Sukhothai
Tabatha Mudra
Good service doesn't have to mean a ma”tre d' with an accent, waiters dressed in dinner jackets, or a sommelier with a silver cup. You don't always have to shell out the shillings to be treated well either. At SukhoThai, owner Susie and her son Eddie hand out their smiles for free, hailing new and old customers at the door with familial warmth. Eighty percent of the clientele at the 16-year-old restaurant are regular customers -- people keep coming back to see Murphy's Law confounded: For one meal, at least, nothing that can go wrong will go wrong. Drinks, appetizers, entrées, and desserts arrive on an immutable, predictable schedule. Dirty plates are unobtrusively whisked away. There's never a meal auction: Your server knows who gets the Masaman curry and the pad Thai. Water glasses seem to refill themselves. And the cheerful, modest Thai staff has perfected the art of being there without seeming to be there -- always within sight, never hovering. "We're not perfect," Eddie says. "Servers have good and bad days like anybody else. But we tell our staff, treat everybody like a VIP. You never know who you're waiting on."
Your temptation, when you enter this teensy shop downtown, will be to order everything on the sprawling palette of ingredients, but try to restrain yourself. Thing is, if you cram banana peppers and cherry peppers and pickles and olives and capers and jalapeños into the same wrap, all you'll taste is hot tang. Instead, go mild. Start with turkey or chicken or salmon or tuna. Then add sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, onions, sprouts, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, carrots, avocados. (Last year, the shop began stocking avocados after the owner, who works behind the counter, asked a patron whether his was the best salad ever. The patron hesitated, pondered, and replied that it needed avocado. So now you can get organic avocados on your wrap.) Top it all with a dash of oil and balsamic vinegar, for a bit of squish, and you're ready to roll. The whole mess will run you eight bucks, chips and a drink included. Save half for dinner in lieu of grocery shopping.
The legendary 1985 cult film Tampopo searches for the perfect bowl of soup. A contemporary remake could easily find heaven in a bowl of pho at this tiny eatery that's staffed by a superfriendly, always-smiling family. The liquor-license-less joint serves a few other dishes besides pho, but we haven't sampled them in years -- once we became addicted to Pho Nam Do's perfectly appointed Vietnamese beef noodle soup, there was no reason to. A few other Vietnamese restaurants specialize in this radical meal-in-itself, popular as a hearty breakfast back home, but none does it better. The hearty beef stock with just a hint of star anise is unbelievably yummy, the flat, chewy noodles are never sticky, and the thin slices of beef (or tripe and tendon if you're an adventurous sort) are only-just-barely cooked to perfection by the boiling broth. Bean sprouts, culantro, basil leaves, and chili peppers go on top, and then you're set with the most nourishing bowl of goodness imaginable. Our climate doesn't always make hot soup a first-thought favorite, but pho fans are everywhere. Hear that slurping sound?
An unscientific New Times survey has revealed that a liqueur-infused strawberry sundae ($12.95) just tastes better when the nosher is curled up inside the cushiony interior of an exorbitantly pricey Eero Aarnio ball chair. The same survey has also found that it's far more exciting, a real adrenaline rush, to spoon up the last crumbs of a piece of red velvet cake ($4.95) when you're sprawled like a goddess on a $3,000, pristine, white-leather '50s-style sofa, preferably balancing an indelible cocktail in your other hand, something like Jetsetter's notorious Carnival in Rio ($8.95), made with grenadine and Pepsi. To really live, you have to risk it all! And if you fail, if it happens that you accidentally dump an entire plate of kosher pigs in a blanket with deli mustard ($4.95) all over the elegantly slipcovered cushion of your Knoll chair, not to mention on your vintage Mary Quant miniskirt, well -- at least you tried, right? Nobody will ever say you wimped out, least of all Mike Jones, the man who has gone to quite a lot of trouble to find the retro atomic lamps that shed the exact light under which you will always look unusual and interesting, even when splattered with sauce from your pizza di Roma ($5.95).
Lester's Diner
Photo by Kristin Bjornsen
Two amazing facts regarding the chicken fried steak served at Lester's Diner: One, its 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week availability; and two, its sheer size. As long as something as inherently unhealthy as a battered and deep-fried piece of pounded meat is permitted to exist, it only seems right and fair to have it hot and ready for you at 2:30 a.m. after a night of binge-drinking. The voluminous mass of creamy, gravy-draped cow is so large, it handily chases away any uncomforting thoughts, as comfort food is wont to do. That you will also receive a pair of slightly-better-for-you vegetables means little at that point, as your bleary eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights, you settle deep into your Naugahyde booth, and you start devouring the one thing that you know stands between you and an Olympic-sized hangover the next morning.
There's an etiquette to drinking tea that one absorbs by osmosis, which is why you won't generally find tea house customers fiddling over laptops or screaming into cell phones. More likely, they're conversing in hushed tones over cups of liquid that smell like new-mown hay and jasmine blossoms. Or reading. Or just staring into space. Coffee hops you up, tea slows you down, and the Vietnamese proprietors at One Tea Lounge, Hoan Dang and Roger Tran, have made all the right moves to induce beta waves and belly breathing. The dozens of tea varieties purveyed here, from India, China, and Japan -- Chunme and Lucky Dragon, Russian caravan and Moroccan madness, Orange Blossom, Lichee, Rose, and Lapsang -- are good for body (full of antioxidants) and soul (tea rituals restore balance and equanimity). And then too, the stuff just tastes so good. Lap it up in surroundings conducive to cognitive breakthroughs.
Serenity Gardens
Anyone who's ever dissed British food has never sat down to an English cream tea, an entity exactly as decadent as it sounds, in a very proper way, of course. Or put it this way: An English cream tea makes you want to plunge your face directly into the dish of clotted cream, strawberry jam, lemon curd, and scones (a biscuity cookie-cake) and sort of, well, roll around in it. But you and the ladies who lunch at Serenity Gardens Tea House will have to keep your lascivious thoughts to yourselves, because the delicate frippery that decorates this old Florida house (the rosebud swags, the tea cozies, the demur, unmatched cups, the upholstered ball-and-claw chairs) would never stand for it. Nor would proprietor Sylvia Price, who has put together a sophisticated luncheon menu that ranges from Waldorf chicken salad and stuffed tomatoes to the full tea service ($17.75 per person, and you have to make a reservation) of petits fours, nibbles, and cucumber sammies. Price's array of teas, including organic greens and Earl Grey, is mind-boggling, but the one to try first is her homemade Chai, a wake-up call of a drink redolent of spices and orange rind.
Tarpon Bend Food & Tackle
Michael McElroy
Like drag racers whose extreme speed sustains yet may destroy them, chicken wings live and die by grease. What are wings without it? Scalding orange lipids turn ordinary chicken into one of the great blessings our world has to offer. Yet who among us has not winced upon being served a plate of wings whose drippings could be mistaken for those in his oil pan? The wing should spark, the wing should burn, the wing should sting. The wing, however, should not pop like a boil between your teeth. The wings at Tarpon Bend, on their best days, hit this chord precisely. While they're not spicy enough to truly warrant the label "hot" (which rightly ought to mean "unpleasant"), they are crisp without oozing grease, fleshy without getting bland. They confer all the joy of spicy, buttery fowl fat without choking you on it. Bonus points for unusually flavorful celery sticks on the side.
If you've never eaten falafel, you're missing an entire world. Literally. Falafel, a fried ball of spiced fava beans or chickpeas, is arguably the number-one food in the Middle East, sold everywhere from street vendors to fancy restaurants. Mandoah "Manny" Ebaid, a tireless, friendly, Egyptian-born restaurateur who runs Hollywood's popular Exotic Bites, provides a menu that highlights the versatility and healthiness of falafel. "This is healthy food that tastes great," Ebaid explains. "It's also a way to introduce people to my Egyptian culture." At Exotic Bites, you can eat falafel as an appetizer with toppings and pita bread ($4.95); as a main course served with hummus, tabouleh, and pita ($7.25); or as a sandwich in a pita wrap with the falafel broken into pieces and mixed with salad and sauce ($5.25). "A lot of people have tried falafel here for the first time, and I will bet that every single one came back a second time," Ebaid says. Chances are, considering how good the falafel is at Exotic Bites, you will too.
The Cottage
Christina Mendenhall
Here's a fad we hope lasts longer than celebrity knitting and mood rings: small plates. Because if ever we Americans needed anything badly, it's limited portion sizes. Never mind that you can get around the problem of "never enough" by simply ordering a lot of them -- you'll have a hard time limiting yourself to just one at the Cottage. The atmosphere here, a breezy outdoor patio jammed with cute people, is ultraconducive to downing many novelty cocktails while noshing on sirloin sliders with horseradish and chive jack cheese (served with smiley face fries), grilled eggplant salad with salty capers and olives, kung pao calamari salad, and beggar's pouches filled with pear and gouda and drizzled with brown butter. Even better, most of these minuscule delicacies are priced at or under a tenner. You'd have to sit for a long, long time to eat or spend too much. Still, it's not outside the realm of probability.

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