Christina Mendenhall
At the risk of repeating ourselves, have you been to Jaxson's? Like about 20 million times since it opened 50 years ago? As a toddler, as a teen, as a dad, as a grandpa, and now as a great granpadoodle? Such is the life cycle of South Florida Man: centered around visits to the oldest, most authentic, and still the greatest homemade, hand-batched ice cream parlor on this sun-blasted peninsula, where, God knows, we need 80 flavors of ice cream! To say nothing of several tons of antique memorabilia and license plates! Most of us can chart the major transitions of our existence by the way our favorite frozen dessert has changed over the years. At 2, we were mashing our mugs into the Jr. Sampler (three scoops, whipped cream, and a cherry); in youth, we spooned up banana fudge sundaes with the only girl we'd ever love; returning with our own tots in tow, we were ready for -- in fact, we required for our mental health -- the whole Kitchen Sink; now old age has sharpened our palate so we finally appreciate a good peach melba goblet. We look forward to moving on to a Chocolate Suicide (chocolate ice cream, brownie, fudge, chocolate chips) in our waning years -- what a way to go! Our eyesight may fade, our wallets may grow thin, but Jaxson's never changes. Octogenarian owner Monroe Udell's still churning out the sweetest deal in town.
No one should ever feel guilty about eating dessert. What's the point of ordering a hot fudge sundae if you're worried what'll happen to your waist? So if you want to pile on the cookie crumbs and caramel without worry, you'd better skip Baskin-Robbins and head over to Nonna's Café for some of its fresh-made gelato. Yeah, that's right -- fresh-made, as in churned out on a daily basis, not stored in a freezer. Ditto for the fresh fruit that goes into (or on top of) all that creamy goodness. Nonna's 36 flavors range from strawberry, mango, and passion fruit to the really desserty stuff like peanut butter cup. The four sizes of cups ($2.95 to $5.65) and three sizes of cones ($1.85 to $5.10) are good for straight-up, topping-free helpings. But for $6.95, you can get one of the three combination dishes: Passion (three fruit flavors topped with fresh fruit and fruit toppings), Paradise (three milk flavors with cookies, coffee, or caramel toppings), or Amore (a Passion-Paradise hybrid). Afterward, you can ruminate on the age-old philosophical debate: tastes great or less filling?
If you'd rather cook your own spam 'n' eggs than have to queue at an omelet station at some overrated brunch emporium, make a reservation at Victoria Park, where you can sit down like a civilized person and let Gary Boylan serve you his Benedict di Parma. Or his potato pancakes with poached eggs, sour cream, and a side of applewood bacon. But make that reservation early (say, by Wednesday or Thursday), because the luscious cuisine of Boylan and his wife, Patricia McDonnell, is guaranteed to fill all the tables in this tiny restaurant during brunch hours on any given Sunday. Their French toast has by now become a local legend: Tuscan bread dipped in egg batter and baked in a sweet, gooey custard. Order it served simply with confectioners' sugar and syrup ($5.95), or push the envelope with a topping of Granny Smith apple compote, toasty walnuts, and cinnamon sugar ($6.95), or go all the way with bananas, strawberries, and Grand Marnier sauce ($8.95). If you savor the savory, an alluring potato pancake topped with smoked Norwegian salmon, poached eggs, mustard sauce, caviar, and chives will keep you happy until dinner -- even, maybe, until next Sunday.
You know when you're in high school and you're taking a quiz and the teacher has put three really simple questions at the beginning so that even the dumbest kid gets some points? That's how we feel about this category. It's like... duh. Where else would you find the best burger? Although we're partial to Mary's modest offerings like the avocado burger or the Big Kahuna (pineapple, teriyaki, sautéed onions, Jack cheese), this place also serves up "Buffy the Hamburger Slayer" (marinated in red wine and caramelized garlic and topped with Swiss cheese), the Queen Mary (cheddar, grilled onions, bacon), and the QM2, which is a Queen Mary with "a split of hoity-toity French champagne and a mint for your pillow... but you have to tuck yourself in!" as the menu puts it. Mary's uses only certified Angus beef, and only the top 8 percent of all beef qualifies. It's never frozen, and you can order medium-rare. You can also sub out the meat for a turkey burger or Gardenburger. When you get your check, it comes in a high-heeled shoe, and best of all, the fine-lookin' wait staff will sweet-talk you throughout the meal. When you're sitting at the bar or on the patio of Mary's, you just somehow feel better. So whenever you need a quick pick-me-up, you have a choice: Drugs? Therapy? Or Mary's? The answer is easy, friends.
They want to go to McDonald's for lunch. Or Burger King. Or some pizza arcade with jet-engine-like decibel levels of noise. But the choice ain't theirs. They're going to sit and listen to the withered old men at the bar riffle The Mail and call out to the flatscreens showing English Premier League: "Tha's how we yoost to play football, lads!" They can get a burger for about eight bucks or some chicken fingers for six. Pretty soon, though, they're going to graduate to the bangers and mash or the fish and chips. And you're going to nurse your pint of Kronenberg 1664 and tell them about a land where pubs are a meeting place for an entire town, where strangers mingle and learn about people from other walks of life. You'll show them that the world isn't a scary place. Then, when they cross their knees, you'll show them to the refreshingly clean restrooms, to prove it.
Although there's a delicious new high-end barbecue emporium in Broward out west of 441, there's something about the shack-on-the-side-of-the-road feel of Texas Hold 'Em that gives it the edge. This year-old spot is the kind of place where you can watch the dude out front manning the massive, oak-fired smoker, and when he walks inside to hand-chop your half chicken or pulled pork, the tiny dining room takes on the primal scent of slow-cooked meat. It's the kind of place where someone will be sure to stop by your high top to ask if you need more of that "good ole souse" or secret-recipe lemonade, and you'll have a hard time answering with your mouth full of savory, succulent collard greens or tangy baked beans. This stuff is all ridiculously tasty, especially that near-perfect homemade sauce, which balances spice and sweetness in the rich, tomato-y Texas tradition. It's kinda kitschy, but the theme décor -- all sorts of gambling memorabilia lining the walls -- is kinda fun too. Grab a slab of baby backs at Texas Hold 'Em and you're guaranteed to come up with a winning hand.
"This is spicy," the waitress says, indicating the swarthier of the two bowls of salsa she places on a booth table along with a basket of unsalted corn chips. First, then, the milder salsa. It's a cool mash of tomatoes and onions, with a distinct but not overpowering blast of cilantro along for the ride. Something else too -- maybe basil stirred into the sex-red condiment. The second salsa is earthier in color, with visible jalapeno slices and seeds scattered within. It has a curious sweetness that tingles on the tip of the tongue before giving way to a rush of heat that dashes back in the mouth and up the sinuses like sparks up a chimney. Before the stomach fills with these sauces, the lunch special arrives. It's a $6 chicken burrito surrounded by beans and rice and contains nothing more than chicken meat. The only flavoring agent in sight is the orange cheese piled on and around it. Luckily, an ordinary fork stands ready to act as a ladle. Salsas to the rescue!
Sure, there's some decent General Tso's chicken and moo goo gai pan at the hundreds of identical, stark white, fluorescent-lit Chinese-takeout storefronts that dot the land, but why settle for merely good? Pepper's has a full menu of the dishes you know and love, plus a second menu featuring some of the best, most diverse regional Chinese cooking in the area, including authentically prepared Taiwanese and Szechuan cooking. Unlike other area places that cater to Chinese tastes, they do a good job with both menus. Indulge in frog legs with pickled peppers and a fiery Szechuan noodle soup loaded with tendon and tripe one night and a pint of chow mein and a couple of egg rolls the next. Or mix and match. And instead of standing at a dingy counter, there's a nice bar where you can sit and enjoy a bubble tea while you wait.
Even the superrich need comforting sometimes, and restaurateur Paul Darrow, whose experience combines the sublime with the ridiculous -- Cordon Bleu training on the one hand, a chain of Cheeburger Cheeburgers on the other -- seems to have put his finger on a lineup of American recipes guaranteed to soothe fretful old aristocrats and picky arrivistes. At Deco's swank Sunrise Avenue locale, a plate of fried chicken ($16) comes sizzling from the kitchen ensconced on paper napkins to soak up the juices; servers wheel around carving carts of roast turkey with all the fixings ($22); a bubbling dish of macaroni and cheese ($13) made with real cheddar and cream bubbles quietly beneath a perfectly browned crust; and chunky crab cakes ($23) are partnered with a creamy mustard sauce and wilted garlic spinach. The family-style sides, like a big bowl of creamed spinach, melting mashed potatoes, and hunks of corn bread with butter, are throwbacks to an era when the fat cats could have their cream and eat it too.
Even in cities with large Chinatowns, shopping for Asian groceries is seldom a one-stop endeavor. One place may have the best selection of dried mushrooms, another the best prices on bottles of fish sauce and sriracha. Which makes A Dong in Lauderdale Lakes so useful. Though a Vietnamese market in name and orientation, it carries a worthy selection of Chinese, Thai, and Filipino products, Japanese snack food, and housewares for putting that tom yum together and ladling it out. In back, there's a modest in-house meat and fish counter near the (alas, usually bagged) fresh produce, and up-front, shrink-wrapped banana cakes, various jelly concoctions, and staff who will happily lead you to the jars of shrimp paste. If you don't find that one special thing there, the store is superconveniently located in a strip mall that also boasts a fine Chinese bakery, an herbalist, and a great Chinese BBQ takeout shop.

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