Cafe Del Rio

Here's a little story about the fajita that could. One day, the fajita looked at his peers with their white, flaky tortillas, boring veggie mixes, and dry, flavorless meats and said, "There's got to be more than this." So he left his tiny taco stand in Nowhere, Idaho, and headed for Florida, Land of the Unique and Daring. Here, he encountered the folks at Cafe del Rio, who promised a makeover that would make him unrecognizable to those stale fajita friends he left back home. So the Del Rio people tossed chicken, steak, and shrimp into a tumbler with seasonings and marinades to make them flavorful and exquisitely tender. Then they added some yellow squash and zucchini to the standard veggie mix of onions and green and red peppers and adorned the sizzling skillet with a shiny, jade-colored pepper and a little silver cup of butter touched with cilantro and jalapeño. Why butter, you ask? Well, my child, butter makes the flavor of the meats richer (just ask someone at Ruth's Chris), and it adds a nice flavor to the golden and puffy tortillas that Del Rio makes fresh to blanket the whole affair. Of course, the guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes, Tex-Mex rice, and refried beans topped with melted shredded cheese were thrilled with the results, and they agreed that the prices asked were more than fair (just under $12 for beef or chicken, a little shy of $14 for shrimp, and nearly $15 for a combo of the three). And they all lived happily ever after in my stomach. The End.

The salsa at this modest and friendly joint isn't the finest only because it's free and plentiful but also because it's damned near perfect. Color: A bright, beautiful pink from the combo of diced tomatoes and onions. Taste: Like God has decided to prove to the world that he really does exist. Texture: Crisp and fresh. "We make it five times a day," says Eduardo Argueta, general manager of the Riverfront location. "And we throw away what's left at night and start fresh the next day. It has to be fresh to be tasty." But at Olé Olé, it's not just about the salsa. The fare is all first-rate. If you're with a friend or two, try the fajitas for three, which runs only about $23 and comes with a mountain of your choice of chicken, shrimp, or steak (or any combo of the three). And enjoy the margaritas. They're always strong enough, of good quality, and totally authentic, like the rest of the place.

Hamburger Heaven

This place is famous for its stellar beef, which is the very heart of good chili. Hamburger Heaven has long been one of Palm Beach's only moderately priced lunch spots, with crowds waiting in line far out the door to enter the 60-year-old diner. Most of 'em have come for the burgers, like the aptly named Beverly Hills, which comes with avocado and ranch dressing. But Hamburger Heaven's chili ($2.95 a cup or $5.95 a bowl) makes a good rival; it has big chunks of ground beef, red beans, and a sauce that's tangy but not spicy. Even though Hamburger Heaven is most certainly a diner, its chili doesn't have that diner feel -- you know, the sticky, murky texture that comes from being in a crock pot for a week. This sublime dish has a smooth consistency so that the floating chunks of beef and beans stand out. It's astounding, but if you simply can't pass up getting a burger when you visit Heaven, try the San Antonio ($9.95), which is smothered in jalapeños, cheddar cheese, raw onions, and, as you guessed, a mound of chili. Best Barbecue

Gou Lou is a fleshy spectacle unmatched elsewhere in Broward. A hole-in-the-wall with only two small tables, the carry-out restaurant devotes most of its space to a behind-glass display of roasted ducks, chickens, and pigs. You'll easily identify the species: Each animal is roasted whole, usually with heads attached. On a recent visit, ducks and chickens hung by their heads or feet, each a shimmering golden brown. A roasted pig dangled from a stainless-steel rack, its crispy head lying below it. On a nearby rack, succulent, deep-red ribs dripped with juices. Your order is chopped to your specifications as you watch. Honey-barbecue ribs or honey-roasted pork cost $6.50 a pound. Roasted ducks are $13.95, or $7.50 for a half. Chicken with head is the bargain of the bunch at $3.75 a pound.

When it comes to creating the perfect barbecue experience, there's more involved than putting a rib on your plate. Alligator Alley has all the requisite trappings: a down-home vibe, the Meters on the jukebox, and icy Native Lager on tap (because a barbecue joint without beer is like a bistro without Bordeaux). As for the main event, it's true the menu lacks the baby backs and quarter birds that are the cornerstone of many a rib shack. That's because owner Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo has mastered -- mastered -- the pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), and you won't find a more delectable example in South Florida. Period. Three made-from-scratch sauces -- sweet, tangy, and Carolina-style -- add just the right spice to the tender, oak-smoked meat, which emits a pungent, primal flavor that stands up to copious saucing. A healthy dollop of creamy cole slaw (included with the sandwich) cools down the fire sublimely for a three-way balancing act worthy of Ringling Bros. Along with the pork po-boy, the Alley serves up a killer chicken breast sandwich ($10.95) that is also smoked out back in a house smoker just big enough for a few items. The alligator ribs are always fresh and tender, and Kilmo's gumbo is award-winning. If you're smart, you'll finish the feast with a slice of tangy, locally made key lime pie. Calling Alligator Alley a bar is a disservice; it's a vital part of the community. Calling its menu "bar food" is outrageous -- it's an epicurean wonder.

Sure, the baloney sandwiches in prison offer more nutritional value, but this menu item could come in handy when your wallet's thin: "The Inflation Beater: two stale heels of bread wrapped around a freshly frozen ice cube." Cost: 2612 cents.

Oh Cyrille, Cyrille, how we adore you, you big rouille-making brute you, with your leek tarts, your duck confits, your chicken pot pies, your soufflés au fromage! Our hearts simply break in two over your mystical lentil soups ($4.50) and surreal espresso milkshakes, your plates of assorted cheeses ($15.50), not to mention the BLT that is like a reinvention of the BLT ($11.50), a sandwich that somehow both confounds and enchants. It's as if you dreamed of mayonnaise, awoke, went to your kitchen, and in a moment of tortured genius conceived a sauce so tender and sad that it would suffice as the last meal -- with a simple boiled egg, perhaps -- for your dying beloved. All this we divine in you, Cyrille, and yet -- we are less than nothing to you, and you once told us (admittedly, you were a bit in your cups at the time, and we had been perhaps overlavish with our praise, embarrassing you) that you "didn't give a damn" whether we liked your cooking. You are so French in that slightly haughty but magnetic way that it makes us swoon, Cyrille. But most of all, how thrilled we are that this bright and lovely little café is now yours entirely, since you have bought it outright, and that you serve a prix fixe dinner (which is very expensive but no doubt worth every blesséd franc) from Thursday to Saturday, but only for four persons or more, and only for two tables per night, and only if reserved in advance. We wouldn't expect any less, Cyrille, from a man of your qualities.

Oy! Murray! Take a look at those stoy-gen! Congrat-u-lations, Murray, you and your lovely wife have found smoked fish paradise, and, believe it or not, you aren't in New York anymore. Sure, it looks a little like a Manhattan deli, what with the Hebrew National salamis hanging and the signs announcing a sale on chicken cutlets, but this place is truly a Florida-style testament to the fish that sacrificed themselves. Granted, all the swimmers had to travel a distance to get here -- the whitefish and chub are from Lake Michigan, the salmon is from Norway, and others arrived from Chile -- but the flavors are so rich that you'd think they had jumped out of the tank and into the smokers mere moments before they were served. If you've never tried smoked fish, take a taste of nova (nonsalty salmon) or sable for starters. If you are a connoisseur of the stuff, be adventurous and go for the smoked butterfish. Bet you can't find that in your local deli.

Mr. Fish Seafood
You can eat fish in a train,

You will like fish in the rain,

You will like it from a box,

You will eat it with a fox

(if you're lucky enough to be dining with one).

Owner Mike Montella, who started out as a charter-boat captain and is now nearly three decades into running this gourmet seafood market, knows a thing or two about our scaly and shell-covered friends. His fish is delivered fresh from Florida's West Coast, and he even has a local lobster diver who has been going down for about seven years to catch those local, clawless langostas. This squeaky-clean, stacked-to-the-gills place has just about every type of local fish you can imagine (pompano, snapper, grouper, mahi, stone crab claws, shrimp, lobster); it also carries cooked meals, spreads, sauces, soups, and even desserts. Rich butters are also available for dipping, flavored with everything from champagne to wasabi, and the prices are competitive. But here's the best part: You can have everything shipped overnight via the "Fish-in-a-Flash" program. Hah! Flying fish! That's something Dr. Seuss would appreciate.

Zona Fresca

Somehow, the folks who own Zona Fresca, a clean, bright little taqueria serving Cal-Mex style burritos, chiles relleños, and quesadillas, have managed to achieve a feat that has stumped many a local superchef: How to turn out a delicious piece of fish, consistently, honestly, and cheaply. For their fish taco, a fresh white filet is dipped in beer batter, deep fried in canola oil, then wrapped in a double corn tortilla stuffed with marinated cabbage and sour cream dressing. You pay $2.50 for this perfect minimeal, carry it over to Zona Fresca's salsa bar, which offers an array of mild to fiery sauces (we're partial to the tart, green tomatillo), squeeze on a bit of lime, eat your taco in a half-dozen bites, then head back to the counter for round two. You can spend the good part of a day engaged in this ritual, several times a week, for months or even years before you'll think of looking elsewhere for your fish sandwich. Crunchy on the outside, moist, light, and steaming inside, the fish is perfectly foiled by the bright salsa and crunchy cabbage. Zona Fresca looks like a fast-food joint with its walk-up counter and plastic utensils. It also acts like a fast-food joint -- you can get in and out in a quarter of an hour if you have to. But the strong flavors and freshness of their vegetables, lean meats, and beans cooked without lard are healthy enough to make lunch a guilt-free zone.

Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop

When a restaurant makes it to 32 years old, it has to be something more than a stroke of luck and a good location. It's the food, damn it -- or, in this case, the bagels. Indeed, after three decades, Sage Bagel & Appetizer Shop is still reeling in the same loyal bagel lovers week after week. The menu covers all the standard bagel types (plain, poppy, pumpernickel), specials (jalapeño, bran), and the extra-special (bialy). The cost for a single bagel is 75 cents; make that $1.95 with regular cream cheese, $2.35 for chive or vegetable, and $5.99 for lox. If you dine in, be sure you're ready to eat, 'cause the food comes fast. The menu includes far more than bagels. There's all manner of breakfast bites, full dinners, and desserts. If you plan to do some shopping for the week, a dozen bagels costs eight bucks, and a quarter-pound of cream cheese goes for $1.59. Make sure that alarm clock's set for bright and early; Sage opens at 6:30 a.m. every day.

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