Best Of :: Food & Drink
One day many, many years ago, two brothers set out for a vacation in the Polynesian Islands, where they found a small tiki idol and decided to take it back home as a souvenir. Once back in Fort Lauderdale, the tiki idol spoke to them. It said it missed its homeland — especially the fantastic rum-based cocktails. The idol told the brothers that if they built him a fabulous bar, he would share his drink recipes with them. The brothers agreed and named the palace after the god. And so Mai-Kai was born. Every day, the tiki god is celebrated by a ritual called "happy hour," wherein 57 of the tiki god's own recipes are half-priced before 7 p.m. Who doesn't love a menu where the cocktails are divided into mild, medium, and strong? The Mara-Amu ($13.50) is a blend of rums and fresh fruit juices served in your own tiki that you can take home. Try the Black Magic ($14), a potent concoction of dark rums, tropical fruit, and coffee. All are served by pretty girls in sarongs and bikini tops. If you haven't been to Mai-Kai in a while, it's time to go back. If you've never been — for shame. It's time to pay homage to the tiki gods... and a slice of living history.
Jacques Bruna is a man of many hats. A musician, a lyricist, a friend, a family man. In this case, Jacques (or "Bleubird") is a bartender, and a damned fine one at that. Working at Laser Wolf for just a little under a year, Jacques tends bar "to make helicopter cash," he says. Still, Bruna takes pride in his work, describing all of the hours there as "happy" when asked for advice on the best time to come in for a drink, and everything is "special." Ask him for a recommendation and Bruna will tell you that Laser Wolf "only serves the best beer, so you can't go wrong!" He knows your name, remembers your face, and if he doesn't say much, it's because he's listening. Fast with his wit, Bruna is even faster on his feet. When one night, a regular suddenly started looking ill and feeling even worse, the man stepped up when no one else would to drive this friend and patron home safely (because no one else knew how to drive stick). Don't rely on the bartenders at Laser Wolf as a regular cab service, but that is the stuff a Best Bartender is made of. "He really wasn't doing so good," Bruna says. "I had never seen him like that. Bartender or not—why wouldn't you help someone if you could?" After all, the sign on the door does say "No Jerks."
No category is more hotly contested than Best Pizza. Everyone has an opinion, and with so many former New Yorkers living in our midst, most of those opinions are negative. (We get it. New York has the best pizza.) But Annie's Pizza & Subs meets all the requirements for a perfect pie: Slices are bigger than your face. There's a good sauce-to-cheese ratio. And when you bite in — scalding the roof of your mouth a little because you just couldn't wait — the cheese stretches the length of your arm before breaking loose yet doesn't slide off in a cheese avalanche. At Annie's, when you fold the slice at the top, grease drips down your arm, and the tip of the floppy slice points downward at a 45-degree angle. Feel free to argue that you can't get good pizza down here and write an essay extolling the magical properties of New York water in the baking of pizza dough. After rousing from our pizza-induced coma, we're going to actively ignore you and eat another slice.
Run by Mohod Flafil and his wife, Hanna, this is not just a falafel stand. The goods here range from yogurt soda to hookah tobacco to halal meats from the deli. If you've been hunting down a rare ingredient or craving some baklava, this well-organized, clean, brightly lit little shop is the place to stop. Then, of course, there's the falafel. Hanna (who prepares the food) is not stingy — there are plenty of crispy chickpea balls in the nearly foot-long tube of pita bread — which is baked and delivered to the shop every day but Sunday. A falafel sandwich comes with tomatoes, onion, pickles, and tahini sauce, but they will gladly leave off any topping you don't want. The falafel meal includes a drink and a piece of baklava. (Do NOT skip the baklava.) Falafel balls are also available minus the sandwich for 70 cents apiece.
Tucked away in a converted house on the outskirts of Delray Beach's Pineapple Grove is the juiciest, meatiest, most delicious burgers that can be found in South Florida. On the corner of NE Third Street and Third Avenue, the appropriately named 3rd & 3rd creates burger magic. A firm brioche bun cradles a perfectly seared patty of luscious beef with lettuce, tomato, onion, and choice of pepper jack, cheddar, Swiss, or blue cheese. Those ingredients alone make for the perfect burger. Add the balsamic red onion jam and you have yourself a match made in heaven.
Traditional fries have an old-school appeal that means they'll always be the most popular kid in school: the quarterback, the letterman, the prom king. But like the intense, art-school loner who charms all the ladies, there's something special about the orange-hued uniqueness of a sweet-potato fry. And when they're hand-cut and fried to a light, gentle crisp, it's easy to pass up your average-joe potato. At the family-owned Gilbert's 17th Street Grill, you can pair 'em with a juicy burger or make 'em your main course — they're downright addictive. They'll come out piping hot, sitting coyly atop newsprint. Place your order at the counter and sit a spell in the casual, no-frills dining room. Once you've inhaled an order or two, you may need to be rolled out. But a tryst with these homemade treasures is well worth the aftermath.
You've had your fake-crab California roll a million times. Sure, you like it. And yeah, it's comforting — the blankie of sushi. Well, kids, it's time to grow up in the world of Japanese cuisine. There are things going on outside that Americanized roll universe that you couldn't even dream. Like Imoto's special nigiri. Sticky yet downy mounds of rice are topped with the most decadent combination of ingredients. Fluke nigiri ($4.50) comes topped with foie gras, momiji, scallion, and ponzu. Scallop nigiri ($4) boasts lemon, shiso salt, and tomburi. Lobster nigiri ($7) is delicately layered with ginger sauce and fried shiso. What? You need something more? Imoto is open.
Most of the time, you're getting a bland, gristly, dried-out piece of meat on a plain old soggy kaiser with lettuce and cheese. Not exactly the epitome of an exciting culinary experience. And then there's the Latin-inspired chicken sandwich of the Chimney House. Flaky warm ciabatta bread encases tender, marinated chicken breast; creamy queso fresco; bright, garlicky chimichurri; lettuce; and tomato. You would never believe a mere chicken sandwich could be so good. Qué rico!
"Let them eat cheese." That was totally a passage in the Bible, right? Because Jesus was definitely on the Brie train. Either way, it's no secret that the allure of cheesy goodness has been tempting mankind for centuries. So if you're craving some of that dairy deliciousness, stroll into the low-key storefront of the Cheese Course. Take a gander at the vast array of cheeses, the wine selection, the sammy options, the fresh-baked baguettes. Drool profusely. But like a good little calorie-conscious soldier, opt instead for the roasted beet salad. For $9.85, you'll get more than your daily fill of fruits and veggies. And to stay true to the spot's moniker, the greens, beets, sliced oranges, strawberries, and pine nuts (all mixed up with a honey-tarragon vinaigrette) are topped with creamy, crumbly goat cheese. Which makes that lettuce look a whole lot more appealing.
The Amsterdam Toast ($6.50) is a funny name for a bagel sandwich, but it might be the key to world peace. This bagel is filled with Gouda cheese, red onions, and hard-boiled eggs and topped with tomato sauce before it's pressed and heated, thereby merging all the ingredients together. Speaking to the server, we learn that in Israel, hot-pressing a sandwich is called "toasting it." We call it delicious — and a metaphor for making the world a better place. The simple act of "melting together" the parts of this sandwich make it better than the parts alone, and the merging of European cheese and Israeli style in a small U.S. café tells us that no matter what our geographical location, we can all agree on a good bagel.
In Pineapple Grove, just a few blocks north of Delray's restaurant-saturated Atlantic Avenue, you'll find Christina's, and if it's a weekend, you'll also probably find a wait. It shouldn't be too long, though — the staff at Christina's knows how to hustle. The bright, tropical décor is perfect for a sunny South Florida morning. The dress code is Florida casual — i.e., most diners look like they just came from yoga or the dog park. The coffee is hot, fresh, and constantly refilled, and the menu is chock-full of breakfast standards served in satisfying but not gut-busting portions. We recommend the salmon platter — a hearty helping of beautiful pink lox, cream cheese, capers, chopped tomatoes, and sliced onions served with an English muffin. If you are looking for something heartier, they also serve a mean eggs Benedict, drizzled in tangy hollandaise.
Brunch is a delicate dance. The eats must be heavy enough to absorb excess alcohol from the night before yet light enough to keep you from falling into a daylong food coma. The meal needs to serve as a cure-all for your many ills and provide proper sustenance for the day to boot. Kristof's Kafé has it down. Here, there are options aplenty to please the pickiest eater. Whatever else tempts your palate (and much will), make sure you snag an order of the strawberry stuffed French toast ($7.99). Made of thick bread crusted with corn flakes and layered with a sweet cream-cheese filling and ripe red strawberries, this powdered-sugar-laden indulgence will ruin you for other French toast forever. Or, opt for fluffy chocolate-chip pancakes, pillowy homemade biscuits and gravy, or Southern fave chicken-fried steak. No frills, just hearty weekend eats to keep you happily satiated till the Monday-morning blues roll around. Sadly, there's no edible cure for that weekly disease.