Best Bar Food 2009 | Havana Hideout | Food & Drink | South Florida
Christina Mendenhall

Tiki-tacky Havana Hideout is what most South Florida dining looked like 30 years ago — a bar under open air and thatch, plus a minuscule, shadowy mouse hole indoors. Before we got gentrified and supersized, before the chains and celeb chefs from California and New York found out we were hoarding paradise, any Floridian could follow the path pounded smooth by many flip-flops to some joint grilling burgers and fish sandwiches. A guy would be mangling Neil Young covers on his beat-up guitar; you'd drink beer by the pitcher, passing scraps to the canine under your table (maybe your mutt, maybe not). Owner Chrissy Benoit is channeling our nostalgia, only updated with drinkable specialty brews on tap and a slightly expanded menu. From a catering truck sidled up to the outdoor deck, she turns out pulled-pork and Cuban sandwiches, fish tacos, nachos, pionono (think tropical shepherd's pie), and chocolate chili pepper ice cream. And just like in the old days, the only seasoning this grub needs is salt air and sunshine.

South Florida isn't a wasteland for quality 'cue, as some purists would have you believe. But we do have the unfortunate affliction of not having one place that sets the bar for the rest. Which is why New Times' Best Barbecue category will, this year, not go to one joint but several, each for different reasons. First up, the 50-year-old icon and 2008 Best Of winner, Georgia Pig in Davie, whose chopped pork, slow cooked on an ancient, open-faced stove, is the stuff of legend. Its infused smokiness and appealing textural variation (crispy cracklin' versus tender chunks) are only enhanced by the Pig's light and subtle vinegar sauce, also the best around. As far as BBQ's most sacred sides are concerned — those being collard greens and mac and cheese — Bar-B-Q Jack's are hard to beat. The collards, a perfect mix of sweet and savory, laced with pork-y chunks; the mac and cheese, moist and gooey, yet broiled for the right amount of crunch. Fort Lauderdale's go-to 'cue shack, Tom Jenkins' Bar-B-Q, does a lot of things well, but its slow-cooked brisket truly rises above the rest. And, in a scene where sickly sweet sauces still dominate, the moist, dry-rubbed ribs at Deep Down South BBQ in Lauderdale Lakes prove that SOS (that's "sauce on the side") is always the best option when 'cue is done right. All are good choices, and if you're willing to make the drive all over town to assemble it, together they would make one fine plate of BBQ.

It was a long, jubilant night with a crazy crowd. Let's face it, you got drunk — again. And as your head begins to clear, you want something different. Not late-night tacos. Not pizza, sandwiches, or waffles. Certainly not the drive-through you had a few times. (You always regretted that later.) No, you want... biscuits! Flaky, tender, warm, golden, soft biscuits. Just like Grandma would've made you if she had ever stopped drinking long enough. They soak up all that booze, ease the burn. Courtyard Café is open 24 hours on the weekends, and the biscuits get better as the night goes on. They're good smothered, covered, buttered, or plain. No matter how you get them, they come out split, fried, and steaming. Get two for yourself or buy the table a dozen. The trick here: staying sober enough to remember how damned good those biscuits were.

It had been awhile since the dental hygienist's wife had harped on and on about anything, but now she wanted a German breakfast. So Saturday morning, he brought her to Cypress Nook in Pompano Beach, a place where his American-loving palette could also be satisfied. They sat in the quaint cottage at one of the 30 or so seats available and looked over the German-American menu. He got the blueberry pancakes, and she ordered the kielbasa with eggs. They said this was the best mealtime they've had together in weeks, probably since the last time they ventured to this very same place. The place where the omelets and bratwurst are sumptuous and only cash is accepted.

To discover a truly dazzling buffet, you have to go to the heavens, and on Sundays, the glass elevator at Pier 66 takes you there. Pier Top is on the 18th-floor, rotating observation deck of the iconic Hyatt Regency Pier 66. Call it "brunch" if you like, but this is really a celebration of all three meals. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m., and if you've still not had breakfast, stop first at the Belgian waffle and pancake station. Order a mimosa or bloody mary or spend your first few minutes drinking in the scenery: On one side, the shipyards of Port Everglades; on the other, a marina filled with yachts; and then there's the coast, where the brilliant-blue sea is framed by the beach. In a dining room that makes a complete rotation every 66 minutes, it's guaranteed your view will stay fresh. The buffet costs $65 per person, so don't squander your appetite too fast — visit the sushi station, nibble on the lobster Benedict, and for a dinner-like finale: fresh-cut, savory slices of tenderloin from the carving station. The restaurant invents new dishes every few weeks, but rave reviews for the foie gras and vodka-cured salmon have earned them a permanent place on the menu.

You could have knocked thousands of Florida Hell's Kitchen fanatics over with a pastry brush when 3030 Ocean chef de cuisine Paula daSilva was picked to be one of 16 contestants on this season's show — the mad reality program in which aspiring young chefs brave the wrath of Scottish sadist Gordon Ramsey. At first, the diminutive DaSilva hardly stood out from the Kitchen's recent pack of drama queens — she kept her head down and her nose to the cutting board while Ramsey aimed obscenities and an occasional plate of food at one inept contestant after another. As the weeks wore on, DaSilva gradually began to assert herself with her quiet competence — our girl didn't wreck a sauce or drop a pan through many nights of mayhem, and she didn't brag, gloat, squabble, or sulk while her competitors were talking nonstop trash. By the time she turned out a faultless little fish dish, concocted on the spot in 90 minutes, for 100 of California's most celebrated executive chefs and restaurateurs (she looked so cute beaming in their applause), we thought for sure that our girl had nailed it. Even though in the end it wasn't DaSilva who scooped up the grand prize of $250,000 and her own restaurant at Borgata, she'd won something just as important: She walked away with our hearts tucked safely into her apron pocket.

Proposal: Require any chain restaurant applying for a Florida operating license to complete a 16-week course mastering the Char-Hut methodology. This little five-store Florida franchise, which opened its first outlet in 1976 to sell char-grilled burgers, onion rings, and hot dogs, is doing so many things right that it's easy to lose track. It serves nutritious food at low prices — a fresh, lean burger that's won approval from the American Heart Association; side orders of whole baked sweet or Idaho potatoes, black beans and rice, cole slaw, and plantains; salads topped with grilled tuna steak or chicken. Further, the franchises are located in suburban communities and reach out to their neighbors with specials — discounts for local teachers and faculty, free food for youngsters wearing uniforms on game days, junior burgers and hot dogs for every A a kid earns on her report card. They have stuff for vegetarians. Discounts for seniors. They're so squeaky-clean that it's almost painful. Their food is delicious. With every patty they flip over a hot grill, they sew up one small tear in fast food's tattered reputation.

Tabatha Mudra

Understand that Sushi 1 takeout is my fix for the day, so don't catch me mid-slurp and say "What's that?" as you stare at my bowl of vegetable udon — chunky white noodles with a medley of veggies ($4.20). There's a giant picture menu on the wall behind me — why don't you at least try to go back and forth from my meal to the wall and see if you can find it. All I care about is how the shichimi spice, which I just indulgently poured in my soup, feels going down my throat. Be aware that I'm dining here today because yesterday an audacious coworker grabbed one of my veggie rolls — avocado, scallion, carrot, lettuce ($2.80) — off my desk. And that during this shocking affront, I fantasized that my last dancing eel roll — eel on top, crab stick, and cream cheese ($5.25) — had come back to life to protect my lunch. Here in my zen-like hideaway, there are three sushi line chefs — six hands that roll bliss every day but Sunday. Enjoy it at one of the few tables inside or in the parking lot, or load up on takeout and retreat to the safe confines of your home — or a hidden corner of the office where every roll and noodle can be quietly accounted for.

Cheese steaks are one of those foods that incite furious debate, turning friends into enemies and enemies into nemeses. Folks hailing from Philadelphia claim that only sandwiches adhering to a strict code of ethics even earn the right to be labeled as such. And shouldn't they have the right? Cheese steaks have been bastardized throughout the years, turned into crappy dive-bar food made from frozen strips of unknown origin. Let Mr. Nick's forever settle the debate: Good cheese steaks can be made even if they hail from a Fort Lauderdale street corner, where Mr. Nick's has crafted them for more than 30 years. The bread is just right — slightly elastic, cushy, and yeasty — while the meat has all the hallmarks of great cheese-steakery: quality beef cooked to order on a searing hot griddle. Mr. Nick's also employs a secret strategy — using a garlicky spice mixture that, along with the gooey cheese, melts right into the meat. The result is a juicy, cheesy, beefy jumble that hits all the right notes — even if there is no can of Cheez Whiz in sight.

Dean Max plunges into his projects like a surfer making for epic waters. Now in his 40s, he still looks like the farm kid and Treasure Coast wave hound who hauled vegetable crates for his father's produce business. Max moved into the kitchens at 3030 Ocean in 2000 and did something nobody thought possible: He persuaded his corporate overlords at the Marriott to let him source local and seasonal ingredients and put together a menu that celebrates our sandy soils and aquamarine waters in every line. He was so far ahead of the curve that his contemporaries are still flailing to catch up — he shot through our culinary scene like he was riding a big blue wave. Since then, Max has been an unflagging advocate for all things that creep and swim in the ocean, a dedicated member of South Florida's slow food movement. Appearing on the Food Network and at national festivals, flying off to the Bahamas for a day of fishing, showing up at panel discussions and running culinary camps for kids, he's constantly in motion. And yet, stop by 3030 and you'll likely catch him expounding on the assets of a piece of fluke or wahoo to some open-mouthed customer. It goes without saying that the man is a brilliant cook. What makes him a great chef is that he's engineered a gentle shift in the way we look at the sea that surrounds us.

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