Cafe Del Rio

Here's a little story about the fajita that could. One day, the fajita looked at his peers with their white, flaky tortillas, boring veggie mixes, and dry, flavorless meats and said, "There's got to be more than this." So he left his tiny taco stand in Nowhere, Idaho, and headed for Florida, Land of the Unique and Daring. Here, he encountered the folks at Cafe del Rio, who promised a makeover that would make him unrecognizable to those stale fajita friends he left back home. So the Del Rio people tossed chicken, steak, and shrimp into a tumbler with seasonings and marinades to make them flavorful and exquisitely tender. Then they added some yellow squash and zucchini to the standard veggie mix of onions and green and red peppers and adorned the sizzling skillet with a shiny, jade-colored pepper and a little silver cup of butter touched with cilantro and jalapeño. Why butter, you ask? Well, my child, butter makes the flavor of the meats richer (just ask someone at Ruth's Chris), and it adds a nice flavor to the golden and puffy tortillas that Del Rio makes fresh to blanket the whole affair. Of course, the guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes, Tex-Mex rice, and refried beans topped with melted shredded cheese were thrilled with the results, and they agreed that the prices asked were more than fair (just under $12 for beef or chicken, a little shy of $14 for shrimp, and nearly $15 for a combo of the three). And they all lived happily ever after in my stomach. The End.

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Maybe it's baby-boomer nostalgia that makes Maison Carlos seem so comforting. The place is decidedly old-fashioned in its tastes, exuding a worldly, early-'60s-era charm that was always more mirage than reality (Dean Martin really was a bastard, and those Playtex girdles were freaking uncomfortable). The lavishly gilt-framed marine paintings by Nantucket artist Robert Stark say it all: You're as far from the cutting edge as you're likely to get, at least on this side of the bridge. At Maison Carlos, somebody still believes in romantic, windswept seascapes; in vichyssoise (this faultlessly executed classic, $6.50, is prepared without the faintest whisper of innovation); in waiters who do not speak unless spoken to; in smoky-voiced jazz singers. That the owners, cast, and crew of Maison Carlos are all in their 30s or younger makes the experience of dining here even weirder. What's up with these cats? Oysters Rockefeller, for god's sake? Somehow, though, it all works beautifully. Settled back with your plate of crispy fried zucchini, sliced white bread with a dish of sweet butter, and a cold martini, you could be 8 years old again, having dinner with Mummy at the club (yes, our Mummy let us drink martinis). Start with the oysters ($11.50), follow with caesar salad ($7.50), and a plate of steak au poivre ($25.95) or spaghetti with jumbo lump crabmeat ($19.95). Then give Tippi Hedren a call and see if she'd like to join you for a stinger. They won't have to ask you how to make one.

It takes guts to open a restaurant in a place where even the hardiest eateries have succumbed to the deadly Clematis Street pox. There isn't a restaurant on West Palm Beach's Main Street that has survived into adulthood; recent road construction, a late-night club crowd, parking horrors, and the apotheosis of CityPlace have apparently made it impossible to operate a profitable food-related business there. But Roy Assad and his wife, Evelyn, who also own the popular and acclaimed Leila Mediterranean Restaurant around the corner on Dixie Highway, love an underdog. Along with partner Cosmo Dishino and undeterred by last fall's hurricanes, which mangled the front of the building, they've taken the old Big City Tavern and turned the space into an open-air French bistro. With those pressed tin ceilings and velveteen crimsons, the place really looks the part; what's more, the food is astonishing. Nostalgic dishes like escargots in the shell ($12 dinner, $9 lunch), bouillabaisse ($26, dinner only), and duck a l'orange ($25 dinner, $15 lunch) are served alongside bistro standards like New York steak pommes frites ($26 dinner, $16 lunch). Chef Laurent Loupiac, who comes to West Palm via Daniel in New York and Alain Ducasse in Paris, is a real catch for our gold-digging little burg. The guy knows how to put together a brochette of sea scallops with crushed rosemary Yukon gold potatoes better than just about anybody. The service is as crisp as the starched linens on the tables, and with that wall of doors thrown open on a warm evening, a cold cocktail in hand, and a perfect little goat cheese tart on the plate in front of you, you might almost start to believe in downtown revitalization.

The salsa at this modest and friendly joint isn't the finest only because it's free and plentiful but also because it's damned near perfect. Color: A bright, beautiful pink from the combo of diced tomatoes and onions. Taste: Like God has decided to prove to the world that he really does exist. Texture: Crisp and fresh. "We make it five times a day," says Eduardo Argueta, general manager of the Riverfront location. "And we throw away what's left at night and start fresh the next day. It has to be fresh to be tasty." But at Olé Olé, it's not just about the salsa. The fare is all first-rate. If you're with a friend or two, try the fajitas for three, which runs only about $23 and comes with a mountain of your choice of chicken, shrimp, or steak (or any combo of the three). And enjoy the margaritas. They're always strong enough, of good quality, and totally authentic, like the rest of the place.

Hamburger Heaven

This place is famous for its stellar beef, which is the very heart of good chili. Hamburger Heaven has long been one of Palm Beach's only moderately priced lunch spots, with crowds waiting in line far out the door to enter the 60-year-old diner. Most of 'em have come for the burgers, like the aptly named Beverly Hills, which comes with avocado and ranch dressing. But Hamburger Heaven's chili ($2.95 a cup or $5.95 a bowl) makes a good rival; it has big chunks of ground beef, red beans, and a sauce that's tangy but not spicy. Even though Hamburger Heaven is most certainly a diner, its chili doesn't have that diner feel -- you know, the sticky, murky texture that comes from being in a crock pot for a week. This sublime dish has a smooth consistency so that the floating chunks of beef and beans stand out. It's astounding, but if you simply can't pass up getting a burger when you visit Heaven, try the San Antonio ($9.95), which is smothered in jalapeños, cheddar cheese, raw onions, and, as you guessed, a mound of chili.

The best new restaurant in Broward County never sent out a press release. It didn't cost $2.2 million to open. It doesn't have a celebrity chef, and waiters do not ferry convoluted cocktails to tables full of PR ladies clutching Kate Spade handbags. There are no "small plates." No ceviche either. Or anything -- alcoholic or not -- called a "martini." The menu is not divided into sections and subsections with poetic titles, ecstatic blurbs about a chef who worked in Paris and Manhattan, or overwrought explanations about technique. This menu has two almost bafflingly understated categories: "Japanese" and "Thai." That and a blackboard of specials that you may have to squint to read. But in the gaping void left by an utter lack of braggadocio, here's what you might find on an average night at Kaiyo: (1) boned, stuffed, deep-fried chicken wings served with a subtle homemade chile dip ($5.95); (2) crab Rangoon with fruit sauce -- deluxe, peppery, and crabfull -- that should make other restaurants serving Rangoon weep with shame ($5.95); (3) a spicy Thai seafood salad ($7.95) that has been known to temporarily silence the most inveterate blabbermouth; (4) a Thai cook in the kitchen who won't reveal the ingredients in, or sources of, her secret recipes; (5) squid stuffed with ground pork and served in ginger sauce with bright vegetables; (6) a sushi chef who sometimes makes up brilliant roll combinations involving mangos and oranges on the spot; (7) a list of sauces (peanut, basil, red curry, garlic, ginger) that all actually taste completely and enchantingly different; (8) lovely service performed by lovely people; and (9) a menu where -- excepting the big sushi boats and the occasional market price fish -- no single item tops $14.95.

When it comes to creating the perfect barbecue experience, there's more involved than putting a rib on your plate. Alligator Alley has all the requisite trappings: a down-home vibe, the Meters on the jukebox, and icy Native Lager on tap (because a barbecue joint without beer is like a bistro without Bordeaux). As for the main event, it's true the menu lacks the baby backs and quarter birds that are the cornerstone of many a rib shack. That's because owner Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo has mastered -- mastered -- the pulled pork sandwich ($6.95), and you won't find a more delectable example in South Florida. Period. Three made-from-scratch sauces -- sweet, tangy, and Carolina-style -- add just the right spice to the tender, oak-smoked meat, which emits a pungent, primal flavor that stands up to copious saucing. A healthy dollop of creamy cole slaw (included with the sandwich) cools down the fire sublimely for a three-way balancing act worthy of Ringling Bros. Along with the pork po-boy, the Alley serves up a killer chicken breast sandwich ($10.95) that is also smoked out back in a house smoker just big enough for a few items. The alligator ribs are always fresh and tender, and Kilmo's gumbo is award-winning. If you're smart, you'll finish the feast with a slice of tangy, locally made key lime pie. Calling Alligator Alley a bar is a disservice; it's a vital part of the community. Calling its menu "bar food" is outrageous -- it's an epicurean wonder. UPDATED: This location is now closed.

OK, we're going to assume that if you're reading this category, you need a place to take the grandparents. Down for the weather, they've promised to give you a break from your normal dinner of chicken wings and Schlitz. You'll need to take them to a place on their turf, and there's nothing better than codger-filled Manalapan, home to Ritz-Carlton's Soleil restaurant. Soleil is perfectly situated on an oceanfront terrace to give you something to stare at during Grandma's rants. If you go on Fridays, hit the $52 seafood buffet. On other days, start out with the citrus-poached shrimp cocktail accompanied with a "coconut scented cocktail sauce" ($15), since the only scents you're used to during dining are the ones that emanate from the sticky floors at Hooter's. Next, since Gramps is paying, go for Soleil's priciest item, the $36 rosemary-flavored rack of lamb, which comes with herbed gnocchi and red-wine braised carrots. Finish it off with the restaurant's award-winning chocolate mousse with a crème brûlé filling for $8.50. That's a total bill of about $80 with tax and tip, which just might take a day's work to pay for at the car wash.

Sure, the baloney sandwiches in prison offer more nutritional value, but this menu item could come in handy when your wallet's thin: "The Inflation Beater: two stale heels of bread wrapped around a freshly frozen ice cube." Cost: 2612 cents.

If your palate craves strong flavors and your belly demands a hearty meal, head to H&E Marina Deli. The mouthwatering food and no-nonsense service merit the sometimes difficult search for the deli, which is tucked away in the back of the Southport Shopping Center. The first two meals of the day come easy to these folks, who serve an array of breakfasts ranging from $2 to $5.25 and including a pastrami omelet and a crabmeat omelet (both $5.25). For lunch, there's a hot corned beef sandwich for $7.25, a veggie Reuben for $5.45, or a tuna, chicken, or whitefish salad sandwich for $6.75. The drink selection in the fridge is equally stacked with everything from chocolate milk and a variety of juices to Dr. Brown's sodas. It's a real New York kind of place. On your way out, throw a tip in the jar reading "Subway" and the crowd behind the counter will yell "Thank you" without looking up. But don't be upset at the lack of eye contact. As you'll know by then, they have important work to do. Open from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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