Brush up on your Spanish, gringo, because few people at Atlakat are likely to speak your tongue, except when it comes to the universal language of great homemade food. But if you can open a menu and point, you'll be well taken care of at Manuel Chavez's Salvadoran café. Make a stab at the Sampler Platter ($12.99): fried pupusas filled with jack cheese, curtido (a marinated cabbage and carrot slaw) grilled beef chunks, fried pork chicharrones, and pieces of yucca and fried plantain. Give it all a squirt of Cholula hot sauce or a dunk in your bowl of hot tomato salsa and you've got a meal. Er, well, actually you don't. El Salvador may be the smallest country in Central America, but its appetites are big. Witness those burly workmen polishing off plates of tamales and grilled chicken. Now take a deep breath and order yourself a monster bowl of seafood soup ($13.50) or the Atlakat Special ($11.95), a forearm's-length strip of grilled sirloin, a grilled breast of chicken, and four jumbo grilled shrimp. Granted, you won't be able to finish it, not with those sides of fried yucca, red beans, and rice, but your waitress probably understands the universal sign for "Much as I'd love to, I can't choke down another morsel." (Point finger at unfinished plate, then at belly straining shirt buttons. Shake head wistfully.)

Blather all you want about authentic Mexican food, but how do you know it? The old lady in the kitchen pressing tortillas? The "secret" spice recipe? Maybe it's a menu that unabashedly sells tongue burritos ($3.50), tripe soup ($6), pork skin tacos ($1.50), and shrimp/octopus cocktails ($7.99). You could count the number of Mexican families crammed into a tiny room on any given Friday night or point to the queue of exhausted migrant workers lined up at the taco truck in the parking lot. The average price of a meal hovers around $5; the place is lavishly decorated with glittery streamers and balloons for every single holiday, from Valentine's to St. Paddy's to Cinco de Mayo. The mariachi and norteña music blaring at eardrum-splitting decibels could be the dead giveaway. Some might argue that you really know "authentic" when you can drive up to the to-go window at 4:45 a.m., seven days a week, and come away with a carton of spicy pork tacos ($1.50 each) that will satisfy any longing you're suffering at that blasted hour.

Tacos Al Carbon nails each and every one of those. But what really sets this moving-and-shaking, ever-evolving little goldmine apart from the corporate taco mongers is that nothing ever tastes the same twice. You may get a green sauce with your taco de chicharron that will peel the roof off your mouth. Then again, that taco might come with a cool tomato salsa bursting with cilantro and onion. A basket of corn tortillas, puffed and warm straight from the fryer, might arrive at the table at no charge, or then again, no dice. Your "veggie" burrito ($2.99) could have just about anything in it that can't be slaughtered and thrown on a grill. And then there's that mysterious menu item described as "other kind of meat..."

Those of us who have taken to barking incessantly about the insulting lack of quality in everything these days -- the DVD player that skips whole movie scenes first time you plug it in, stylish steak knives that break off in your T-bone -- will cherish Salerno's for every drop of its home-made, carefully tended red sauce, its freshly made gnocchi, tortellini, and spinach fettuccini, its imported provolone and mozzarella. Sing arias of grazie to Tony Salerno for being a decent guy who couldn't live with himself if he charged more than $3.25 for a delicious bowl of Italian wedding soup. A hot sausage and pepper sub, supersized, can be had for $6.50 here, and you know when you get it home and peel off its greasy wrapper, it's going to taste better than you dreamed possible. A plate of rigatoni, served with a salad and dripping garlic rolls, will fill your belly without emptying your wallet. The only surprises here are good ones, like a shrimp, scallop, and bacon pizza (at $27.95, the most expensive pie on the list). And the only secrets have been passed down through generations of Italian cooks. Pass them on.

Short of booking a flight to Italy's Amalfi coast, you're not going to find a whole bunch of restaurants where the waiters address you as madam, whip out plates of char-grilled calamari on shredded artichoke and arugula salad, uncork your wine with a flourish of white linen, appear with glasses of chilled, homemade limoncello, and prevail upon you with samples of biscotti. That such a place exists in backward bumpkin Lake Worth, where nothing happens but a lot of bickering over whether to sell a parking lot, is, frankly, surreal. And if things weren't mysterious and melancholy enough, when was the last time you saw a $38 piece of fish on a menu? My dear, you've stepped into the zone; relax and enjoy it. And if you can't find somebody to pay for your pleasure, Paradiso's $48 prix fixe menu, served nightly, is an epic five-course bargain, if for nothing else than the opportunity to bask in the glow of so much masculine pulchritude, all of it dressed in snappy black suits and silk ties and sporting Mediterranean accents. From the first course of eight little bites of bliss -- tuna tartare, grilled eggplant, mozzarella di bufala, among others -- through the pastas and mushroom risotto, the grouper Livornese, the venison in balsamic reduction, to the perfect little plate of sweets and your limoncello cream, you know they weren't kidding around when they named this place Paradiso.

Nothing in life feels quite as sweet as being on your way up. And Chef Michael Blum's star sure looks to be rising over the Hollywood skyline. Blum's new restaurant on Harrison Street is the culinary equivalent of a blockbuster or a box-office smash: the one thing everybody's gotta see and all your neighbors are talking about. Patrons brave enough, or early enough, can snag a seat at the granite counter and watch Blum and his minions perform pyrotechnics over open grills a few feet away. Come a little later and you can sink into a leather banquette and prepare to be spoiled rotten by a bevy of servers and sous chefs. Blum's larger-than-life dishes, some of which are served on Home Depot-style floor tiles, are as delicious as they are dazzling. This transcontinental menu sails from port to port -- Asian-inspired yellowfin tuna martinis in their elegant, long-stemmed glasses ($14) to American quasi-classics like candied pecan-coated grouper ($25) and specials like rich osso buco. Armchair travelers go 'round the world in 80 minutes and then find themselves safely back where they started, happier and wiser.

Chef Don Pintabona comes from so many generations of Sicilian cooks that he could make ricotta cavatelli blindfolded, one-handed, and asleep. The cuisine is in his blood -- from his grandmother's simple, impeccable recipe for marinara to a witty plate of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail carpaccio with ostresta caviar. This noted cookbook author and globetrotter joined the ranks of Fort Lauderdale's most interesting chefs when he opened Trina in the Atlantic Hotel last year. Even better, this whiff of Italy delivers the sophisticated scents of New York, where Pintabona ran the kitchen at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Grill, concocting jaw-dropping feats of culinary legerdemain for the likes of Madonna, Liza, and Shaq. Now partnered with Nick Mautone, a noted author and beveragemeister who has assembled a stunning list of martinis, world beers, and international wines, Trina is an example of how two great minds can add up to an incalculable sum. And Pintabona really riffs on his Southern Italian roots: The place is named for the Sicilian flag's medusa, which has three legs representing Sicily's trio of seas; the focus here is on the ocean, a serendipitous collaboration between Mediterranean/African influences and South Floridian bounty. Start by sitting outside with a view of the Atlantic and sip on a Trinatini, the house cocktail of vodka, pomegranate molasses, and lavender syrup. Once you've thoroughly unwound, follow with a cold almond vichyssoise decorated with sliced grapes and a looping ribbon of almond cracker. Then choose from a range of small plates -- char-grilled octopus with sherry vinegar and oregano ($11); signature entrées like tagine-baked Florida grouper with almond couscous, whitewater clams, and chermoula sauce ($26); or a Mediterranean surf and turf, a six-ounce filet mignon with a half lobster, a dollop of lobster hash, balsamic onions, and sauce Maltaise ($46). As restless and eclectic as its author, the menu is a work always in progress. Let's see if we can keep this one around for awhile.

Somehow, someone in Thailand a long, long time ago discovered that the sweet taste of coconut could be mixed with hot chili powder to create some of the most savory sauces to come out of the Southeast Asian peninsula. The taste can be exotic, uncompromising, and sometimes surprising. You can find all three at Thai Spice, an elegant restaurant filled with aquariums and Asian art and sculpture. All entrées -- from red curry chicken ($11.95) to scallops basil ($14.95) to the more expensive house specials -- can be served safe-and-sound mild to burn-a-hole-in-your-tongue spicy. Thai Spice is open weekdays for lunch and for dinner seven days a week starting at 5 p.m. Reservations are suggested for Friday and Saturday evenings. That's for good reason: This place is a first-rate restaurant that can be as busy as the streets of Bangkok.

Ponte Vecchio (Italian for "Old Bridge") doesn't look like much from the outside. It's at the end of a strip mall on busy Commercial Boulevard, right next to an empty lot that accommodates overflow parking on busy Friday and Saturday nights. But as in Italy, the outside of the building says nothing about the food and service inside. Once you walk into Ponte Vecchio's charming dining room, made to appear like a café along one of Venice's many picturesque canals, owner and chef Michel will happily warn: "If you want a great meal, you have to give it time to cook." And he means it. This isn't a place to grab a quick bite. Ponte Vecchio offers a true dining experience, complete with a tuxedoed maitre d' and a team of accented waiters bringing drinks, meals, and the occasional surprise from the chef. "From Michel," a waiter will say as he puts a small plate on the table with an unexpected, appetizing treat the chef has prepared. Although Ponte Vecchio's extensive wine list includes reds and whites from Italy, France, and California ranging in price from $25 to $100, the restaurant's Italian and Mediterranean dinner selections change from one night to the next. Indeed, though patrons can order from a two-page menu that includes salmon, veal, chicken, and pasta dishes ranging from $20 to $30, the maitre d' will generally encourage you to try the specials. And for good reason. Michel puts extra effort and time into developing these -- generally three dishes, one fish, one meat or poultry, and the other pasta -- that range in price from about $25 to $35. Your dining experience at Ponte Vecchio could last nearly two hours, and you'll savor every minute of it.

Maybe it's baby-boomer nostalgia that makes Maison Carlos seem so comforting. The place is decidedly old-fashioned in its tastes, exuding a worldly, early-'60s-era charm that was always more mirage than reality (Dean Martin really was a bastard, and those Playtex girdles were freaking uncomfortable). The lavishly gilt-framed marine paintings by Nantucket artist Robert Stark say it all: You're as far from the cutting edge as you're likely to get, at least on this side of the bridge. At Maison Carlos, somebody still believes in romantic, windswept seascapes; in vichyssoise (this faultlessly executed classic, $6.50, is prepared without the faintest whisper of innovation); in waiters who do not speak unless spoken to; in smoky-voiced jazz singers. That the owners, cast, and crew of Maison Carlos are all in their 30s or younger makes the experience of dining here even weirder. What's up with these cats? Oysters Rockefeller, for god's sake? Somehow, though, it all works beautifully. Settled back with your plate of crispy fried zucchini, sliced white bread with a dish of sweet butter, and a cold martini, you could be 8 years old again, having dinner with Mummy at the club (yes, our Mummy let us drink martinis). Start with the oysters ($11.50), follow with caesar salad ($7.50), and a plate of steak au poivre ($25.95) or spaghetti with jumbo lump crabmeat ($19.95). Then give Tippi Hedren a call and see if she'd like to join you for a stinger. They won't have to ask you how to make one.

It takes guts to open a restaurant in a place where even the hardiest eateries have succumbed to the deadly Clematis Street pox. There isn't a restaurant on West Palm Beach's Main Street that has survived into adulthood; recent road construction, a late-night club crowd, parking horrors, and the apotheosis of CityPlace have apparently made it impossible to operate a profitable food-related business there. But Roy Assad and his wife, Evelyn, who also own the popular and acclaimed Leila Mediterranean Restaurant around the corner on Dixie Highway, love an underdog. Along with partner Cosmo Dishino and undeterred by last fall's hurricanes, which mangled the front of the building, they've taken the old Big City Tavern and turned the space into an open-air French bistro. With those pressed tin ceilings and velveteen crimsons, the place really looks the part; what's more, the food is astonishing. Nostalgic dishes like escargots in the shell ($12 dinner, $9 lunch), bouillabaisse ($26, dinner only), and duck a l'orange ($25 dinner, $15 lunch) are served alongside bistro standards like New York steak pommes frites ($26 dinner, $16 lunch). Chef Laurent Loupiac, who comes to West Palm via Daniel in New York and Alain Ducasse in Paris, is a real catch for our gold-digging little burg. The guy knows how to put together a brochette of sea scallops with crushed rosemary Yukon gold potatoes better than just about anybody. The service is as crisp as the starched linens on the tables, and with that wall of doors thrown open on a warm evening, a cold cocktail in hand, and a perfect little goat cheese tart on the plate in front of you, you might almost start to believe in downtown revitalization.

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