Best Of :: Food & Drink
Dean Max plunges into his projects like a surfer making for epic waters. Now in his 40s, he still looks like the farm kid and Treasure Coast wave hound who hauled vegetable crates for his father's produce business. Max moved into the kitchens at 3030 Ocean in 2000 and did something nobody thought possible: He persuaded his corporate overlords at the Marriott to let him source local and seasonal ingredients and put together a menu that celebrates our sandy soils and aquamarine waters in every line. He was so far ahead of the curve that his contemporaries are still flailing to catch up — he shot through our culinary scene like he was riding a big blue wave. Since then, Max has been an unflagging advocate for all things that creep and swim in the ocean, a dedicated member of South Florida's slow food movement. Appearing on the Food Network and at national festivals, flying off to the Bahamas for a day of fishing, showing up at panel discussions and running culinary camps for kids, he's constantly in motion. And yet, stop by 3030 and you'll likely catch him expounding on the assets of a piece of fluke or wahoo to some open-mouthed customer. It goes without saying that the man is a brilliant cook. What makes him a great chef is that he's engineered a gentle shift in the way we look at the sea that surrounds us.
They look so creepy that most folks won't touch 'em, but that's just fine — more for us! A langoustine looks like a cross between a spider and a shrimp that deep down wants to be a lobster — could be it's the animal that inspired T.S. Eliot to imagine a "pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." At Bova Prime, they don't fuss around and try to make it pretty for you: These suckers are presented head to tail, with their tickly feelers fanned out on the plate. The langoustine is not a native of Florida, and you don't see it on many menus here. It's more precious than our lumbering stone crabs and slow-witted spiny lobster; these are the fairy folk of the shellfish world. Sizzled over charcoal and served with a tart green mache salad ($23), the meat in their little tails, each about the size of your middle finger, is as soft and sweet as a breathy endearment whispered on a deserted beach.
Two pretty, perky girls as cute as '50s pinups, Michelle Parparian and Amanda Watkins, have transformed a 1920s Florida cottage into a vintage clothing store with a cupcakery in the tiny rear kitchen — a kitchen known to turn out a thousand cupcakes at a pop for local events. But they're not too busy stocking bridal showers and tea parties to tend to your sweet tooth: Shop for party frocks, beaded purses, and wrist bangles first, then head to the back of the house for rejuvenation in the form of chocolate or vanilla cupcakes ($1.75 each) swirled with the dreamiest pink icing ever whipped up in a vintage mixing bowl. Along with these deliriously cloudlike cupcakes, they produce small, dense, heart-shaped brownies ($1 each) and vanilla sugar cookies with royal icing in dozens of shapes and themes. At present, it's best to call ahead if you want specialty cupcakes like black forest, red velvet, carrot, chocolate mint, strawberry shortcake, lemon drop, or orange creamsicle. But these marvelous mavens plan to open a full-service café in July, so all gratifications will soon be instantaneous.
Tiki-tacky Havana Hideout is what most South Florida dining looked like 30 years ago — a bar under open air and thatch, plus a minuscule, shadowy mouse hole indoors. Before we got gentrified and supersized, before the chains and celeb chefs from California and New York found out we were hoarding paradise, any Floridian could follow the path pounded smooth by many flip-flops to some joint grilling burgers and fish sandwiches. A guy would be mangling Neil Young covers on his beat-up guitar; you'd drink beer by the pitcher, passing scraps to the canine under your table (maybe your mutt, maybe not). Owner Chrissy Benoit is channeling our nostalgia, only updated with drinkable specialty brews on tap and a slightly expanded menu. From a catering truck sidled up to the outdoor deck, she turns out pulled-pork and Cuban sandwiches, fish tacos, nachos, pionono (think tropical shepherd's pie), and chocolate chili pepper ice cream. And just like in the old days, the only seasoning this grub needs is salt air and sunshine.
South Florida isn't a wasteland for quality 'cue, as some purists would have you believe. But we do have the unfortunate affliction of not having one place that sets the bar for the rest. Which is why New Times' Best Barbecue category will, this year, not go to one joint but several, each for different reasons. First up, the 50-year-old icon and 2008 Best Of winner, Georgia Pig in Davie, whose chopped pork, slow cooked on an ancient, open-faced stove, is the stuff of legend. Its infused smokiness and appealing textural variation (crispy cracklin' versus tender chunks) are only enhanced by the Pig's light and subtle vinegar sauce, also the best around. As far as BBQ's most sacred sides are concerned — those being collard greens and mac and cheese — Bar-B-Q Jack's are hard to beat. The collards, a perfect mix of sweet and savory, laced with pork-y chunks; the mac and cheese, moist and gooey, yet broiled for the right amount of crunch. Fort Lauderdale's go-to 'cue shack, Tom Jenkins' Bar-B-Q, does a lot of things well, but its slow-cooked brisket truly rises above the rest. And, in a scene where sickly sweet sauces still dominate, the moist, dry-rubbed ribs at Deep Down South BBQ in Lauderdale Lakes prove that SOS (that's "sauce on the side") is always the best option when 'cue is done right. All are good choices, and if you're willing to make the drive all over town to assemble it, together they would make one fine plate of BBQ.
It was a long, jubilant night with a crazy crowd. Let's face it, you got drunk — again. And as your head begins to clear, you want something different. Not late-night tacos. Not pizza, sandwiches, or waffles. Certainly not the drive-through you had a few times. (You always regretted that later.) No, you want... biscuits! Flaky, tender, warm, golden, soft biscuits. Just like Grandma would've made you if she had ever stopped drinking long enough. They soak up all that booze, ease the burn. Courtyard Café is open 24 hours on the weekends, and the biscuits get better as the night goes on. They're good smothered, covered, buttered, or plain. No matter how you get them, they come out split, fried, and steaming. Get two for yourself or buy the table a dozen. The trick here: staying sober enough to remember how damned good those biscuits were.