Sheila's Conch & BBQ

Although it's crammed into just another strip mall hugging the shores of Commercial Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale's Sheila's Conch and Wings is a welcome shelter for the weary. A grass roof slides down to glass front doors; inside, simple tables are laid out in a room painted the same bright yellow as the Bahamian flag's center stripe. And although the menu is heavy on fare from the islands — including killer conch fritters and plantains — the real business here is the wings. Sheila's has somehow figured out the sacred, magical, fabled recipe for chicken wings that are the perfect balance between succulent meat and crispy goodness. Basically this is as close as you're going to come to setting off a fireworks display on your taste buds without causing first-degree burns (note: You might get some third-degree ones, though — the "spicy" topping is a sparkler). Until last year, Sheila's operated out of a location on Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach. The 561's loss is the 954's incredible gain.

Cho A Dong Oriental Food Mart

You've finally decided to jump headfirst into Asian cuisine. Rather than pick up run-of-the-mill curry paste, you're doing it on your own, from scratch. Now, you just need to pick up the ingredients. The recipe calls for lemongrass, Thai red chilies, galangal, fish sauce, shrimp paste, palm sugar, kaffir lime leaves, and a bunch of other crazy ingredients. You've been to Publix — no luck. Whole Foods isn't cutting it either. You need an Asian market, like, yesterday. You need to come here. Vietnamese in orientation, the shop specializes in ingredients from around the continent, spanning from Southeast Asia to India to China and Taiwan. Whether you're looking for Japanese miso, Thai chili sauce, or fresh Chinese bitter melon, this place has it all. In addition to packaged sauces, dry goods, housewares, and frozen products, it offers exotic produce and a selection of meat and seafood. There you have it: Asian ingredient problem, solved.

In the not-too-distant past, few individuals knew the wondrous flavors of pho. The traditional Vietnamese street food bursts with flavor from a slowly simmered stock chock-full of spices like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, coriander, and cloves. The decadent broth is finished with noodles, meat, chilies, and fresh herbs. It's so good, CNN Travel listed it as one of the 50 Best Foods in the World. That being said, finding a decent bowl is not easy within the confines of Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the crème de la crème, you need to head to the Asian strip of State Road 7 — you'll know you're there when the shop signs are in unrecognizable languages. When you get there, look for Pho Hoa. The kind souls at this international Vietnamese chain have broken down the menu into sections for beginners, regulars, and seasoned professionals. The latter is rife with innards and off-cuts of meat (think tripe and tendon) that might turn off neophytes but will have pho-natics — pun totally intended — going pho-king crazy with delight.

The idea of ordering food from a Chinese taco truck sounds both enticing and a little scary. It's a melding of two cultures that would seem to have absolutely nothing in common. But when the late-night craving can't tell the difference between General Tso's and asada skirt steak, we're all in. The man behind this unusual East-meets-West marriage of cuisine is none other than David Peck, former chef for Tap 42 turned "chief chaco" thanks to his concept, dubbed Box of Chacos. From North Miami to Fort Lauderdale, Peck serves specialties like the Tio Tsao's five-spice pork with a spicy green salad, queso, sweet Chinese soy, and a spicy mayo or the Pink Chaco, with seared ahi tuna and sesame salad. Part of the success comes from Peck's attention to detail and an uncanny ability to fuse flavors — something he learned from Mark Militello's namesake restaurant. But it was at sushicentric Nobu in Dallas where Peck developed a palate for Asian fare, while Texas provided a wealth of topnotch Tex-Mex. And there you have it: everything to love about both cultures, wrapped into a single tortilla, priced reasonably from $3 to $6. Each Chacos taco is sold à la carte, including oddball items like the Spammers: two thick slabs of Spam fried and served with Colby Jack cheese and paired with a spicy kimchi slaw. Vegetarians, have no fear. There's also a meat-free number, the Shaolin Veg, which highlights deep-fried and breaded avocado with quinoa and spicy mayo. Go ahead and get your chaco on.

Aah Loi

Why? If it's one thing chef Roy Villacrusis does best, it's sushi. His new restaurant is partly thanks to partner Charlie Soo, chef and owner of Talay Thai Cuisine, who had the foresight to partner with Villacrusis to create a commingling of creative sushi and sashimi alongside his own modern interpretations of traditional Thai cuisine. Here, the sushi is more a creative journey than regular roll-out. The chef-driven menu rotates often depending on what's in store at the local Asian markets. While sushi is entirely Japanese, Villacrusis doesn't stop there when deciding what he'll make, taking inspiration from dishes he's sampled across Asia from places like Hong Kong, Indonesia, and China. Although the restaurant seats 45, you'll want to nab a spot at the four-seat sushi bar where Villacrusis dishes out a five-course tasting menu for $55. Feeling adventurous? He won't stop until you say "when" if you can pony up per person for his omakase dinner; so far, he's managed to churn out as many as 24 plates in one sitting. Here, exotic ingredients take center stage but can push comfort zones. Most recently he's worked with whelk (sea snail), and one of his favorite dishes combines eel, foie gras, and banana crème brûlée. Don't be scared! Aah Loi is the Thai word for "delicious."

Butcher Block Grill

With the rise of veganism and ethical eating, steak houses have started getting a bad rap. Aside from the whole animal-death thing, there's a new study about the ill effects of meat-eating coming out, like, every other day of the week. But Butcher Block specializes in local and all-natural ingredients from sustainable farms in Florida and throughout the United States. The steak is from grass-fed cows, sourced directly from Creekstone Farms, which focuses on selling high-quality, pasture-raised meat to some of the best restaurants in the country. Though it's not your run-of-the-mill steak, the prices are not unreasonable. A massive 32-ounce porterhouse costs 79 bucks, while a more reasonable six-ounce filet goes for $29. Between the warm and fuzzy feelings and the damned good food, you'll be as happy as a pig in you-know-what by the time you leave.

Lobster Bar Sea Grille
Courtesy Photo

Some cultures take seafood more seriously than others. The Japanese are best-known for their love of fresh, raw sushi. Peruvians are all about  citric-acid-marinated ceviche. Spaniards love their paella. And Greeks are recognized for their simple grilled fish. The newest concept from Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, this high-end seafood spot on Las Olas takes cues from CEO Pano Karatassos' heritage. While it offers a wide array of composed dishes, its signature is its diverse selection of whole fish cooked in a Greek skara. Fresh local and imported fish (Buckhead Life also owns a seafood import business, so its fish is served within 48 hours of being plucked from the sea) are cooked in the traditional basket, which sits atop a charcoal grill, and are served with customary Greek ingredients: olive oil, lemon, oregano, and Santorini capers. From rarer selections like dorade royale (a Greek fish similar to red snapper) and Dover sole to local snapper, the options here are about as fresh as you can find — even if they required a flight over from the Mediterranean.

La Cocina Puertorriquena

Sure, we're surrounded by beaches and water, but there's something about the Caribbean that is way more exotic and interesting. Maybe it's the crystal-clear waters, the lush green foliage, the mountains and hilltops with panoramas that seem to never end, or the bass-thumping music. Or maybe it's the fiery foods. While it's easy to find Jamaican jerk, Cuban ropa vieja, or Dominican sancocho in South Florida, Puerto Rican cuisine is limited. La Cocina Puertorriqueña makes up for the lack. The Miramar restaurant offers a taste of the island through its weekly live salsa and flavorful authentic fare. The spot serves mofongo ($5.95 to $16.95), the national dish of Puerto Rico, which consists of fried green plantains mashed together with garlic and spices served with savory sauce and proteins ranging from shrimp in red sauce to masitas fritas (pork chunks).  If that's not your thing, try the plato boricua ($13.95), a dish traditionally served around Christmas that's composed of shredded pork topped with strips of lightly sautéed onion, rice, pigeon peas, and a pastel (stewed shredded pork encased in adobo- and cumin-seasoned plantain dough cooked in a banana leaf). The only other way you'll find Puerto Rican food this good is a trip to the island itself.

Woodlands Indian Cuisine
Eric Barton

There are many fine Indian restaurants in South Florida that offer an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet in the afternoon and entrées served with rices and the oven-baked flatbread known as naan. Woodlands follows this template exceptionally well, but what makes this Indian restaurant in an unassuming minimall extraordinary are its rarer delicacies from the South of India. Chief among the savory treats are the dosas: crepes made of lentil and rice flour stuffed with potatoes, spinach or 19 variations that range in price from $7.95 to 11.95. Folded into a triangle that outsizes the plate it is served on, a dosa will appear large enough to feed a battalion, but you should save room for dessert, as the place offers halwa (a sweet confection of almond or carrot) as well as ice creams of mango, pistachio, and more. The entirely vegetarian restaurant marks the menus with V for any item that can be prepared vegan, including the apple ice cream.

Cafe La Buca
Candace West

Italian fare in the United States tends to be dominated by meatballs and the ubiquitous red sauce. It's delicious, yes, but not necessarily the most authentic. Italian-American is a thing in and of itself. For the most part, legitimate Italian cuisine comes only from ridiculously expensive, fancy-pants spots. Such food is exquisite but pricey. Only, like, 1 percent of the population can do high-end Italian regularly. For everyone else, there's Cafe la Buca. Owned by Napoli native Marco Spina and his family, this casual Pompano Beach eatery specializes in rustic Southern Italian cuisine at affordable price points: Dinner for two will run you around 80 bucks. The menu changes every day based upon what's around and what looks good to Spina. (You can call in the morning to find out the specials for the night.) It offers classics like papardelle Bolognese, fresh gnocchi, and linguini with clams. Pizza is made from an oven brought over from Naples. Although the pizza and pasta are main parts of the draw, simply prepared seafood and meats are also available on a nightly basis. Expect to see items like grilled filet mignon and lamb chops with spinach and balsamic rosemary sauce. Be sure to call ahead for a reservation, as these seats fill up days (if not weeks) in advance. It truly is that good.

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