Best Of :: Food & Drink
There is no such thing as stability in the restaurant biz , especially among those restaurants unwilling to change with the times. That's a big part of what makes the three-decade run at Tropics so special. If they've updated their menu, décor, or clientele since the '70s, there's no sign of it. What may be Wilton Manors' eldest gay establishment soldiers on, filling nearly full houses' plates with relatively inexpensive and really excellent steaks, fine cuts of salmon, delicately seared burgers (available only at the bar — try with Gouda), and a classic preparation of osso buco. Tropics' waiters pride themselves on serving the cheapest, strongest drinks on Wilton Drive and on possessing maybe the most dedicated customer base in Broward County. They're probably right on both counts. Tropics brings in the same old queens, night after night, for years and years. They figure: Why go anywhere else?
Here, at one of the last remaining "Grand Polynesian Palaces of Tiki," the drinks are legendary. They are phenomenal, magical concoctions comprised of rum and fruit juices and time-tested mixology. Whether it's the "barrel o' rum," the piña colada, or the mystery drink (served on fire, with four straws and a personal Polynesian dance), these spirits will take you to another period in Florida's history — a simpler time, when a man with a pompadour hairdo and a woman with a flower behind her ear could stare into each other's eyes and forget about life with some tropical sounds, some twirling fire, and a sweet injection of delicious booze. Unfortunately, there's the Mai-Kai food. Starters come not from some island paradise but seemingly from freezer to fryer. The dried, fried appetizers head right into the expensive-but-bland entrées that also seem cooked during that same time in Florida's history, several decades ago. You can't wash this down with a barrel of liquor or a personal Polynesian dance.
Sometimes a waitress can be so genuinely friendly and attentive that her mere presence feels like a warm hug. If you have sat in Lori McMahon's section at Tequila Sunrise, then you can probably attest to that level of waiterly affection. If you're a regular, you've probably been on the receiving end of numerous actual hugs and countless "rock-on" hand gestures and shouted "love yas" as well as consistently topnotch service. It's impossible not to notice McMahon when dining at the locally loved Mexican restaurant, whether you've drawn the McMahon card or are being attended to by one of the other fine servers. McMahon enlivens the whole atmosphere with her high energy, New York accent, and rocker-in-disguise quirkiness. Among her many adoring fans is owner Schiller Martin. "She's the perfect employee," he said, "heart of gold... she gets along with everyone." Fittingly, it was an act of caring that brought her to South Florida. After working in the fashion industry in Manhattan for ten years, she came down to take care of a honeymooning friend's dog, cat, iguana, and bird. Now she takes care of other, perhaps stranger, creatures most nights of the week.
These days, everyone could use some comforting. And what's more calming than food handcrafted with passion and care at a decent price? That's precisely what you'll get at Bash, a homey little strip-mall café in Sunrise where nothing on the menu tops $19. Chef and owner Nikki Pettineo — a private chef for the likes of football players Renaldo Hill and Ronnie Brown — envisioned this low-cost café and wine bar as a place where even those hard-strapped by the recession can come and enjoy a home-cooked meal and a bottle of wine. Her menu has the same warming effect as a hand-knit woolen stole. There are short ribs braised in cola and pork chops with apple chutney. Mac and cheese is creamy and baked with crispy bread-crumb topping, and even the chicken wings, napped in garlic and vinegar, have a pleasant, placating effect. If any fear were left unabated after all that, the cheery staff would smooth it out with the soothing promise of a deep-fried brownie or three.
A case could be mounted that Eduardo runs the most consistently mind-blowing kitchen in Broward County. Exotic-sounding dishes — like the "Cactus Paddle Bocadillo" appetizer, herb-rubbed and stuffed with pork tenderloin — are transformed into comfort food by the house's unparalleled intimacy, the servers' incredible warmth, and the cooks' almost neurotic attention to detail. Even those dishes that gringos might fear — like an ancho chile-flavored crepe, filled with cuitlacoche, Serrano chilies, onions, asadero cheese, and squash blossom sauce — go down like something familiar, if not something entirely known. The experience is exquisitely relaxing, and in the midst of it, the last thing you ought to worry about is a bill. So don't.
You're in Florida, so if you're going to be spending Sunday morning eating French toast and sipping mimosas, shouldn't you do it on the beach? Damned right, you should. At Dune Deck Cafe, situated atop the dunes of Lantana Beach, breakfast (or brunch or lunch, for that matter) comes with a pristine view of the Atlantic Ocean, located, oh, about 30 feet to the east of your seat. In the salty air up there, the eggs just taste eggier, the stone crabs crabbier, and the bloody marys bloodier. Service is swift, and the coffee is strong. And the stuffed French toast is the sort of custardy goodness Parisians dream about. Add daily specials like Florida lobster Benedict and fresh fish plucked from the docks up the road and you've got a breakfast fit for even the most sun-baked of Floridians. Just don't forget change for the meters.
A New Times reporter was once stood up in Manalapan just before a big sushi date. Dejected, he decided to gorge on sushi anyway. No-could-do, though — the local sushi joint wasn't accepting debit cards that night. So the writer did what he hadn't done in a long, long time: He went to a steak house. Callaro's served him maybe the best prime rib of his life, as well as a succession of perfectly mixed Tanq 10 martinis. It kept him well watered and well breaded and gave him cause to lament the disappearance of creamed spinach and unadorned asparagus tips from modern-day menus. He stayed at Callaro's for two happy hours, with not even a book to keep him company. He didn't care.
It's safe to say that most chefs know a thing or two about food. So the fact that Marumi packs up nightly with cooks who've just finished their shifts at other Asian restaurants speaks volumes. Broward's late-night Japanese izakaya (a place for beer and small plates) is run by two veterans of South Florida's sushi scene, Teruhiko Iwasaki and Tetsu Hayakawa. And in that nondescript strip mall spot, all of the home-style dishes they prepare are like dirty little secrets spoken only among chefs. Teru-san and Tetsu-san update the specials board nightly, and it seems there's no end to the surprises. The pair braise beef tongue until the flesh is silky, then slice it and serve it over a green salad with yuzu dressing. They fry up glass minnows for crunchy little beer bites and grill thick slices of black Kurobuta pork belly for dipping into a grassy scallion sauce. And if you ever tire of inventive dishes such as crispy squid salad with spicy peppers or yellowtail hot pot with shiitake mushrooms, there's always the local, line-caught whole fish. For just $1.20 an ounce, these chefs will truck out their fresh catch and allow you to select from trigger fish, grouper, snapper, or even rarer finds like scorpion fish and Florida lobster. Then they'll prepare your selection any number of ways, from tempura fried with house-made spicy mayo to a light and savory stir-fry with garlic chives and onion. The combinations are as endless as the chefs' imaginations. And that's certainly never lacking at Marumi Sushi.
Like we said before, it doesn't take a whole heap of skill to turn an expensive piece of dry-aged prime beef into a quality steak. The difference here is you get to eat your $50-plus prime rib eye — melting with marbled fat and still hissing and popping from its Dante's Inferno-esque sear — in the company of beautiful women who all look like Greek goddesses. Granted, not everyone will be comfortable partaking in such an expensive meal in a strip club — even one as upscale as NY Strip, and even if those goddesses don't enter the restaurant portion of the club. But for us, we'll pay the difference for that luxury, thankyouverymuch.
She has long been Miami's gal, a sunny chef with a proclivity toward mixing Florida's tropical bounty with homey comfort food. But when this Jewish and Latin starlet made the trip up to Palm Beach last year to open her new restaurant at the Omphoy Hotel, she instantly became our lady as well. From early on, accolades have followed Bernstein wherever she went. In her early days at Azul, she earned Esquire's attention for Best New Restaurant in America. And in 2005, after opening her flagship restaurant Michy's, Gourmet named it among the top 50 places to dine in the country. But perhaps her biggest achievement came in 2008, when Bernstein's adherence to tradition and technique earned her the coveted James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the South. Her star has been rising higher ever since. At her 2-year-old Design District hot spot, Sra. Martinez, she somehow reinvigorated Spanish-style tapas right in front of everyone's eyes. And now at the Omphoy, she's taken local seafood and fresh produce and let them shine under a banner of simplicity. But what makes Michy truly special is the way she somehow manages to capture her own whimsical personality in each and every one of her restaurants. To taste her recipes is to dine right there alongside her.
Check out most sushi bars these days and you'll find nothing but overfished tuna, color-enhanced salmon, and farm-raised tiger shrimp. But not at Sushi Simon, a Boynton Beach sushi joint that rises above the typical roll. The romantic eatery features a handwritten specials menu that changes every day with what's fresh. Just grab a lychee martini or an ice-cold Sapporo and then plunge right in. Try the local mutton snapper, a firm, white-fleshed fish that's hauled right off the docks nearby; the chefs here turn it into elaborate usuzukuri, paper-thin slices arranged to resemble some exotic flower. Then there's Boston fluke, which gets seared with a hand torch and slipped into a pond of citrusy ponzu. Everything is impeccably fresh, from prized cuts of fatty o-toro to wild-caught salmon the color of a Florida sunset. And the staff is warm, inviting, and, best of all, knowledgeable.
What makes a Peruvian sandwich at Bravo so great? It could be the chicharron: slow-roasted pork, sliced thick and served with caramelized sweet potato. Or the lomo saltado: marinated beef tenderloin, sautéed along with purple onion and grassy cilantro. Or just maybe it's the butifarra: airy-soft bread, slathered in rustic olive tapenade or rocoto pepper sauce and stacked with country-style ham like so many playing cards. No matter which sandwich you choose, this Wilton Manors eatery crafts its Peruvian-style sandwiches with fresh, made-to-order ingredients, all for a price that's as self-contained as these complete meals on a bun.