Audrey Hope doesn't have to fish for compliments. Her customers offer them generously enough, most likely through a mouthful of fried snapper or over a bowl of tilapia stew. Hope and daughters Lucretia and Jessica, who hail from British Guyana, serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner Caribbean-style in this tiny, eight-table restaurant that's in an area never known for its culinary highlights. Don't let the handmade curtains in the windows or the building façade fool you: You don't have to be a fancypants to turn out a mouthwatering chicken curry with a side of mac and cheese -- or to enjoy them either. The cooking skills Hope learned from her mother are put to excellent use on recipes ranging from Bahamian to Jamaican. A chalkboard printed with the day's specials usually advertises a lineup of items including tomato-based fish stew, a whole fresh-caught battered fish, a plate of crab, shrimp, or lobster tail ($8.99 to $14.99). Sides include enough red beans and rice to feed a battalion, a double dollop of potato salad, and a half head of iceberg with bottled dressing. After you polish off that last slice of clove-, cinnamon-, and nutmeg-flavored shortcake, don't mind if Audrey and her girls, chattering happily, walk you to your car. Where there's Hope, there's lots of life.

Pho Saigon Cuisine
John Linn

When the Vietnamese boat people abandoned their war-torn country in the late '70s, hopping aboard rickety vessels for the trek to Dallas, San Diego, New York, and Fort Lauderdale, they brought along some indispensable knowledge: how to make a damned near perfect sandwich. Why it's taken Americans so long to pick up the trail of the Vietnamese bánh mí sub is an unanswerable mystery. Although you can probably find bánh mí at dozens of mom-and-pop groceries in South Florida (hint: Start anywhere on 441 and work your way south), the cheerful and friendly Saigon Deli is a terrific introduction to the genre, a delicacy incorporating French influence (a baguette, mayonnaise, pâté) and Vietnamese staples (roast pork, daikon radish, cilantro, fish sauce). At Saigon Deli, the subs come in eight variations, all for $3, starting with house-cured meats like ham, shredded pork, barbecue pork, and roti chicken. A combo sub of ham, Vietnamese bologna, and silky pâté topped with crunchy pickled vegetables and served on a warm sweet roll, when paired with a glass of salty lemonade or sweet bubble tea, is bliss on Earth. This charming restaurant also serves a full complement of Vietnamese soups, salads, and noodle dishes.

Give a French cook an egg, a couple of slices of bread, a stick of butter, and five minutes and most likely he'll return the favor by creating something so exquisite it'll haunt you for life. When a croque monsieur is done properly, it is, indeed, the most fantastic concoction in the universe. And, mes amis, the sandwich is made just right at La Vie en Rose (true for almost everything on the menu, but that's another story). This long-running French restaurant in Margate produces a crisp, elegant croque with slivers of country ham and Gruyère cheese melted between two slices of feather-light toasted French country bread. It's gooey and savory with a scrumptious custardy interior. For a real jolt, order the croque madame, with two poached eggs on top. They're available at $7.25 and $8.25 respectively for Sunday brunch, with a complimentary glass of champagne. You might want to refrain from mentioning your skyrocketing croque consumption to your cardiologist, though. She probably won't understand that anything that tastes this good has to be good for you -- existentially speaking.

We hate chain restaurants. Can't stand 'em. Not even Pollo Tropical escapes our wrath. But there's an exception to every rule, and it must be said that the septet of Jerk Machines not only breaks the mold; it chops it into teeny, tiny pieces. Founded in Lauderhill 16 years ago by islanders Desmond and Catherine Malcolm, Jerk Machine does several things so righteously that it'd be a shame to ignore its achievements. First and foremost, it gives scaredy-cat Anglos an opportunity to sample real Jamaican cooking without alienating its core constituency of native folks -- those who depend on the restaurants for fast, consistently excellent food that reminds them of home. Secondly, it remains a centerpiece of the downtown restaurant rows of Lauderhill, Miramar, and central Fort Lauderdale. Sit down, or get it to go. You can't deny that the Machine serves some superb pork jerk ($7.99 for a large plate with fixings) and chicken ($5.99 to $7.69). There's also succulent curry goat and oxtail, brown stew chicken that'll have you running back for more, escoviched fish, and crispy snapper. Plus, there are patties ($1.25 to $1.50), those hand-held pastries full of spicy goodness. Oh, and don't forget breakfast -- ackee and saltfish, of course; liver an' onions; calaloo; and mackerel. Authentic enough to run Kingston's own Island Grill out of Lauderhill in less than a year, this well-oiled Machine will jerk forever, Jah willing.

Funky as an old Parliament album, Le Tub's commode-themed outdoor eatery looks more rustic and weather-beaten each year. But the place stays packed with happy locals vying for a waterside table (best way to catch those superb sunsets glittering off the Intracoastal) and waiting for the molasses-slow servers to bring another round of drinks. Still, even Tub fans can get put off by the less-than-antiseptic surroundings and opt for liquid refreshment only -- an elitist error, to be sure. Yeah, there might be a fresh ketchup wet spot on your driftwood bench, or a palmetto bug may scurry across the floor... so what? Everything on Le Tub's handwritten, Xeroxed menu tastes fantastic -- its chili, burgers, and key lime pie win regular accolades. But the fries -- ye gods! These lovingly hand-cut shards of spudly goodness are fried to crispy perfection in peanut oil, rendering McDonald's flash-frozen abominations utterly pathetic. Blistered brown with shreds of skin attached, a basket ($3.50 to $5) of these hot 'n' tasty little items split between a pair of happy diners is a sure-fire entry point to the rest of Le Tub's delicious, overlooked selection of victuals.

Brush up on your Spanish, gringo, because few people at Atlakat are likely to speak your tongue, except when it comes to the universal language of great homemade food. But if you can open a menu and point, you'll be well taken care of at Manuel Chavez's Salvadoran café. Make a stab at the Sampler Platter ($12.99): fried pupusas filled with jack cheese, curtido (a marinated cabbage and carrot slaw) grilled beef chunks, fried pork chicharrones, and pieces of yucca and fried plantain. Give it all a squirt of Cholula hot sauce or a dunk in your bowl of hot tomato salsa and you've got a meal. Er, well, actually you don't. El Salvador may be the smallest country in Central America, but its appetites are big. Witness those burly workmen polishing off plates of tamales and grilled chicken. Now take a deep breath and order yourself a monster bowl of seafood soup ($13.50) or the Atlakat Special ($11.95), a forearm's-length strip of grilled sirloin, a grilled breast of chicken, and four jumbo grilled shrimp. Granted, you won't be able to finish it, not with those sides of fried yucca, red beans, and rice, but your waitress probably understands the universal sign for "Much as I'd love to, I can't choke down another morsel." (Point finger at unfinished plate, then at belly straining shirt buttons. Shake head wistfully.)

Benny's on the Beach

Philosophical question: How can you tell the dancer from the dance? How to separate the French fry from its environment? If you could surgically remove, say, that single Benny's fry -- crisp, salty, and golden -- from its plate and whisk it away from these surroundings -- the wooden pier, the gossiping pop and suck of the wavelets, the aromas of Hawaiian Tropic, salt air, and trolley exhaust; if you could spirit it to a place free from the absurd Technicolor tangerine hues of the setting sun and the ocean's sad, late-afternoon turquoises, from the babble of flirting couples and cranky tourists, and the high whine of a drive-time traffic report from a forgotten radio -- would it still be the same French fry? Or would it have become something else entirely?

Tacos Al Carbon

Blather all you want about authentic Mexican food, but how do you know it? The old lady in the kitchen pressing tortillas? The "secret" spice recipe? Maybe it's a menu that unabashedly sells tongue burritos ($3.50), tripe soup ($6), pork skin tacos ($1.50), and shrimp/octopus cocktails ($7.99). You could count the number of Mexican families crammed into a tiny room on any given Friday night or point to the queue of exhausted migrant workers lined up at the taco truck in the parking lot. The average price of a meal hovers around $5; the place is lavishly decorated with glittery streamers and balloons for every single holiday, from Valentine's to St. Paddy's to Cinco de Mayo. The mariachi and norteña music blaring at eardrum-splitting decibels could be the dead giveaway. Some might argue that you really know "authentic" when you can drive up to the to-go window at 4:45 a.m., seven days a week, and come away with a carton of spicy pork tacos ($1.50 each) that will satisfy any longing you're suffering at that blasted hour.

Tacos Al Carbon nails each and every one of those. But what really sets this moving-and-shaking, ever-evolving little goldmine apart from the corporate taco mongers is that nothing ever tastes the same twice. You may get a green sauce with your taco de chicharron that will peel the roof off your mouth. Then again, that taco might come with a cool tomato salsa bursting with cilantro and onion. A basket of corn tortillas, puffed and warm straight from the fryer, might arrive at the table at no charge, or then again, no dice. Your "veggie" burrito ($2.99) could have just about anything in it that can't be slaughtered and thrown on a grill. And then there's that mysterious menu item described as "other kind of meat..."

Keese's Simply Delicious

Big breasts. Hot legs. Juicy thighs. Isn't fried chicken the best? For more than 40 years, Keese's Simply Delicious has dished out perfectly spicy, sublimely crispy, just-greasy-enough pieces of fresh-fried heaven, even keeping its old family recipe through several management and ownership changes. But besides the fine fowl, Keese's has the advantage of its almost-oceanfront location. So order your two-piece/two-side dinner -- for less than six bucks. (Try the slaw and the intriguingly spiced baked beans). While you wait the requisite 17 minutes cooking time, brown-bag a beer from the gas station across the street and stroll past the tacky-yet-charming shops and cafés of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's pier district. By the time you make a leisurely lap, your food will be ready to grab and carry back to the beach for a seaside picnic. Just be wary of jealous bystanders. Keese's chicken looks and smells as good as it tastes.

Salerno's

Those of us who have taken to barking incessantly about the insulting lack of quality in everything these days -- the DVD player that skips whole movie scenes first time you plug it in, stylish steak knives that break off in your T-bone -- will cherish Salerno's for every drop of its home-made, carefully tended red sauce, its freshly made gnocchi, tortellini, and spinach fettuccini, its imported provolone and mozzarella. Sing arias of grazie to Tony Salerno for being a decent guy who couldn't live with himself if he charged more than $3.25 for a delicious bowl of Italian wedding soup. A hot sausage and pepper sub, supersized, can be had for $6.50 here, and you know when you get it home and peel off its greasy wrapper, it's going to taste better than you dreamed possible. A plate of rigatoni, served with a salad and dripping garlic rolls, will fill your belly without emptying your wallet. The only surprises here are good ones, like a shrimp, scallop, and bacon pizza (at $27.95, the most expensive pie on the list). And the only secrets have been passed down through generations of Italian cooks. Pass them on.

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