Best Of :: Food & Drink
"Upscale" doesn't have to mean expensive or snooty. At El Chamol, chef Lamberto Valdez's contemporary Mexican restaurant in suburban Lake Worth, it means impeccable service and beautiful table settings — waiters who pull out your heavy wooden chair and unfold your napkin; painted Mexican dinner plates and pale-blue-and-green goblets. It means ravishing dishes arranged with an eye for color and composition and a chef who periodically emerges from the kitchen to greet customers or see to a table's special order. And the place is still as laidback as an afternoon in a shaded hammock. The Mexican-born, French-trained Valdez goes far beyond guacamole and chips to experiment with goat cheese and puff pastry, with cactus paddles topped with corn and shrimp, with lobster stuffed into a quesadilla, and with huitlacoche (fungus-filled corn) as a condiment. Even the guacamole is served with flair, handmade to order and scooped from a stone molcajete with corn chips the colors of the Mexican flag. Look for the coarsely chopped and lime-infused tomato salsa, their specialty margaritas, beans simmered all day and served in a cast iron pot, and tortillas that taste like the Mexico of your dreams..
We thought we'd never find another shrimp dish to so thoroughly amuse our bouches after Florence Fabricant's classic entry in our dog-eared copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook — until we stumbled into Bonefish Grill and ordered their "Saucy Gulf Shrimp." Here's an appeteaser to jostle any cynic from apathy, a balance of sharp and savory to spur the flagging appetite and rouse failed expectations; priced at $7.90 and generous enough to share, it's satisfying but not satiating. Bonefish, a homegrown Florida chain we can confidently brag about, now serves this concoction as far north as Jersey, but the magic in the brew's consistent: juicy Gulf shrimp sautéed in butter with slivers of sun-dried tomato and kalamata olives, tossed around in a lime, tomato, garlic, cream, and white wine sauce — with more butter. That's topped with a little feta and a handful of parsley. Bonefish ought to offer a guarantee: Mop up every drop or your money back.
Argentina has given the world soccer star Diego Maradona and power broker Eva Peron, but neither were as satisfying as Beefeater. First, it's good for your taste buds: the savory flavors of South America fill your mouth. Then it's good for your hunger: entrees like the egantic (that is, bigger than ginormous) churrasco will fill you up with plenty left for a meal the next day. Perhaps even better is the price. You can start with empanadas or grilled provolone; move on to a steak covered with rich, bright-green chimichurri sauce; and finish with panqueque con dulce de leche, a crepe made with caramel and powdered sugar and flambéed with rum, and you still won't break the 20-dollar mark. Lunch specials get you a steak, salad, and drink for under $10. Around dinnertime the restaurant gets crowded, but complimentary drinks and the people-watching on Hollywood Boulevard help pass the time.
You can't find EveryBurger everywhere. If you could just stop at any corner store and pick up a pack of the delicious little Japanese cookies that masquerade as itty-bitty burgers, you'd at least spend less on gas. But our convenience stores will never be that cool. To find the best imported Asian treats, you have to go to Sasaya Japanese Market. In addition to inexpensive to-go sushi (the priciest roll is $7.50), Sasaya offers one-stop shopping for wasabi peas, lucky cat wallets, and kitchen supplies; plus extra-fancy, extra-spicy ramen noodles, and assorted sakes and curry pastes.
It's not just about the bagels. You want a place that evokes the old-time Lower East Side, with wise, gabby people exchanging gossip or leafing through the New York papers as they eat their bagels, typically with a schmear of cream cheese and a slice of nova. This brings us to East Side Bagel & Deli, a modest little restaurant in a commercial strip near the Galt Ocean Mile. The display case is always full of bagels, and they're just the right consistency (chewy, not bready or — heaven forbid — rock-like). There's lots of talk and a friendly staff to serve a full breakfast or lunch, or just your favorite round ones (sesame seed, poppy seed, egg, plain, you get the idea). New owner Kevin Spence says that, when it comes to bagels, he's got a tough, seasoned crowd, many of them from New York. "They know what they're eating," Spence says. And they come back for more. In fairness, most of East Side Deli's bagels are prepared at Bagelmania, where they know a thing or two about baking bagels. No, says Denise Jimenez, the Bagelmania boss' wife, it's not the water (the usual excuse for why you can't get a good bagel outside of New York). "You mix the dough, then you let it sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours," she says. "That's the secret. If you don't let it sit, it doesn't come out right."
Want to know how to spot good barbeque? It's not just the smell — though if the air outside is perfumed by the sugary scent of wood smoke, you're in good shape. Nor is it the queue out front — people still line up to get McDonalds. The secret is in the grill man. Take a look at the guy: Does he have an innate connection to the meat? Can he just stare at a pork shoulder, smokin' away above the coals, and commune with its innermost fleshiness? Does he look as much a part of the place as the ancient oven that he mans, his face wrinkled and hardened from years of staring into the pit? That's the guy I want cooking my 'que. At the 55-year-old landmark Georgia Pig, that man is owner Wayne Anderson, and he turns out the most deeply smoked, immaculately rich BBQ you'll find in South Florida. The chopped pork — oh my God, the chopped pork — is infused with hickory and tumbled into layers of crunchy skin bristling with bacon-ized pork fat and succulent bits of tender, reddened flesh. The Pig's sauce, a water-thin spritz of vinegar and spices, serves only to enhance the flavor of the meat, not mask it with sickly syrups or bombastic tomatoes. You'll also find killer brisket, unctuous ribs (check out the smoke ring), authentic Brunswick stew, and decadent banana pudding. Be sure to thank the grill man on your way out.
Baker Steve Bern was making "artisanal" breads long before foodie windbags got hold of the term and turned it into a cliché. With his background in economics and engineering, and some strong risk-taking genes, Bern was a natural at creating the optimal conditions to keep a sourdough starter, and a business, alive. For almost 15 years, Renaissance breads were hard to come by in Broward and Palm Beach (the original store and bakery was in North Miami), until Hurricane Wilma did some serious damage to the Miami facility. Since then, Bern has opened an outpost in Greenacres, west of Lake Worth, where he bakes his crusty olive loaf, focaccia, chocolate cherry, classic baguettes, and a line of chewy, yeasty full-grain breads, some stuffed with nuts and fruit, to sell to local restaurants. You can find Bern and his minions at greenmarkets on Saturday mornings: Just look for the booth with the longest line.
You're in the tropics. If you've gotta get up and face the dawn, at least you can do it without freezing your ass off. You can watch the sun rise over the Atlantic while sipping a café latte and thanking whatever god plunked you down far from the snowbanks of your hometown and the suckers who never made it out. Unlike hacking four inches of ice off your windshield with a screwdriver, breakfast at Luna Rosa is pain-free. Load your little sidewalk table with Pacific Island pancakes (macadamia nuts, shredded coconut, pineapple syrup), raspberry mascarpone-stuffed French toast (fresh berries, whipped cream), or that retro classic that servicemen used to call an "S.O.S." — creamed chipped beef on toast. If the only thing that will crank those eyes open is a four-ounce grilled filet mignon with scrambled eggs plus a side of Philadelphia scrapple or a Jersey pork roll, you can go for it. The eggs are all natural, hormone- and steroid-free; add a side of apple sauce and a shot of Mona Vie and you could call your breakfast healthy, even without the walk on the beach afterward.
Let the gastronomic jetset bicker about which Chinatown restaurant serves the grossest whole flash-fried crabs, stinky tofu, 1,000-year-old eggs, or shark fin soup. When it comes to carry-out, you want your egg roll ($1.95). You want your fried rice ($4.50 small, $8.50 large). You want your string beans in garlic sauce ($10.95), your moo shu pork ($13.75), your beef chow fun ($13.95). Ten thousand New York Jews can't be wrong (even as they kvetch about the prices — $13.25 for Kung Pao chicken?): China Dumpling, now nearly a decade old, is ground zero for transplanted Brooklynites when it comes to Chinese food on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. And it's first choice for local gentiles after they've had their fill of lambs and hams. For greasy, filling, steamy, soy-saturated fare; for that thoroughly Americanized and now classic mélange of canned bamboo shoots, baby corn cobs, cashews, sweet & sour everything, and fountains of duck sauce; for the subgum, the chop suey, and the General Tso; and for the eponymous dumplings (the dim sum basket is $13.95) — all of it best eaten planted on the couch with a Turner Classic broadcast of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane — China Dumpling nails it, right down to the fortune cookies. And forget it, they don't deliver. Dinner daily 3 to 10 p.m.
This category is more important than ever, what with the economy falling apart faster than Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. The cost of living is rising, pay is decreasing, and gas stations are starting to offer adjustable-rate financing. Yes, money's tight, but you still gotta eat. Lucky for you, the lunch prices at Acapulco Lindo are bucking the trend. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, the quaint Mexican eatery in the heart of Wilton Manors serves big plates on the cheap. Inside, you'll find all manner of deal-seekers, from professional types tucking into gooey smothered burritos to blue collar boys scooping up savory picadillo. The dozen-plus-item lunch menu is expansive — beef tacos overflowing with spiced meat, palomino steaks smothered in sliced onions, tostadas piled to the ceiling — but on the rare occasion you're feeling fancier, Acapulco also runs daily specials like a lunch-sized (read: grande) portion of fajitas or crisp, cheesy flautas. Any of the huge meals start at $4.95, and include a soft drink and a cup of homemade sopa de pollo. Add to that a smiling wait staff dishing out bottomless baskets of chips and salsa (and some damn fine stuff, that), and this is one cheap lunch that feels extravagant. Now, coming up with the gas money to get there? That's another story.
Anthony's has a simple philosophy: Keep the menu to just a handful of items, each done extremely well. At any of their 10 South Florida locations they make only pizzas, one type of Italian salad, two types of focaccia sandwiches, a side of sausage and broccoli rabe, and amazing chicken wings. The wings come in 10- or 20-piece orders, each wing the size of a couple of fat knuckles. They're coated with garlic and rosemary, placed in a thick baking dish, and put in Anthony's 800-degree coal oven to blister, blacken, and crisp while retaining their natural succulence. Then they're topped with enough grilled sweet onions to scare away any first date, and served with a large piece of Anthony's housemade focaccia for sopping everything up. They aren't decked in sticky buffalo sauce or served with goopy blue cheese, yet they're exactly what great wings should be: Crispy, messy, indulgent bar food that'll have you licking your fingers with glee.
Elegant and attentive, a cell phone hooked to her silk sash, Christina Wan patrols her dining room, adjusting the positioning of a plate or glass, stopping to joke with a customer who's been ordering her eggplant with oyster sauce and pork for a decade, and writing down a stream of take-out orders from locals craving her Hawaiian shrimp with candied walnuts, rack of lamb with lemongrass and sautéed greens, or whole Cantonese duck. Wan's feels like a throwback to the old New York Chinatown of the '50s, when lo meins and foo yungs seemed impossibly exotic, when a plate of chow fun noodles tossed with chicken tasted like a ticket to a life of sandalwood and anise and silkworms housed in glass palaces. The world is so much smaller now that our sport shoes and toothbrushes come from China, but Wan's kung po and mu shu still carry in their carefully composed sauces the essence of a time when every border crossing and every mouthful of tangerine peel beef was an adventure.