Coffeehouse mania swept much of the country during the 1990s, but, alas, it didn't make much of a dent in South Florida. (No, Starbucks doesn't count.) So local brew hounds found reason to rejoice when Meredith Huhn and Jay Motley opened Barefoot Coffee in November. It has the bona fides caffeine junkies expect. Start with some eclectic furniture: a crescent-moon sofa, brown Naugahyde recliner, and assorted hardwood chairs. Then add monthly rotating displays by local artists, which are also for sale. The recent Knarley Harley's Beach Whimsies exhibit included landscape paintings and fish sculptures made from driftwood, fishing gear, and hammered copper. For further diversion, one can go online at Barefoot for $8 an hour. Huhn or Motley will help electronic novices set up an e-mail account. And of course at the center of it all is that nectar of the java gods -- espresso, latte, cappuccino, and brewed. Barefoot has sidestepped the deli route -- and the interminable lines that ensue -- in favor of a respectable selection of bagels, muffins, brownies, and pastries. And its evening hours make the joint a handy stop before or after taking in a movie at the next-door Gateway Cinema.
Frankly this local restaurateur, who at one time owned 15-plus eateries in the South Florida area, was in something of a slump for a couple of years there. He separated from his wife of almost two decades, broke up with partner Burt Rapoport, and sold off his empire -- Prezzo, Max's Grille, even his flagship Maxaluna -- piece by piece. The boy looked down. But he's taught us never, ever to count him out. Now he's back with Max's Place in Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade County and a brand new place in Manalapan in Palm Beach County called Max's WatersEdge. He even has one of his old executive chefs, Pierre Viau, back behind the stove at latter locale. So keep your pity to yourself. All Max is interested in these days is your appetite.
Sunfish Grill
It's probably no secret that we've been fans of chef-co-proprietor Tony Sindaco since he opened this cool little joint a couple of years ago. What may surprise you is our loyalty -- we still think he's tops. Check out some recent menu offerings: barbecued mahi-mahi and wild-mushroom torta with Jack cheese, mango salsa, and jalapeño sour cream; black grouper with roasted cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and a coulis of vine tomatoes; seared Maine scallops with Savoy cabbage, warm garlic-bacon potato salad, and cider sauce. You'll note several uniform things about the dishes at Sunfish Grill: Almost every main ingredient is fish or seafood, and without fail all are consistently modern without descending into fusion confusion.
If Cohiba can be considered the Queen Mother of Cuban comfort food, then we're clasped to her big, warm, soft bosom. From her we get our basic nourishment: black beans and rice, fried yuca, chicken noodle soup. From her we draw strength: pounded palomilla steaks, roast pork so tender it brings a quiver to our lips. From her we gain confidence -- or is it sugar? -- along with coconut flan. She gives it to us straight when we need it (just a plain ol' Cuban sandwich) and dresses things up with a flourish when we deserve it (shrimp with mushrooms and brandy). Call us mama's boys and girls if you must. But we're never going to leave her, so you might as well get used to it.

Steak Shop & Deli
If you think, given the name, that this corner delicatessen must serve some awesome steak sandwiches, you're right. Some of the tastiest Philly cheesesteaks originate here, along with other grilled sandwiches such as the steak-and-egg special, chicken Parmesan, or even a Cuban sandwich pressed as beautifully as a shirt. But if you think, given the name, that there's no way you could get a real New York deli sandwich filled with just-fatty-enough corned beef or spicy pastrami, you'd be wrong. The Steak Shop carries those items as well and even has a full Greek complement of gyros and souvlaki, as well as chili-cheese fries, Chicago-style hot dogs, and sausage and peppers. In the end the only assumption you really can make about this deli is that, while it may be all over the map, any direction you go will be correct.
Jack's Hollywood Diner
The stainless steel restaurant is a true classic, having been manufactured in 1953 by Mountain View Diners, a New Jersey company that was one of the nation's premier eatery makers. Father-and-son team Denis and Steve Grenier bought the place back in 1989 and have steadfastly maintained the diner's throwback vibe. Their main ingredient: a 73-year-old chef named Louie, whose specials include two stuffed mushrooms and two stuffed shrimp for the bargain-basement cost of $8.95. Prices for other victuals range from 94 cents for coffee to $9.95 for fried, broiled, or stuffed jumbo shrimp in four different combination platters. Now Denis is pondering retirement, and Steve is considering a career in law enforcement. Though Jack's is on the market, along with a building next door, that doesn't stop a multitude of coaches, cops, and Québecois from filling this place almost around the clock. (Restaurant hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.) Indeed, even on a weekend morning, you can find five or ten people lighting up cigarettes in true French-Canadian style while they down their eggs and coffee. If you don't smoke, heck, head for the back room, where such unhealthy behavior is prohibited.

Owners Suzie Ludlow and Jon Robichaud have been serving cranky drivers from this charming little stand for seven years. They peddle edible chocolate and almond cigars, which are delivered every morning from Protano's Bakery in Hollywood, as well as low-fat muffins, apple turnovers, and coffeecakes from local distributors. But it's the coffee that makes drivers line up around the block every morning. Ludlow and Robichaud purchase 42 varieties of the stuff from a local roaster whose beans are picked up fresh from the docks of the Miami River. They have one huge espresso maker, one huge American coffee machine, and two smaller devices for regular and decaf. Their most popular item is a 12-ounce cuppa joe called Morning Express: a Viennese roast Colombian blend with a bit of cinnamon for $1. "Coffee and driving go together," Susie comments. "We don't cater to the Starbucks clan. We serve just straight coffee, no foo-foo stuff." That formula seems to be working just fine.
Michael Gadaleta, a former car salesman who describes himself as an "American-Italian-Argentinean from Brooklyn," opened Empanada Only in 1997. "Once I was the best car salesman in the nation, I'm not bullshittin' you," he declares. "But here I don't have to worry about managers or lawyers. I'm my own man." Indeed he owns and operates the shop by himself; he makes his own dough; chops the onions, peppers, and olives; grinds the beef; bakes the empanadas; and sells them from behind the counter. Articles about the one-man wonder and his store wallpaper the tiny shop just off Hollywood Boulevard. The empanadas are available about every way imaginable: frozen or baked, by the dozen or one at a time. His specialties include a whole-wheat variety stuffed with pineapple or pumpkin and less-unusual ones with guava and cheese, apple slices, or broccoli and cheese. He declines to explain the process: "I can't tell you how I make them, because then everybody will do it," he says. "Who knows, maybe I'll sell a franchise and have 20,000 of these, like Colonel Sanders."

Careless falafel fabrication can result in a deadly dry, throat-clogging orb -- asphyxiation by ground chickpea. But at the improbably named Tuti Fruti, Shehab Breish and Jamal Masoud whip up before your eyes falafel that is crunchy, moist, and beyond palatable. The Palestinian duo took over the Health Food Cafe earlier this year and introduced Middle Eastern fare at reasonable prices. The falafel sandwich costs $2.99, the platter with salad and tabbouleh only another buck and a half. If you're a hard-core falafel freak, you can bypass the accouterments and order a bucketful at 50 cents apiece. The falafel is made from scratch, fried in vegetable oil, and filled with just enough spice to let you know you've taken a bite. Oh, and the joint's name? It comes from the lengthy list of fruit smoothies on the menu.

Most farmers' markets in South Florida don't have much "farm" in them, eschewing the raw in favor of the processed. The West Palm Beach GreenMarket is no exception. Not to imply an utter lack of fresh produce, but the quality of the prepared foodstuffs available every Saturday morning from mid-October through April makes this farmers' market truly superior. More than 50 vendors offer dense grainy breads; nuts and candied fruit; teas and coffees; and spices, herbs, and rubs. Mama Duke's vends only homemade banana bread, Turtle Creek Dairy sells goat cheese fresh from its Loxahatchee herd, and the Olde Pickle Barrel ships its puckery pleasures in from New York. This being Palm Beach after all, one can also purchase elegant blooms by the stem from Extra Touch Flowers. There's even free parking in the Banyan Street garage for GreenMarketgoers.

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