Totoritas Restaurant
Gustavo Rojas
Lord, what foods these morsels be! Now that sushi is a staple of public school lunches and sashimi has been accepted by the apple pie/Chevrolet contingent, let's not forget the other raw fish. Spelled differently depending on where in South America you happen to visit, Las Totoritas' version is among the most traditional. Cebiche mixto ($8) is the familiar staple; fish, scallops, and shrimp are soaked in lime juice and topped with onion. A black scallops-only version, cebiche de conchas negras ($7) is a variation you won't encounter often, and the family-sized cebiche platters ($14 to $18) are large enough for the soccer team of your choice -- provided you can all fit in the tiny dining room. The combination of fish and lime juice that collects at the bottom of the bowl -- leche de tigre -- can be served with a shot of vodka as a hangover cure. Or so the folks at Las Totoritas tell us. We'll take their word for it.

"Language of Love Spoken" reads the sign in the window. Not really, but where better for a sotto voce discussion of the nice and naughty things you'd like to do with that plate of shrimp maison au beurre blanc ($14.25 lunch, $25.95 dinner) than at the French Quarter? In this centrally located spot, Paris, the city of amour, meets the Big Easy, city of sin. Nestled at a table under glass skylights, partially hidden by tropical plant fronds that are becomingly lit by gas lamps, you'll almost certainly get something going here. But if you fail -- or things are looking grim -- impress your dinner companion with your savoir faire. Just casually mention that the duck à l'orange ($22.95) was Grace Kelly's favorite dish and that the baked Alaska ($12 for two) was invented by master cooks of the Chinese Celestial Empire. It won't hurt your case to choose a bottle from one of the best wine lists in the city either. Here's a hint, you big lug: There's no romantic problem that a double magnum of bubbly won't solve.

Hong Kong Market

Owner Benjamin Wong is big into numbers. If you ask him how long his market has been around, he'll tell you 15 years. Ask how many Chinese videos he has available for rental and he'll quickly inform you, "More than 100,000." (That's including the ever-popular Kung Fu Hustle.) If you inquire about a special type of teapot, he'll invite you to choose from more than 100,000 of them. OK, so perhaps they are not all to be found in his market, but he really seems eager to help customers find whatever Asian product they have a yen for. Never tried a sweet yet salty dehydrated plum (they start at $1.25 for a small bag) or dry shredded pork ($1.65 for a four-ounce container)? Just request Wong's opinion on the product and he'll likely split a bag with you. Wondering what kind of pudding is actually stored inside the oversized plastic kitty heads? He may bust one open to show you. Of course, he can't really share some of the teas he carries -- especially since they are used to treat maladies like gall bladder and liver dysfunction -- but you would probably feel comfortable talking about PMS or erectile dysfunction with Wong, and he'd provide just the tea for the job. And since teas start at only $2.95 a box, you'll find them much cheaper than a box of Midol or a blister pack of Viagra. If you have never set foot in an Asian market, stroll into Hong Kong some evening (the market is open until 8 most nights). You'll get an instant education and possibly even some samples.

Good help is so hard to find these days. Sure, you'll be well-attended at the Captain's Table on the QE2 or in the grand dining room of the Ritz, but the servers at most neighborhood cafés might as well have been trained at Fawlty Towers. Consider it a lucky break if you don't end up with another table's crab cakes when you ordered steak Diane. Unlike so many of its brethren, Herban Kitchen has a service system choreographed like a Balanchine ballet: You're taken care of by a half-dozen pleasant and unruffled dudes who know how to maintain a precise balance of friendliness and distance. They come and go, filling glasses and removing plates. They don't share their first names or interrupt you mid-brilliant dissertation. And you won't find yourself stuck in that dead zone between dessert and the check when the entire staff disappears outside for a smoke.
China A

It's been an awful day. Now, it's getting dark. The rain is coming down. The exhaustion settles in. Those two rental movies on your passenger seat look awfully enticing. At times like this, the difference between good Chinese takeout and bad Chinese takeout is based on three factors: taste, price, and speed. China "A" aces the trio. Nestled in a no-frills spot in Northridge Shopping Center, China "A" serves up about 100 dishes under $10 -- from the classic General Tao's chicken ($8.50) to moo shu shrimp ($6.50). Have a bunch of mouths to feed? Try the Super Family Pack for $20.99; it includes three egg rolls, wonton soup, fried rice, and three entrée selections. Walk-in orders are filled in about ten minutes, while deliveries take about 20 minutes if you live nearby. Plus, you won't get MSG-laden dishes at China "A." Remarkably, the food is as good as any restaurant in New York's Chinatown. Hours are Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m. Free delivery is available to select areas.

Someone forgot to tell the guys who serve sandwiches, salads, and smoothies at this bustling downtown Fort Lauderdale lunch spot that they have every right to behave as über-efficient Soup Nazis -- Get 'em in! Push 'em out! Instead, just for walking in the door here, you're likely to be handed a paper cup of freshly blended strawberry juice. Sandwiches (e.g., salmon salad, turkey breast, grilled chicken, natural peanut butter) are fresh, quick, painless, $4 to $6. The orders are accurate, the smoothies ($3.50) whirled while you wait. Cashiers say thanks. Upon asking for a takeout telephone number, a customer received not only an employee's cell phone but a chocolate-chip cookie. ("Best cookie you'll ever eat," it was said.) The capper came when an employee took time to rebound a customer's errant, wadded-napkin jump shot into a trash can. "Try again," he said, and when the second shot missed even worse than the first, he scooped it up and threw it away. No need to pad the stats, nor belabor the misses.

Sushi Jo

If the idea of sushi sounds as thrilling as another Blockbuster night or walking that nasty little mutt around the block, you need a little gastronomic counseling -- you know, something to perk up those taste buds and help you remember why you fell in love with raw fish and vinegared rice in the first place. Cast your mind back to your very first time: How silky the tuna, how scrumptious the spicy mayo; that salty, slithery bite of seaweed salad; wasabi's head-clearing heat. To help you renew your commitment to sublime Japanese specialties, get away to Sushi Jo in West Palm, where rolls are given lubricious names and tarted up in the equivalent of culinary lingerie: the Sex on the Beach roll ($12), the Release roll ($10), the South of the Border ($15). Your fish and rice comes decorated with illicit exotica like macadamia nuts, strawberries, and truffles. And there's toro -- the bodacious, pricey call girl of the fish world -- all over the menu. Still yawning? Jo's monkfish liver is aphrodesia on a plate, creamy slices of "foie gras of the sea" dusted with multicolored fish eggs and dressed in two sauces. Think of your relationship with Sushi Jo as a permanent pleasure, a kind of covenant marriage for which you don't have to travel to Arkansas. Beware, though, menus and prices differ at the two locations.

Low Fat No Fat Cafe

Anthony DiCarlo must have spotted an unfilled niche in South Florida: There are maybe two natural food restaurants operating between Palm Beach and North Miami -- if you don't count the chain cafés like Whole Foods -- to feed thousands of hungry health nuts. Sure, there are plenty of fruit smoothies and bean burgers, but when dinnertime rolls around, the organically minded diner is reduced to unwrapping another frozen Ethnic Gourmet. Life sucks for vegetarians too; the best we can hope for is a job offer in Santa Monica. But DiCarlo's Low Fat No Fat Café is winning converts even among slobs who thrive on regular doses of animal fat. The sophisticated décor -- polished wood floors, stainless steel and bamboo accents, 30-foot ceilings -- is a deliberate snub to the dowdy Birkenstock-beleaguered health food restaurants of yore. Organic fruits and veggies, lean beef and chicken, fresh fish, organic eggs, and whole-grain baked goods, carefully handled and lovingly cooked, deliver a flavor punch that happens to be healthy. DiCarlo, who's spent ten years in the fitness industry, doesn't believe in additives or preservatives, so pregnant ladies and nursing mothers can chow down on a dish of spicy jambalaya, a "tofu club" layered with grilled vegetables and brown rice, or a plate of seared sea scallops without guilt (dinner entrées run $8.95 to $18.95). And DiCarlo believes in dessert: A roasted pear or a sesame-coated banana may make you swear off Mom's cupcakes with buttercream icing forever.

Faced with a menu of full entrées, some diners find it hard to pick just one. Dim sum is the Chinese solution to indecision -- the ultimate sampler plate. And this bright and airy restaurant offers about 60 items from which to assemble a unique, tailored-to-your-tastes meal. Your best bet is to pile up on the numerous and savory items that cost only $2.45. There's turnip pudding, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, baked BBQ pork bun, beef tripe, and the exotic chicken feet in black bean sauce. Each amounts to a small appetizer. There are other selections that range from $3.50 to $10.95, such as shredded pork pan fried noodle and roast duck on rice, but your best bet is to stick to the numerous and less costly fare. If there's one don't-miss item -- and you'll certainly develop your own list after a few visits -- it's sticky rice with lotus leaf for $3.50. Rice is heaped over saucy diced pork and duck, wrapped in a massive lotus leaf, then steamed to perfection. Dim sum is served daily until 4 p.m.

Tarks of Dania Beach
Photo courtesy of Tarks of Dania Beach.

"Eat clams... Live longer!!! Eat oysters... Last longer!!!" The motto emblazoned across the menu at Tarks is as catchy as it is true. Those raw clams and littlenecks (both $8.95 a dozen) are a low-cholesterol source of minerals and protein, and the fresh-shucked gulf oysters on the half shell ($6.50 for a half dozen, $8.95 a dozen) are a wet, plump, and succulent way to get your motor running on overdrive. Served ice cold, the conch salad ($7.95) is touted on the menu as "a local favorite." Tarks has been a Dania institution since 1966, and the folks know local seafood as well as anyone. Take a seat at the counter -- that and a few tables out front are your only options -- and you're sure to go elbow-to-elbow with tattooed bikers and leather-skinned laborers, all enjoying Tarks' cheap beer and tasty bivalves. Check out their daily specials, which include ten free wings with a pitcher of beer on Wednesday after 7:30 p.m. Make sure you try their tangy key lime pie ($2.25) too. Shellfish isn't the only thing Tarks does right.

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