Best Diner 1999 | Lucille's American Cafe | Foodstuff | South Florida
No place is more American than Weston, an ultrasuburban community planned down to the buried telephone wires. Lucille's, which was built just a few months ago but evokes the '40s, fits right in -- if only because the conscientious proprietors and staff, like the city managers of Weston, see to every little detail. This American diner features countrywide favorites like old-fashioned chocolate egg creams, macaroni-and-cheese casseroles, and heart of iceberg salads. Breads are baked fresh daily, potato chips and ketchup are homemade, and even the pickiest kid would be happy to sell this fizzy lemonade on Main Street, USA. The comfortable diner-style booths and a speakeasy soundtrack are enticements in their own right, but it just might be the strawberry shortcake that sells the joint. You don't even have to be hungry to eat it. Hey, nothing could be more American than that.
Chef-proprietor Mark Militello isn't too comfortable with labels, and truthfully, we can never figure out what to call his inventive fare. But his newest restaurant, which debuted recently in Mizner Park, offers pastas such as saffron fettuccine Bolognese with braised veal, beef, and pork; pizzas topped with tuna, capers, olives, balsamic-roasted onions, and garlic aioli; and entrées like spiced charcoaled lamb loin with dried sour-cherry couscous and marinated tomato salsa. This all sounds as if the Mediterranean region has inspired Militello, so we'll stick his triumphant eatery with the big M label. We hope, of course, that he'll keep sticking it to us.
Trapped in a grubby mini-mall for more than a decade, this place nevertheless manages to impress falafel lovers with its recipe for savory, deep-fried chickpea balls. But Falafel King, while mainly Israeli, is more than just a one-note song. Turkish salad, spiked with hot peppers; Moroccan eggplant salad; Lebanese ful medames (beans); and Greek spinach pie create a virtual Middle Eastern symphony in the mouth. Enjoy the first movement -- split-pea soup -- at a rapid pace (you won't be able to help yourself), then linger over some deep-fried schnitzel, washed down with mango juice imported from Israel. Finish off the composition with a piece of baklava and a thimbleful of Turkish coffee or a glass of mint tea. The staff conducts a pleasant experience, right down to the presentation of the bill, which will run you a good deal less than a ticket to the nearest performing arts center.
When people say that proprietor Toni Bishop sings like a bird, they mean it. The jazz singer-turned-restaurateur performs every weekend at her supper club, warbling birdcalls during improvisations. When she's not performing, other national jazz acts like Shirley Horn, Chick Corea, and our perennial favorite, Spyro Gyra, take center stage, which is in the center of a dance floor crowded with tables. Of course no one plays the jazz diva quite as well as Bishop, who just released her second CD, Incredible Love. But you've got to pay for that ear candy. While her performances are free with dinner or drinks, entrées can cost as much as $40. Guest performers' shows, which often sell out, can run you $50. Altogether it can be an expensive evening out. For jazz fans, though, no price is too high to hear such an exquisite bird.
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.
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.
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.

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