Best Mexican Restaurant 2009 | Zona Fresca | Food & Drink | South Florida

Over the years, Zona Fresca has won a plethora of New Times Best Of awards, from Best Fish Sandwich (in that case, a fish taco) to Best Place to Eat Everyday. Yet, we've not once given it the Best Mexican Restaurant accolades it deserves. Seriously... for a quick-service joint where you eat off styrofoam plates with plastic utensils, Zona literally owns any local sitdown, goopy-bean-and-cheese-style Mex joint. Everything served is imminently fresh — including daily-made salsas, grilled chicken and steaks, and made-to-order humongous salads. The ingredients are all top-notch. The prices are ridiculously low as well, especially considering that the portions are big enough to make two meals out of almost any item, be it the infant-sized burritos or the sizable taco platters. And since Zona's second location in Plantation opened last year, your Baja-style Mex fix is never far away.

Ben Franklin said: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." If so, God's love foams eternal from the brimming imaginations of longtime South Florida restaurateurs Rodney Mayo and Scott Frielich. At their new Tryst, they've teamed up with next-door neighbors from 32 East and Delux to debut a beer-centric bistro, adding hops to their trademark hip. Brick walls, wide-plank wood floors, and a patio built around an ancient tree make a cozy backdrop for a gargantuan list of drafts and crafts from little American entrepreneurs and European breweries. Chef Butch Johnson posts chalkboard specials perfect for pairing with strange brews like Delirium Tremens or Hobgoblin: simple fresh fish dishes beautifully cooked, salt- and fat-laden morsels of deep-fried rock shrimp, refreshing fruit and vegetable slaws made of Asian pear or daikon radish and flecked with fresh cilantro, boards of cheese and charcuterie, and super-moist pork tenderloin. And you can put away your beer goggles: The notion of an upscale kegger has made a big splash with the college crowd. A convocation of cuties spills out the door on weekends.

Ian Witlen

Maybe it takes an old hand to spin something entirely new out of two thoroughly timeworn restaurant tropes: the raw bar and the French bistro. Chef Laurent Tasic, having perfected the bistro genre with his country-quaint Fort Lauderdale Sage Café, has set his Hollywood vessel afloat in a chic, ultramarine landscape, incorporating such varied terrain — a backlit bar, leaping flames from an open grill, a glacier-colored shellfish bar, transparent wine cellar, and a tentacular chandelier — that dining here feels a bit like drifting dreamily along a coral reef. Oysters and shellfish flown in daily from Canada, California, or the Chesapeake Bay are cool comfort, but the feeling of weightlessness, the effortless glide, wends its way even through Tasic's menu of updated crepes, steak frites, local snapper served with polenta, and cassoulets — dishes of great delicacy in spite of their deep sauces and caramelized hues. It's not until you emerge blinking and a little wobbly into the humid Hollywood air that you fully appreciate that Tasic has given you, along with his splendid coq au vin, a temporary reprieve from gravity.

Even now that Dolce de Palma has been overrun by local hungries, anybody pulling up to this rubble-strewn parking lot behind railroad tracks in an old warehouse district is going to feel like he's making a personal discovery. Dolce has an intriguing out-of-the-way-ness and a young chef in Anthony DePalma who likes to keep stirring the broth. This little orange building, its open kitchen revealing dinged pots and antiquated cookware, retains its charm even after you've sashayed in, each time squiring a new set of Dolce virgins, week after week. DePalma changes his menu every night (he's open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday), rotating through community favorites and new experiments. So you might find yourself snacking on veal pot pie or grilled venison, smoked trout or mushroom tart, blacktip shark or a whole roasted suckling pig, duck breast with chestnuts and burnt orange sauce, or homemade pasta with veal sweetbread sausages, all made from ingredients sourced when possible from local farms and greenmarkets. Indulge these rare (and inexpensive) treats sitting outside on the makeshift patio; peruse the wine list, where no bottle ranges far above $45; revel in the smart service of Dolce's devoted staff: Here's a shabby-chic urban boîte with a fierce survival instinct.

You've exited the jailhouse, and with just a few steps in the throwaway sandals so kindly provided, you've crossed the street — into the Downtowner Saloon's lot. Because that insufferable block of cement has just vanished from view, dine outside and relish the backdrop of downtown's unadulterated skyline. This coveted seat is far removed from the cold metal seats of yesteryear. You might have spent yesterday peering through thin slit windows, but now you have the horizon to contemplate: boats cruising under two cotton-candy-pink bridges. Order a cocktail or glass of wine. Eat the blackened prime rib sandwich ($13.99) or French dip ($10.99) or eeny-meeny-miny-moe it and go for the fish and chips ($12.99) or the comforting spaghetti and giant meatball ($13.99). It's not your last meal; you can come back tomorrow. There's a special no matter which night of the week you get bailed out of jail. Aim for Saturday release, when the Bloody Mary bar stays open until 2:30 p.m.

The sign on the wall at Mauro's says, "NO KNIVES, NO FORKS, NO CUPS, NO ICE, NO CHEESE, NO PARMESAN, DON'T ASK," and it's translated into Spanish just so everyone gets the message. Other signs warn patrons "Prices are subject to change instantly" and "If you are rude, impatient, miserable, or annoying, there will be a $10 charge." Nothing like a little atmosphere. When you step into the long, narrow pizza parlor, all you'll see is scribbled-on dollar bills stuck to the wall with packing tape, an arsenal of pizza ovens, pizza boxes stacked to infinity, and a cooler full of domestic beer. Oh, you expected a menu? When you see the big-bellied pizza cooks in their white T-shirts and the tiny counter girls in tight jeans — all identifiable by matching scowls — you may opt to keep your mouth shut about that. Do ya think they offer broccoli rabe in this joint, Biff? When you get your piping-hot, giant slice — cheese goes for $2.50, and it's cash only — you will understand why this New York-style pizza, with its sheets of creamy mozzarella, its sweet but tangy sauce, its crust of perfection, has saved the lives of millions who roam from bar to bar on Hollywood Boulevard. Wash that thought down with a soda — sold only by the can. Now scram!

Any restaurant worthy of your hangover must meet strict standards. (1) No dress code. A pair of jeans, landscaped with spilled beer and cigarette burn holes, will work just fine. Sunglasses are de rigueur. And obviously, you're not getting anywhere near a razor. (2) No crowds. Humans are exceptionally ugly, noisy, and smelly when you're nursing the brown bottle flu. (3) Immediate service. Your table is ready, and somebody's standing by with buckets of Coca-Cola. (4) Inexpensive. You blew your paycheck on lap dances last night, remember? (5) Full bar to allay the morning quivers. (6) Dark — or at least neutral — atmosphere. Sunshine and vodka do not mix on a Saturday morning. (7) Bacon. Only one place aces this test, and it's been acing it for nearly a century: Testa's in Palm Beach. They're open as early as you can drag your sorry carcass down there, serving liquor from 7 a.m. every single day to wash down your ham steak and eggs ($7.95), smoked salmon plate ($9.95), bowls of incredible, stomach-coating cream of crab soup spiked with sherry ($6.95), sirloin steak and eggs ($17.95), and plenty of bacon on the side ($2.95). Sit at the bar with your back to the room, nose buried in a complimentary newspaper, and you'll have the undivided attention of the bartenders. After decades of experience with punchy islanders, they perfectly understand both your inexplicable headache and the precise remedy to cure it.

Whatever kind of grandpa you got, New York Prime will fix him right up. Maybe he was a freckled kid during World War II, raised on Trumanburgers and scarred by the memory of meat-rationing stamps — won't he get a kick out of this million-dollar question: "How would you like that double-rib veal chop cooked, sir?" Say he's a guy who took scissors one time and cut every mention of your name out of his last will and testament: Let the nasty old tightwad squirm over the price of your $84, 40-ounce porterhouse; hope he chokes on his Beefeater martini. Retired Master of the Universe with megayacht parked at Boca Resort? Daddy Warbucks will feel right at home surrounded by his fellow Masters. Slaved for the phone company 45 years and never missed a day? Then he damned well deserves a steak dinner: Order him a Maker's Mark on the rocks, a big lobster cocktail, and a prime New York strip, garnished with a side of cheese mashed potatoes, and give the old dude a sneak preview of heaven.

The food here is as diverse as the books and authors on the shelves. On top of the standard soups, salads, and sandwiches (think Shakespeare), you'll find sizable, scrumptious servings of quiche (Flaubert), torta rustica (Cervantes), and pasta primavera (epic, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Depending on the day of the month, you might find meatloaf (Hemingway), picadillo (Junot Diaz), Kashmiri chicken served with tikka paste (like Rushdie, but not so controversial), eggplant Parmesan (Woolf), or even steak and potatoes (simple but amazing, like Cormac McCarthy). You'll already be more than satiated, but you won't be able to resist at least a taste of the cookies and cakes (like a Stephen King short story). And the entire lunch — cookies included — will cost you less than 10 bucks, so you won't feel ripped off and silly (Deepak Chopra).

Don't call Joshua Liberman a "bartender." Even "mixologist" is too lame a term for the guy who's been putting together the drinks at Forte — potent mixers made from eccentric liquors, seasonal fruits, and surreal decorative elements. He's the "wizard of wet," "prince of the pie-eyed," "most exalted expert of the inebriated." It just can't get any better than this: Getting your drunk on while stimulating your addled intelligence and simultaneously feeling smug about your slow-foodish environmental correctness. Liberman's list of libations changes constantly, so the glassful of bliss that once made you swear allegiance will be history by the time you're reading this. But over the months, he's concocted sweet and smoky old-fashioneds made with bacon-infused Jack Daniels and maple syrup, elderflower gimlets of Hendrick's gin and floating nasturtium blossoms or, alternately, pea shoots grown on local farms, bittersweet Florida blood orange negronis, and a lemon drop made with limoncello and Japanese yuzu. What's more, this busy bar is bathed in flattering pink light, so even when you're thoroughly schnockered, you'll still look as pretty as the cocktail you're quaffing.

Best Of Broward-Palm Beach®

Best Of