Things move so fast here in South Florida. We're always rushing from one appointment to another, caught up in some never-ending stream of obligations that somehow seem to impede us from enjoying the wonders of this tropical paradise. Which is why a place like Le Patio is so important. This boutique French restaurant in Wilton Manors is no bigger than a hallway. But behind the little room is a beautiful outdoor patio bathed in Florida sunlight. There, you can nibble on your duck pâté with a glass of red wine as you sit at tables made from antique sewing machines. You'll feel the sun on your face as you smear garlicky baked baby clams across crusty pieces of French baguette and smell the crisp, clean breeze as you sip on daily-made French onion soup melted with cheese and love. Yes, outside at Le Patio, the world just seems to move a bit slower than it does anywhere else. And we could all use a little bit of that.
It doesn't take a whole heap of skill to turn an expensive piece of dry-aged prime beef into a quality steak — just apply enough heat to sear, then serve. But transforming cheaper cuts like picanha (top round) and vacio (flank steak) into tender, mouthwatering morsels takes extreme know-how. That's where Taurus, a Peruvian-style steak house in Tamarac, comes in. Its lunchtime specials offer cuts like that same vacio plus a drink and sides for less than $10 a pop. The steaks are cooked with skill and precision — a crisp, grilled exterior reveals a ruby-red medium rare in the middle — and the kind of flavor that begs you to sop up every last bit of juice left on your plate. Taurus carries finer cuts like filet mignon and rib eye too. But with cheap beef this good, why bother?
The folks at Charm City sure do have it sweet for hamburgers. Stop into their sunny, mural-painted storefront and you can taste that love firsthand. It's present in the concoctions that change daily, like the torta burger, a Mex-inspired sandwich with guacamole and queso fresco, or the Cajun burger, a sesame-studded bad boy layered with tasso ham and a fried green tomato. Of course, classics also reign supreme — how do you improve on an already perfect bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top? Most important, these burger chefs know that artistry of this sort would be wasted if not for fine ingredients. Charm City composes its masterpieces with a moist blend of beef ground daily, along with yeasty, freshly baked rolls. And since they know the supporting cast can be just as important as the stars of the show, the joint takes extreme care crafting its hand-cut fries, thickly battered onion rings, and golden tater tots.
1136 E. Hillsboro Blvd.,
Talia's ain't afraid to showcase its Italian-American 'tude. The cramped deli looks like a Bronx tenement lifted up and slammed into East Boca. Almost every spare inch of wood and brick is covered with Polaroid photos of patrons (many of them female, many of them staring at the camera luridly) posing beside massive plates of pasta. There are a half-dozen handwritten signs decrying cell phone usage, and a few warn complainers just where they can stick their pasta fagioli. But beyond that gruff exterior is a truly inviting place, a joint where inexpensive meals are served family style on paper plates and where cold beer is poured on the honor system. The communal tables are packed tight, so you might find yourself bumping elbows — or even sharing food with — your neighbors (a slice of thin-crust pizza for a wedge of a chicken and eggplant sandwich, perhaps?). And the atmosphere is warm and bold enough to match the sunny marinara, the homemade sausages and meatballs, and the hand-churned mozzarella, also made daily by the staff. Now that's a real Italian-American experience. And it's exclusive to Talia's.
The Pelican is to diner as tandoor is to microwave. There's a relationship there, but you have to engage some creativity to nail it. The place looks diner-like enough: beach-themed thrift-shop art on the walls, wooden stools lining the counter, Formica tables, laminated menu. There's the cheerful, white-haired, coffeepot-wielding waitress who can recite every breakfast special on the board too. And all goes well for a while: blueberry or coconut-banana pancakes; Italian omelet with sausage, onions, and peppers, served with grits or home fries; eggs Benedict du jour. But about halfway down the list, things start to turn strange: eggs nissa? Curried chicken and spinach omelet with nan and raita? It turns out that about a third of the Pelican's flip-flop-shod customers show up not to eat the fantastic blueberry pancakes once blurbed by celeb chef Daniel Boulud but for the Indian breakfasts — those divine and fragrant egg dishes laced with cardamom, turmeric, and chilies — all the more remarkable because, among the Pelican paintings, ketchup bottles, and plates of biscuits and gravy, they're so unexpected.
The secret is in the sauce. Real herbs, fresh tomatoes, a hint of spice. Warm, melting cheese that will burn the roof of your mouth in the most pleasing way. Thin, crunchy, hand-tossed crust. And you never have to mop pools of grease off the top. Unlike the average slice — baked under a warming lamp until it's a mass of congealed cheese and tomato paste — Nino's makes every piece of pizza taste as if it just came out of the oven. You can order by the slice at lunchtime, in a dark dining room with brick-lined walls and cans of homemade tomato sauce displayed near the kitchen. It's a family joint, with veal marsala and penne a la vodka on the menu. Don't come here expecting a midnight grease fix. But if you're still hung over on a Monday at noon, it's the perfect place to find a cure.
Strands of zucchini decorated with "meatballs" made from portobello mushrooms. Quinoa topped with bananas and almond butter. A raw pâté coaxed from soaked, dehydrated walnuts. The menu items at Soma require a slight suspension of disbelief. But once you muster the courage to order them, you will be rewarded. The walnut pâté, for example, turns out to be creamy, garlicky, and nutty. Spread on a wrap, and topped with a crunchy abundance of spinach, carrots, beets, tomatoes, and onions, it's so hearty and full of nutrients that you can feel your whole body beaming in gratitude. Sit outside beneath a trellis of magenta flowers and enjoy this meal surrounded by trilling birds and a light breeze. There's a small yoga studio hidden behind the cobblestone courtyard and an inspirational message scrawled on the chalkboard. "Explore your inner paradise," the menu urges, and so you do.
Roti, that West Indian flatbread served with island-style curry, can be tricky to order. But here are some tips for getting it done at Lovey's Roti, West Broward's roti haven: First, decide what type of curry you want. Lovey's makes spicy, cilantro-flecked chicken, conch, goat, veggie, and even beef. Next, choose your roti. Dhalpourie roti has cumin-forward lentil flour laced between its paper-thin layers, while "buss up shut" is like a nest of freshly griddled flatbread. From there, you can either have the curry on the side or stuffed inside the roti like a giant burrito bigger than your head. Or add tangy mango kuchela or super hot "peppa," a fiery sauce made from Scotch bonnet peppers. Last, eat up. It takes a helluva appetite to get through an order of curry and roti. But after a whiff of Lovey's freshly made flatbread and those fragrant spices, having a big appetite won't be a problem.
Most days, the sweat begins to prickle your neck as soon as you open the front door. The four steps to the car feel like a jaunt in a swampy Sahara. By 2 p.m., the only escape is inside a freezing ice cream parlor, preferably one with quaint wooden benches and vehemently Italian décor. Unlike the tin-can-flavored, nonfat frozen crap that usually comes out of ice cream machines, at Rita's, the creamy vanilla custard is smooth and startling rich. After a few bites, you start to remember summers that were not so punishing — lazy, chlorine-scented days, eating microwave pizza and choreographing dances to Paula Abdul. A few more spoonfuls, and you might be willing to brave the sunshine again.
Let's be honest: There's no good reason to eat a fat-ass fish taco at 1 o'clock in the morning. The human body doesn't physiologically need beef empanadas or chocolate chili pepper ice cream before it's content to go to sleep. So if you're eating hot-pressed Cuban sandwiches or ceviche with avocado around the same time Craig Ferguson signs off for the evening, it's probably because you've indulged in more than your fair share of alcohol. And that's what makes Havana Hideout so great. Not only does the divey Lake Worth bar and restaurant serve the booze needed to induce hunger pangs after midnight but it politely offers a way to alleviate them as well. Now that's one-stop shopping. As for what happens afterward, while we can't officially endorse passing out in the Hideout's tropical patio garden (that would be wrong), those chairs sure do look comfy after a late-night snack.