any more heavenly. This delicious, romantic retreat in Victoria Park, settled down by a glimmering harbor on the Middle River with jaunty candlelit tables on the outdoor deck and a series of warm, intimate nooks inside, is technically an Italian restaurant. But you'd never know it from the menu. Owner/chef Shari Woods' palate is so imaginative, so all over the map, drawing on influences from the American Southwest (smoked corn soup), the South of France (foie gras paté), the coasts of Spain (rich seafood paella), and the distant deserts of the East (spicy Moroccan tagine), that it's probably safer to call this cuisine Worldly Wise. And then there's the way the menu keeps changing depending on whim and season. Still, you'll have other issues to ponder besides how to classify those luxurious boneless, slow-cooked short ribs in their caramelized wine reduction. You're more likely to be fretting over which wine to choose from Woods' interesting list or frantically calculating what percentage of your annual income you can absolutely afford, if you give up the Netflix subscription and the chess club membership, to devote to return visits.