Best Of :: Food & Drink
If a neighborhood restaurant is all things to all people, then Gusto's is the epitome of a "won't-you-be-my-neighbor" eatery. For the "just folks," it's club sandwiches, chicken quesadillas, and calzones. For the kids, it's chicken tenders, crayons, a place mat that doubles as a coloring book, and a soda with a lid and a straw. For the late sleepers, it's Saturday and Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. till 3 p.m., with the added attraction of $2 bloody marys. Executives can have their salmon BLTs and blackened chicken penne catered or, if both money and time are short, have the menu faxed to the office and preorder for a quick, on-premises lunch. And ladies drink and play pool for free every Thursday night, while the hard drinkers indulge in two-for-one happy hours daily. What could be friendlier than that?
Deep in the retirement belt of western Lake Worth, refugee snowbirds and resident Members of the Tribe flock each morning to savor the crusty, chewy treats from this little storefront operation. The bialy bread is to die for, especially early in the day -- a warm, oblong cloud of moist, puffy bread flecked with crisp burnt onion. The pletzl is a joy, a footwide disc of crusty flatbread under a dense sheet of poppy seeds and onion. How did a Scotsman such as owner Scott McCollough get the knack? A Bronx apprenticeship in his youth taught him, among other things, to boil the bagels before baking them. Sundays offer the bargain of a half-dozen free with every dozen purchased. With the Palace's selection of smoked fish and flavored cream cheeses, you can build a king's feast.
Barbecue snobs have simple but stringent requirements. First of all the standard for judging is a good old-fashioned sandwich. The meat of choice is lean but succulent pork, preferably pulled or in chunks rather than sliced. And it goes without saying that it has to be smoked. Then there's the all-important sauce: tangy but not too tangy, with a hint of sweetness but not too sweet. Pile high on an ordinary bun. If the sandwich is good enough, the side dishes are irrelevant. Georgia Pig succeeds on all counts -- so well, in fact, that we tried the beef sandwich, too, just for the hell of it, and found it quite satisfactory. As a bonus, this long-lived joint on U.S. Highway 441 has its own distinct ambiance. Think '60s greasy spoon meets Deep South honky-tonk, complete with a garish collection of pigs -- on the walls, behind the counter, and on your plate.
Though this pub offers about 130 brands of brew from all over the world, the beer that earns Murray's the prize hails from the abbey of Koningshoeven and is called La Trappe -- because it is made by the abbey's silent Trappist monks. It's fermented in the bottle, a corked crock. We usually choose the "tripple," which signifies triple-fermentation and a hearty 10 percent alcohol. It comes with a hearty price, too: 12 bucks a crock. With a medium, flavorful body and a sweet citrusy aftertaste, the brew is worth every single penny. Hell, the bottle, which has a drawing of the abbey on it, is probably worth the price all by itself. If that's too much, or if you simply don't dig monk brew, another must-have in our book is Fiedler's Pils Im Stein. If you need a guide, call on the owners, father-and-son team Jeff and Jason Dimm, to give you a tour. They're true suds aficionados who love to share their extensive hops knowledge and don't mind giving you a sample or two. While you're sipping some of the finest concoctions ever crafted, the place offers good company, pool tables, and free darts to use on their boards. Now get thee to Murray's.
Half the fun of a bloody mary is where and when you drink it. That's because people almost always consume these spicy delicacies when they really shouldn't be drinking -- in the morning. And if you are going to drink in the morning, you might as well do it at a joint that opens at 7 a.m. That would be the Entrada. Take a seat at the horseshoe-shape bar and order your debauched self one of these beauties. They come with a dollop of horseradish, just the thing you need after a night of living large. Then go outside and dip your toes in the pool. You are sooo South Florida.
OK, so tons of fresh tuna are going through restaurants in seafood-heavy South Florida, and some of the more expensive, elegant spots surely make it as well as it can be done. And some truly great caesar salads are being made out there as well. But both for nine bucks? Uh-uh. Try to get a big, fresh, medium-rare steak of tuna sitting atop a huge pile of fresh romaine lettuce, chopped bacon, and croutons at most places, and they'll charge you at least that and half again. And this is no kiddie salad -- it's a Jethro Bodine bowl. It filled us up, and we're among the manliest men you'll ever see in Broward County. We have big round bellies, hairy backs, thick and furry wrists, knuckles callused from dragging along the ground, and slabs of Angus-like beef stuck to our ribs (well, some of us do, anyway), and that salad beat the hunger out of us. If you feel like a beer and some first-rate seafood at a cut-rate price, go to Flanigan's. Yes, it is a chain and we rarely recommend cookie-cutter restaurants, but Flanigan's warrants an exception, at least the one in Deerfield Beach. (We can't honestly laud all 19 Flanigan's restaurants around South Florida, because we haven't eaten in all of them.) The place, which is located on A1A just a stone's throw from the beach, has an old seafarer's ambiance and great service from people who genuinely seem to like working there. We had two wonderful dinners, an order of conch fritters (also among the best we've ever had), and three or four drafts for about $25. And the tuna, nice and red in the center, virtually melted in our mouths. We're hooked.
Curry goat. Jerk pork. Brown stew chicken. The name Islands in the Pines suggests pan-Caribbean fare, but from the cocktail patties to the bammy to the escovitched kingfish, this unexpectedly wonderful joint speaks deliciously of just one island: Jamaica. Live music adds emphasis, as do brightly colored walls, friendly servers, and an ever-changing array of daily soups. (Watch for the pepper pot.) And while you may want to serve them the tropical punch rather than the rumrunner smoothies, note that pickneys (kids) are welcome here as well and that prices are so affordable you could feed, well, an entire island.
Correct bean-to-meat ratio? Check. Trace amounts of cayenne? Roger. Chunks of ground beef, not minuscule scraps? Oh yeah. Not too tomatoey? But of course. Le Tub is one of those last remaining bastions of true funkiness left in Broward and Palm Beach counties -- rough wood tables, checks and credit cards not accepted, no tap beer -- and the victuals are just as singularly entertaining as the bathroom fixtures used as seats and tables. The chunkified chili is what you're paying for, not the surrounding substrate. (The stuff comes in a Styrofoam container with a plastic spoon.) Order by the cup, bowl, or five-gallon pail and love every bite.
Downtown Hollywood is far from a perfect world, but it offers at least one culinary ideal. Chinatopia indeed aspires to a vision of perfection; its execution of multiregional Chinese fare comes damn near close to it. Mild Cantonese favorites, including tender steak kew or boneless crispy duck, vie with zestier dishes such as eggplant Szechuan flavor with shredded pork or Hunan triple delight. But no matter the origin of the recipe, you can count on Chinatopia to reproduce it faithfully. In terms of innovation, there are few surprises here, but when you look for the ideal restaurant, consistency is usually the key, and Chinatopia has that in Utopian abundance.
Coffeehouse mania swept much of the country during the 1990s, but, alas, it didn't make much of a dent in South Florida. (No, Starbucks doesn't count.) So local brew hounds found reason to rejoice when Meredith Huhn and Jay Motley opened Barefoot Coffee in November. It has the bona fides caffeine junkies expect. Start with some eclectic furniture: a crescent-moon sofa, brown Naugahyde recliner, and assorted hardwood chairs. Then add monthly rotating displays by local artists, which are also for sale. The recent Knarley Harley's Beach Whimsies exhibit included landscape paintings and fish sculptures made from driftwood, fishing gear, and hammered copper. For further diversion, one can go online at Barefoot for $8 an hour. Huhn or Motley will help electronic novices set up an e-mail account. And of course at the center of it all is that nectar of the java gods -- espresso, latte, cappuccino, and brewed. Barefoot has sidestepped the deli route -- and the interminable lines that ensue -- in favor of a respectable selection of bagels, muffins, brownies, and pastries. And its evening hours make the joint a handy stop before or after taking in a movie at the next-door Gateway Cinema.
Frankly this local restaurateur, who at one time owned 15-plus eateries in the South Florida area, was in something of a slump for a couple of years there. He separated from his wife of almost two decades, broke up with partner Burt Rapoport, and sold off his empire -- Prezzo, Max's Grille, even his flagship Maxaluna -- piece by piece. The boy looked down. But he's taught us never, ever to count him out. Now he's back with Max's Place in Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade County and a brand new place in Manalapan in Palm Beach County called Max's WatersEdge. He even has one of his old executive chefs, Pierre Viau, back behind the stove at latter locale. So keep your pity to yourself. All Max is interested in these days is your appetite.
It's probably no secret that we've been fans of chef-co-proprietor Tony Sindaco since he opened this cool little joint a couple of years ago. What may surprise you is our loyalty -- we still think he's tops. Check out some recent menu offerings: barbecued mahi-mahi and wild-mushroom torta with Jack cheese, mango salsa, and jalapeño sour cream; black grouper with roasted cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and a coulis of vine tomatoes; seared Maine scallops with Savoy cabbage, warm garlic-bacon potato salad, and cider sauce. You'll note several uniform things about the dishes at Sunfish Grill: Almost every main ingredient is fish or seafood, and without fail all are consistently modern without descending into fusion confusion.