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Michael's Kitchen is a showy new restaurant in downtown Hollywood where dinner is as much a spectacle as a food experience. Flames spout from stoves in the open kitchen, frying pans sizzle like lava eruptions, and chefs parade through the place with creatively displayed dishes. This is "Cirque de Soleil dining," says Michael Blum, co-owner (with his wife, Jennie) and namesake of the restaurant. The food? It just tastes good. But the presentation is, well, carnyesque.
Blum, the food showman, feels right at home in the lurid sideshows of county fairs and traveling carnivals. "I like the wow effect -- the 3,000-pound pig and the lady with the 14-inch nose. At the carnival, it's all about the wacky people. That's kind of how I go through my day. We give you in-your-face dining."
He's the guy whose name tag says Freddy Scoops. This is Fred Sabloff, co-owner (with Fay Decker) of Maggie Moo's, the Coral Ridge ice cream emporium where they stir your favorite toppings into your flavor of choice on a stone cutting board. What? You didn't know? It's the latest thing. Last year was the store's first full year of operation, and it packed 'em in, with customers clamoring for signature flavors like grape bubblegum, very yellow marshmallow, and udderly cream.
Moo's even gives the ice cream a carny spin or two.
"Our biggest-selling flavor is cotton candy," says the gregarious Sabloff, a New Yorker with a penchant for street scenes. "I go to all the carnivals. I like the excitement. I like the food -- hot dogs on a stick, all the stuff that's not good for you. Mostly, I like to be where there's a lot of people, where people are tumling." Tumulting? "It's like tumult. But it's tuml." That would be Yiddish for noisy, chaotic, and entertaining.
Tropical Café has been dishing out flavorful Cuban grub at its present location -- an out-of-the-way store in the Sears shopping center -- for four years (and seven years before that on Andrews Avenue). It's all about the pork -- which is roasted, indelibly touched with garlic and secret herbs -- and the coffee (thick, sweet, hot as a punctured radiator in July). That's why we like owner Humberto Fajardo's peerless breakfast deal. For a mere $4.99, you get an omelet, a layer of that roast pork -- or ham or bacon -- and a slice of Swiss cheese, all pressed into a hunk of Cuban bread, which has been grilled flat in the kitchen's heavy, metal parrilla. Top it off with a steaming hot café con leche. It's what gets us to work every morning.
The cuisine of India is perhaps the only in the world whose aftertaste is more seductive than its taste. Infused with cumin, cardamom, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and jaggery, the menu at Madras Café, a quaint restaurant in an unassuming strip mall in Pompano Beach, features some of the most authentic South Indian dishes this side of the Atlantic Ocean. For carnivores, the clay oven-baked Tandoori chicken ($11.95) blends spices with equal kick and zing to accentuate tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken; then there's the traditional lamb vindaloo ($12.95), which uses a spicy sauce to complement chunks of lamb served over a bed of rice. Additionally, Indian cuisine is known for its vegetarian dishes, and here Madras Café does not disappoint. Among the highlight veggie dishes are the Navratan Korma ($9.95), a delicious blend of vegetables in a creamy cashew-and-almond sauce; saag panner ($9.95), a mixture of fresh spinach and homemade cottage cheese; and the time-honored aloo gobi ($9.95), a combination of cauliflower and potatoes cooked with ginger and tomatoes. What's more, for those wanting to sample a variety of Indian dishes, try the lunch buffet ($7.95 Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., $9.95 Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) or the $11.95 dinner buffet Wednesday and Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m.
Cuban food is not complicated, nor is it generally gourmet fare. But it's spare, delicious in its simplicity, and, most important, fresh. Well, for all this you couldn't pick a better location than next door to a grocery store. And Senor Café, an ultraclean, well-lighted joint next to President Supermarket just south of downtown Hollywood, fits the bill perfectly. Our favorite dish here is boliche, Cuban pot roast ($6.95), a juicy cut of meat that will make you immediately forget that dried-up shoe leather your mom used to serve. It comes with two side dishes. For these, we recommend the moros y cristianos (white rice and black beans) and tostones (fried green plantains.) Indeed, the plantains here are some of the best on the planet -- pounded, then dumped into superhot oil so that the outside is crispy and the inside tender and moist. But the best way to eat at Señor Café if you're hungry is the lunch buffet ($6.99), which is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. The menu changes every day, but a few things are for sure. Wednesdays, there will be lechon, perfect Cuban pork, and Friday is seafood day. It's all you can eat not only of the main dish but also of plantains, yucca, rice, and soup. To end your meal, what else but a perfect cup of coffee? Try the cafecito, a tiny sweetened cup that goes for a measly 53 cents. The place is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
If you like yours with lettuce and tomato, onions, Heinz 57, pickles, and French fries, Muddy Waters could be your gastronomical paradise, especially on Tuesday nights, when the restaurant sells the Jimmy Buffett burger for a discounted price (reduced from $7.99 to $5.95). More adventurous aficionados with a little more to spend should order one of the $8.99 selections topped with any of Chef Adam's homemade sauces: The Portobello burger is topped with grilled, sliced you-know-whats, fresh mozzarella, and a red wine sauce; the Cayman is swimming in homemade chili and cheddar cheese sauce; and the Sunset is smothered in zippy, tropical barbeque sauce, cheddar, and bacon. The Yak, another unique find at just under nine bucks, is topped with melted cheddar, onions, jalapeños, and Conch Turbo Sauce, which isn't homemade but is a zesty, peppery product of the Keys. While all these toppings are fine and good, the bottom line here is the meat: Owner Jay Arney says each burger is made with a half pound of Black Angus, fresh ground that day. Yeah, these babies are worth every damned bit of sacrifice.
Don't bother looking for menus in this down-to-earth neighborhood place. All its offerings are up on a mirrored wall, each dish spelled out in blue tape. But then, that might not even help you. "Do you speak French?" the owner recently queried a first-timer at Chez Moy. No, came the reply. "Well, then I'll just tell you what we have," she said with a thick Creole accent, listing off lunch items: chicken ($7), fish ($10), or goat ($8) in spicy sauces. Each comes with salad and rice. For those uninitiated in Haitian ways, the menus for lunch and dinner, which also include lamb and fried pork entrées, are identical in fare and price. Breakfasts are cheaper ($6 each), but don't expect eggs and toast. Haitians like to start their morning off with the likes of meat stew and salt fish. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Tim Martin is a New Yorker who travels to Florida to ingest a week's worth of spring training games every year. "Eating a hot dog is the thing to do when you go to a baseball game," he says. "Even though they charge you as much as it would normally be for a whole package of hot dogs, for some reason, it just tastes better at a game." At Roger Dean Stadium, where both the Florida Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals send their major-league teams for spring training and where their minor-league teams play all summer, hot dog-eating is a complex experience; buyers need to be choosy. At any concession window, you can get a regular hot dog, which is steamed, for $3 (prices increase during spring training). Certain windows also offer the "jumbo hot dog" ($4), also steamed, which is like a regular hot dog, only fatter. Both are made by National Deli, a Miami-based company and "the official hot dog of Roger Dean stadium." Now you could satisfy your weenie jones by doing up either of those dogs with sauerkraut, relish, mustard, and ketchup from the freestanding condiment bar. But the discerning diner goes for the Dean Dog, a $5, 1/3-pound frank that is grilled until it sweats, has the black grill marks to prove it, is served with sautéed onions and peppers, and is available at only two windows: the St. Louis Grill and the Florida Grill. Volunteers run the concession stands -- and then take home 12 percent of the day's proceeds for the charity they support. (The Shriners made about $40,000 last season this way.) Nick Barbera, who mans the grill every Saturday to raise money for Kelly's Powerhouse dance school, says you should definitely spring for the Dean Dog: "It's like a hot dog on steroids. It fits right in with baseball."
Audrey Hope doesn't have to fish for compliments. Her customers offer them generously enough, most likely through a mouthful of fried snapper or over a bowl of tilapia stew. Hope and daughters Lucretia and Jessica, who hail from British Guyana, serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner Caribbean-style in this tiny, eight-table restaurant that's in an area never known for its culinary highlights. Don't let the handmade curtains in the windows or the building façade fool you: You don't have to be a fancypants to turn out a mouthwatering chicken curry with a side of mac and cheese -- or to enjoy them either. The cooking skills Hope learned from her mother are put to excellent use on recipes ranging from Bahamian to Jamaican. A chalkboard printed with the day's specials usually advertises a lineup of items including tomato-based fish stew, a whole fresh-caught battered fish, a plate of crab, shrimp, or lobster tail ($8.99 to $14.99). Sides include enough red beans and rice to feed a battalion, a double dollop of potato salad, and a half head of iceberg with bottled dressing. After you polish off that last slice of clove-, cinnamon-, and nutmeg-flavored shortcake, don't mind if Audrey and her girls, chattering happily, walk you to your car. Where there's Hope, there's lots of life.