Texas Hold 'Em BBQ
Although there's a delicious new high-end barbecue emporium in Broward out west of 441, there's something about the shack-on-the-side-of-the-road feel of Texas Hold 'Em that gives it the edge. This year-old spot is the kind of place where you can watch the dude out front manning the massive, oak-fired smoker, and when he walks inside to hand-chop your half chicken or pulled pork, the tiny dining room takes on the primal scent of slow-cooked meat. It's the kind of place where someone will be sure to stop by your high top to ask if you need more of that "good ole souse" or secret-recipe lemonade, and you'll have a hard time answering with your mouth full of savory, succulent collard greens or tangy baked beans. This stuff is all ridiculously tasty, especially that near-perfect homemade sauce, which balances spice and sweetness in the rich, tomato-y Texas tradition. It's kinda kitschy, but the theme décor -- all sorts of gambling memorabilia lining the walls -- is kinda fun too. Grab a slab of baby backs at Texas Hold 'Em and you're guaranteed to come up with a winning hand.
Jalisco Mexican & Spanish Restaurant
"This is spicy," the waitress says, indicating the swarthier of the two bowls of salsa she places on a booth table along with a basket of unsalted corn chips. First, then, the milder salsa. It's a cool mash of tomatoes and onions, with a distinct but not overpowering blast of cilantro along for the ride. Something else too -- maybe basil stirred into the sex-red condiment. The second salsa is earthier in color, with visible jalapeno slices and seeds scattered within. It has a curious sweetness that tingles on the tip of the tongue before giving way to a rush of heat that dashes back in the mouth and up the sinuses like sparks up a chimney. Before the stomach fills with these sauces, the lunch special arrives. It's a $6 chicken burrito surrounded by beans and rice and contains nothing more than chicken meat. The only flavoring agent in sight is the orange cheese piled on and around it. Luckily, an ordinary fork stands ready to act as a ladle. Salsas to the rescue!
Pepper's Chinese Restaurant and Lounge
Sure, there's some decent General Tso's chicken and moo goo gai pan at the hundreds of identical, stark white, fluorescent-lit Chinese-takeout storefronts that dot the land, but why settle for merely good? Pepper's has a full menu of the dishes you know and love, plus a second menu featuring some of the best, most diverse regional Chinese cooking in the area, including authentically prepared Taiwanese and Szechuan cooking. Unlike other area places that cater to Chinese tastes, they do a good job with both menus. Indulge in frog legs with pickled peppers and a fiery Szechuan noodle soup loaded with tendon and tripe one night and a pint of chow mein and a couple of egg rolls the next. Or mix and match. And instead of standing at a dingy counter, there's a nice bar where you can sit and enjoy a bubble tea while you wait.
Even the superrich need comforting sometimes, and restaurateur Paul Darrow, whose experience combines the sublime with the ridiculous -- Cordon Bleu training on the one hand, a chain of Cheeburger Cheeburgers on the other -- seems to have put his finger on a lineup of American recipes guaranteed to soothe fretful old aristocrats and picky arrivistes. At Deco's swank Sunrise Avenue locale, a plate of fried chicken ($16) comes sizzling from the kitchen ensconced on paper napkins to soak up the juices; servers wheel around carving carts of roast turkey with all the fixings ($22); a bubbling dish of macaroni and cheese ($13) made with real cheddar and cream bubbles quietly beneath a perfectly browned crust; and chunky crab cakes ($23) are partnered with a creamy mustard sauce and wilted garlic spinach. The family-style sides, like a big bowl of creamed spinach, melting mashed potatoes, and hunks of corn bread with butter, are throwbacks to an era when the fat cats could have their cream and eat it too.
Cho A Dong Oriental Food Mart
Even in cities with large Chinatowns, shopping for Asian groceries is seldom a one-stop endeavor. One place may have the best selection of dried mushrooms, another the best prices on bottles of fish sauce and sriracha. Which makes A Dong in Lauderdale Lakes so useful. Though a Vietnamese market in name and orientation, it carries a worthy selection of Chinese, Thai, and Filipino products, Japanese snack food, and housewares for putting that tom yum together and ladling it out. In back, there's a modest in-house meat and fish counter near the (alas, usually bagged) fresh produce, and up-front, shrink-wrapped banana cakes, various jelly concoctions, and staff who will happily lead you to the jars of shrimp paste. If you don't find that one special thing there, the store is superconveniently located in a strip mall that also boasts a fine Chinese bakery, an herbalist, and a great Chinese BBQ takeout shop.
This divine, romantic brasserie is the kind of place visitors to Florida -- or, at least, French Canadian visitors to Florida -- dream of and rarely find. And who'd think to run across it crammed among T-shirt, ice cream, and souvenir shops on the Broadwalk? Chez Andrée's superb oceanfront location offers stunning panoramic views from either the wraparound outdoor patio, strung with cheerful lights and bussed by salty breezes, or indoors from cozy padded booths and the casual bar, ideal for cooler nights. A bilingual French staff provides elegant service to match classic fare prepared from scratch by owner Bruno Barnagaud, who hails from Bordeaux, and his small team of French chefs: soupe á l'oignon, escargots drenched in butter and white wine, mussels marinire with crisp and steaming pommes frites, trout meunire, chicken breast with champagne sauce, and specials like beef Bourguignon and buttery sweetbreads cooked with mushrooms and white raisins and served with cream-laced potatoes gratin. Tropically influenced dishes rely on locally caught fish paired with Southern fruits and citrus. This is stellar food without snobbery or pretense, purveyed in a handsomely casual setting and accompanied by a strong wine list that includes half-bottles and good French wines by the glass. Best of all, your bill, even with a bottle of wine and a warm slice of an unsurpassed apple tarte, is almost embarrassingly reasonable -- another gentle surprise from a restaurant of so many serendipitous pleasures.
3030 Ocean
It's time we admitted we've been scooped: New Times readers last year voted 3030 Ocean as Fort Lauderdale's best restaurant. Let us shout it loud: Readers, you were totally on top of it! You had the savoir faire and gastronomical chops to know a mean plate of Australian butterfish when you tasted it. But we've spent the past year catching up, and while we were at it, we sampled milk-fed veal loin with wild mushrooms and wine truffle broth; we inhaled sweet plates of roasted coach farm goat cheese with baby beets and balsamic vinegar. There was a memorable meal of wahoo sashimi, a symphony of black grouper with jewel-toned vegetables. We learned that Chef Dean James Max, a homegrown Florida boy, is one amazing dude, devoted to seafood, committed to simplicity, effortlessly elegant in idea and presentation -- a modern master at the top of his game. We sampled his carpaccio of fluke with gribiche-stuffed Spanish pepper, the Maine lobster bisque, the smoked duck breast with baby greens and sour cranberries, the bouchot mussels. Our ignorance, we're happy to report, yielded hours of bliss. We ate, along with our crow, enough jumbo gulf shrimp and whitewater clams to choke a whale.
Bubbling bowls of soup are a mainstay of Korean cooking born of cold, harsh winters, and the chigae, wherein a fiery red broth meets some combination of clams, shrimp, pickled vegetables, and marinated meat, is about as extreme as a bowl of soup can get: tangy, sweet, sour, fishy, and hot-pepper spicy all at once. Which makes Myung Ga's own freshly made tofu all the more impressive. At this unassuming Korean eatery in Weston, you can taste the tofu even in a scalding chigae. Fluffy, savory, and a little sweet, it demonstrates how important tofu is to a dish in which mass-produced tofu so often provides nothing more than flavorless texture.
Fat Lou's
One caveat comes with this hot dog haven: The service is usually slow. Perhaps that's part of the shtick, though: Much of Fat Lou's appeal is in its big-city ambience and the high-minded way it has elevated itself above the mundane, no-frills hot dog stands that dot our suburbs. By contrast, Fat Lou's is a bona fide hot dog restaurant, with booths, tables, beer on tap, TVs all over the place tuned to the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, or Bulls, and plenty of room to stretch out. Though Fat Lou's does a stellar job of presenting its Chicago dog -- a steamed red-hot with relish, yellow mustard, peppers, celery salt, and tomatoes, it also offers a decent take on a classic New Yawk hot dog, with grilled red onions, sauerkraut, and brown mustard. Do not, under any circumstances, miss out on the Italian roast beef sandwich, a Chicago tradition that's served au jus and with giardiniera (pickled veggies) on a huge roll that's as messy as it is satisfying. You may have to rest your elbows for a while as your order is prepared, but the rewards are ample, and at least you won't be bumping elbows with the lunch crowd in some cramped stool 'n' counter joint.
When Michael di Bella took over Romantico from his mentor, Tonino Tizzano, a few years ago, he didn't hire an interior designer from Miami to hang glittery curtains and space-age uplighting or take on a bevy of PR ladies to spin his "concept" or set up a website with thumping house music and graphic close-ups of dewy basil leaves; he didn't even retrofit his kitchen with subzero coolers. He just went merrily along doing what Tizzano had taught him to do: a simple and silky fettuccini mixed in a parmesan wheel; veal Marsala textured like suede; pristinely fresh poached snapper with olives and tomatoes. And because he hadn't installed those subzero coolers and had so little storage space, di Bella had to keep running out every day to buy each night's ingredients -- which meant, by default, that he was always picking out the freshest fish and the prettiest vegetables. And then too, he'd kept in touch with Tizzano, who'd gone back to Italy (Tizzano was always sending him new ideas, so the menu at Romantico stayed as fresh as the fish). At length, this put him in a place he'd probably never expected to be, as chef-owner of the best restaurant in North Lauderdale. But to look at this tiny place with its handful of tables and to judge from the warm, friendly, and unpretentious way these lovely dishes are served -- from the Sicilian caponata right down to the blissful furls of cannoli -- you'd almost think the idea of di Bella's culinary superiority had never entered his mind.

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