Without question this place puts one over on Miami. Though primarily Venezuelan, La Hacienda has no ethnic bias, serving pan-Latin American dishes with equal grace. Tamales and arepas are on a par with each other, the former stuffed with ground beef, the latter studded with minced pork. Stews, particularly oxtail and goat, are superb. Steak with chimichurri (parsley sauce) or pickled onions benefits from the pungent condiments but holds its own with a lightly flavored avocado sauce as well. Even the rice pudding for dessert is smartly done. If all Broward County's Latin American restaurants were as accomplished as this one, we'd never have to drive south again.
Hot Dog Heaven
Courtesy of Hot Dog Heaven
Among the worst hot dogs in the world are the shriveled pinkish-brown sausages sold two for a dollar along with tropical fruit drinks at a New York institution known the world over because of a Seinfeld cameo. The encased mystery meat available all night at Gray's Papaya is fossil fuel for many of the city's homeless as well as more than a few early-morning club crawlers. On the other end of the great American hot dog spectrum is Fort Lauderdale's own Hot Dog Heaven. The tiny sausage shrine on Sunrise Boulevard gives hot dogs the respect they deserve, serving fine plump Vienna Beef sausages from Chicago with the same fresh fixings you'd get at Wrigley Field. Order one or two or half a dozen with the works -- cradled in a steamed poppy-seed roll with mustard, relish, pickles, onions, fresh tomato, hot peppers, and celery salt.
Just having the word pizzeria in the name should be enough to get any pizza lover worth his or her pepperoni through the door. Sounds authentic. Italian. But it's not -- exactly. Downtown Pizzeria owners Chris and Gus Kapakos have more Greek ancestry than Italian, but their restaurant background and pizza-making pedigree come from authentic sources. Their father was a restaurateur who owned and operated the Horizon Diner and the Key West Seafood House locally during the mid-'70s and early '80s. (He still has restaurants in Orlando.) The brothers grew up working at dad's places and then went into business for themselves with Lazy A Farms, a produce company they ran until the building that housed it burned nine years ago. As luck would have it, one of Lazy A's clients was Dino's Pizzeria, and when owner Dino Chilini heard about the closure, he offered Chris a job delivering pizzas for extra cash. Soon enough Chris was elbow-deep in dough, working inside the kitchen at Dino's, where he began perfecting his dough-tossing technique. With Dino's blessing, Chris chose a location in Fort Lauderdale, and he and Gus opened their first pizzeria on Seventh Street. They built a reputation and a clientele with a full menu of Italian dinners, subs, and salads. And awesome pie. The thin-crust, New York-style slices are big enough to choke a hippo and dripping with just the right amount of cheese grease floating above the zesty red sauce below. The makings for the sauce, Gus' concoction, are secret, but Chris lets on that they use whole-milk mozzarella ("It's a little more fatty, but it's got the taste," explains Chris), fresh herbs instead of dried flakes (except oregano), and only the freshest produce, no canned stuff. What else would you expect from a couple former vegetable peddlers? And they've done so well, a second Downtown Pizzeria was opened in Oakland Park in January. Both locations are open until 4 a.m. and offer free delivery till 5 p.m., though you can grab a pie hot out of the oven and eat it on site at the small counter.
For one thing the place serves breakfast all day long. That's enough to keep those of us without traditional day jobs coming back, but Cracker Barrel ups the ante with truly good old-fashioned country cooking. The buttermilk biscuits are warm, flaky, and dripping with butter. The chicken 'n' dumplings is rich 'n' hearty. The meat loaf is way better than Mom used to make. And even the salads, one topped with fried chicken tenders, can be fattening, just the way we like 'em. On the way out, we can purchase candy to go (like sour cherry drops or giant jawbreakers) and a knickknack or two from the country store, then sit out on the porch for a spell, working those rocking chairs. Cracker Barrel even has a books-on-tape lending library -- rent a tape at one store, then return it at another -- and gives out maps of the country, with all its 300-plus locations marked, so that road-trippers know where to stop for some dependable chow. You couldn't ask more from a chain.
We're suckers for the kind of gooey, rich, old-fashioned desserts we're not supposed to eat anymore. That's probably why we're regulars at this Dennis Max restaurant and bakery, which sells outstanding banana cream pies and carrot cakes by the slice or, when we're in a particularly greedy mood, by the whole. The key lime pie is perfectly tart, the brownies justly fudgy, and the cheesecake sinfully creamy. Wash any of it down with a bottomless cuppa joe, but be warned -- the liquid takes up valuable room in your stomach that could be better filled by, say, a slab of chocolate layer cake.
Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlor Restaurant
Christina Mendenhall
As soon as you step into Jaxson's parlor, you'll find yourself remembering the "good old days" as you survey the vast display of Necco Wafers, jawbreakers, and other sweet treats. But if you're not in the mood for candy, a heaping helping of the stuff that makes Jaxson's famous should do the trick. Jaxson's has been serving its homemade ice cream for 42 years. Whether dining in or walking up to the takeout window, you can sample perennial favorites like rocky road and chocolate chip, or try one of the fat- or sugar-free frozen desserts. If you're really feeling adventurous, try one of the unique flavors of the day, such as black raspberry. During one of our visits, Gummi Bear was the ice cream du jour. Though it's probably a winner with the age-ten-and-under set, we passed on it and played it safe by ordering a mammoth-size chocolate sundae followed by a milkshake with the proverbial cherry on top.
A family restaurant's one thing, but if you're talking about a place that caters specifically to kids the Chuck E Cheese's chain has mastered the art of "fill 'em up and wear 'em down." That goes for kids and parents; you literally have to psyche yourself up for this place, because it's a no-holds-barred assault on the senses with its primary-color playground equipment, grocery store rides, and boardwalk-style video games. Here's the idea: Line the kids up at the deli counter, where sandwiches, salads, and pizzas go for reasonable prices; then sit 'em down in the Show Room, where life-size, Muppet-like characters, including Chuck E himself, entertain the wee ones; then let 'em loose for the next hour or so. For the rides and games, tokens are a must (at $5 for 20), and they sometimes pay off in the form of tickets redeemable for prizes. Service is quick and friendly, the food is good, and the entertainment choices are endless -- all for a not-too-expensive night out. Just one suggestion: Make this a middle-of-the-week treat for the kids. The place is a zoo on Saturday nights.
It's the United Nations of cuisine. Twirl pasta, fork up crepes, slice into steaks, sup on sushi. From South African cuisine at ZAN(Z)BAR to pan-Asian fare at Indigo to New American specialties at Mark's Las Olas, the street for which the last eatery is named pleases most of us most of the time. The only time we hear grumbles, in fact, is when diners can't decide where to go and their beleaguered stomachs start doing the talking.

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