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.
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.
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.
"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.
Miracle of miracles department: This gorgeous space hosted a seemingly never-ending series of restaurants that all bit the dust after a few months. Then, about four years ago, a Syrian family moved in and lifted the curse. Ferdos Grill has thrived and prospered (as it should -- it's one of very few Middle Eastern restaurants in these parts) and shows no signs of abating. The falafel here is astounding and comes in three styles. It's made from chickpeas and fava beans that must've grown up listening to classical music; first, they're ground and shaped in small, wafer-shaped patties; then they're fried in a loving, gentle, oily environment. The appetizer version comes with hummus that is perhaps the finest ever produced by man (try the version with the grilled sirloin tips), and the pita-bread sandwich and the falafel salad ($5.95 each) are both noteworthy. The place is called "home of the kebab," and the belly dancers are a big draw. But when falafel is the question, the only answer in town in Ferdos.
Though Nikki Marina claims it is "knot just a place to dock your yacht," it wouldn't hurt to arrive in one. Granted, you can pull into a slip with whatever showy marine vessel you managed to inherit from Daddy, be it a catamaran or a Cigarette, but don't dare pull up in a Boston Whaler and expect the staff to run to you with martinis and oysters on the half shell. Come here when you want to be seen relaxing with the leisure class, lounging in linen accouterments, sipping mojitos, and noshing on Nikki's Delight of the Sea; this $200 platter is stocked with Alaskan crab legs, Maine lobster, poached shrimp, oysters, crab claws, Volcano coconut tiger shrimp, and sushi. Polish it off with a tres leches meringue ($8), if you still have room available in your belly. No doubt you'll wish to linger a while, mesmerized by the rhythmic lapping of the Intracoastal waters and the soothing crash of a large fountain. On a sunny Sunday, take in the brunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with its sushi, salads, pasta bar, fresh-made waffles, and omelets ($37.95 per person). There's nothing more Florida-chic than eating right near the boat slips without a bothersome umbrella or a drunken bunch of catfish-feeders around.
Home cooks, foodies, wine aficionados, sandwich lovers, party-throwers, vegetarians, marooned Manhattanites, and second-generation Italians far from Mama's kitchen all know where to find the magic missing from their lives: Fernanda's. To purchase a slice of mascarpone torta ($29.99 a pound -- bliss doesn't come cheap) and eat it right from the box in your car, without ever leaving the parking lot, is as close to pig heaven as most gluttons are ever likely to get. If the torta's too rich for your belly and your pocketbook, an array of sautéed vegetables like caponata Pietro ($9.99 a pound), Italian roasted peppers ($9.99), broccoli rabe with lemon ($8.99 a pound), roasted eggplant ($12.99 a pound), marinated mushrooms ($6.99 a pound), garlic mashed potatoes ($4.99 a pound), and macaroni and cheese casserole ($4.99 a pound) make for more wholesome chow. Fish lovers can sink a line and reel in Pietro's seafood salad ($12.99 a pound), Maryland lump crab cakes ($4.99 each), grilled swordfish pistachio ($16.99 a pound), or a tin of beluga caviar (market price). And culinarily challenged bachelors or bachelorettes can put together a multiculti party of Fernanda's breaded veal cutlets, sausage and peppers, meatballs, fried tortellini, proscuitto pasta salad, stuffed grape leaves, mushroom pirogues, spicy chicken wings, and fresh foie gras (24 hours' notice on the goose liver). If you're planning a picnic, Fernanda's dozen varieties of black, green, and stuffed olives, plus their selection of 18 sandwiches (all $7.99, from the Muffeletto to the "Don Quixote" with thin-sliced Serrano ham) sure beat that standard loaf of bread and jug of wine.