In an era when it takes a cool couple of mil to open a restaurant with any hope of success — what with the obligatory solid-gold threads in the throw pillows, the de rigueur kryptonite flooring, and the water walls — take comfort that a little candlelit closet in Hollywood is flourishing without pretensions or spectacle. The only circus act at the cozy, year-old Boulevard American Bistro comes at the end of your delicious meal, when co-owner Jean-Paul Varona sets your rum-laced guava bread pudding alight. But don't rush things. Truffle-oil-laced fries scattered with pecorino and provolone are meant to be savored, along with Chef Jorge Varona's terrific New Orleans-style grilled andouille with creole mustard and spectacular artisinal bread, or his pan-seared blue crab cakes with fruit salsa and a dash of chipotle. Generous servings of fat-loaded braised short ribs, big plates of grilled marinated hanger steak with crisp red pepper and polenta fries — it all looks like the people's food, but it's so beautifully conceived and executed that you'd almost think the people had done something to deserve it. For once, the best restaurant in South Broward is a place you can afford to go back to, week after week.
The downtown lunch crowd packs the tiny parking lot on weekday afternoons like a parched pack of bison at a watering hole, randomly wedging their oversized SUVs between yellow lines and racing in to place orders. A few Windy City-themed hot dog joints flourish in Florida, but Michael's is the lone local franchise of an actual Chicagoland institution. So what you'll find here are the same staples you'd encounter amid the gum-splattered sidewalks around Wrigley Field: Polish sausage, char dogs, chili cheese dogs, and, of course, the perennially awesome Chicago dog, top-loaded with pickles, relish, and peppers. The Sears Tower of hot dogs, this time-tested tubesteak is truly a tastier-than-thou, top-of-the-line victual item. And that soppy, drippy masterpiece, the Italian roast beef sandwich — which Michael's deifies with beef juice, giardinera (pickled carrots, celery, cauliflower, and peppers), and cheese if you want — is so hot and yummy you'll swear it just arrived on a first-class flight from O'Hare. Eat one with your eyes closed and a Cubs game on and you might think you're standing on the corner of Addison and Clark outside the stadium. Best of all, the counter kids here are so damned sweet and friendly, you'd think they were on an Up With People tour stop. If you're nice enough, they'll even remember your name and what you want — and if you call ahead, you can beat that long-ass lunchtime line. Also available: Italian sausage.
Josef's
This modest little restaurant is probably not the kind of place you'd stumble into accidentally. What looks like a sullen strip mall transforms, as you walk through the door at Josef's, into a full-blown fantasy of a quaint, alpine inn. Nor does it resemble in form or spirit the grand eateries that tend to gobble up all the "Best" awards year after year. It's run not by a celebrity chef but by a taciturn, practically anonymous bear of an Austrian named Josef Schibanetz and his American wife, Beth, who've been quietly going about the business of making Plantation gourmets ecstatic for four years. Their menu is distinguished by its devotion to the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy and its major city, Trieste, where a hybrid Austrian-Italian cuisine has developed over the years, incorporating influences from Spain and France. Thus, a casserole of shrimp with grappa and Edam sits comfortably next to garlic-sautéed frog legs Provenale, and a venison loin with pomegranate sauce and roasted pear might appear at the same table as crispy soft-shelled crab with fennel salad and yellow pepper aioli. These luscious European dishes are served with no pretensions, just hospitable warmth and perhaps a glass of good, fruity Friuli wine. Dessert appears as homemade strudel with a jaunty paper-thin hat of pastry and a complimentary plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Table 42
The South Florida pizza wars are hereby declared officially over, and to the victor — chef/owner Demetrio "Big Dog" Zavala — go the spoils. Kudos are due any tomato pie emporium that not only fires up a coal oven every day (you really can't get those charred bubbles in your crust without one) but puts together combinations of toppings like smoked salmon/sour cream/tomato/red onions/preserved lemons or wild mushrooms/pesto/fontina/mozzarella/crispy leeks, along with less outré meatballs and ricotta or a classic tomato-basil-mozz. To say nothing of a white or black truffle pie with roasted garlic, black pepper, and parmesan (market price). And Zavala leads yet another charge from the Big Apple: no trans fats.
Darrel & Oliver's Cafe Maxx
Photo courtesy of Cafe Maxx
All good things don't come to an end. After 21 years as the restaurant that put South Florida regional cuisine on the map, Café Maxx has finally, like some respectable old dowager acquiring a facelift and an iPod, got itself a liquor license and a bit of interior renovation. Thus does the Maxx slough off any lingering stale whiffs of its mid-'80s origins and take a sprightly step into the 21st Century, balancing a ginger-cucumber martini in one hand while keeping a firm grip on what has always made the place great: the seasonally inspired menu, the subtle and creative use of local ingredients, an unrivaled wine list, and a sophisticated vibe. Chef Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek are a foodie's dream team, a partnership that has lasted longer than most marriages and never gone stale. Ever the innovator, Saucy turns out dishes like honey-and-lavender-glazed duck breasts with baby carrots, peach cornbread, and peach salsa, along with swordfish fillet rubbed with ancho chilies and served alongside conch fritters with succotash and lime butter. Broek's wine list, chosen to complement Saucy's palate, includes hundreds of personally selected French, Italian, and American bottles guaranteed to taste marvelous with those giant shrimp sautéed in Pernod and lamb chops crusted with wasabi peas.
Johnny's New York Pizza
Sometimes you just need a piece of pizza. Not a deep dish Sicilian or something coal-fired with broccoli rabe. Just a good, old-fashioned, thin-crust New York-style slice. In such times of need, there's Johnny's, where $2.25 gets you a plain wedge of heaven and 50 cents more sweetens the deal with toppings like salami, pineapple, jalapeños, or (regular, thank God) broccoli. Johnny's is generous with the cheese, and when you order a Dr. Brown's root beer or a Heineken to wash the goodness down, they bring it to your table with a frosted mug — a plastic one, thank you very much.
32 East
Is there an inverse ratio of pretension to quality? Because judging from the décor (casually handsome, if a bit dated), the service (unreservedly nice), and the food (inspired but never showy), you'd never guess that 32 East, wedged in among the hubbub and scuffle of other fine restaurants on Delray's Atlantic Avenue, was the cream of that decidedly excellent crop. Chef Nick Morfogen has been quietly cooking away, changing his menu daily and sourcing local, sustainable, and organic ingredients — along with locally caught fish, black truffles, and foie gras — for nearly a decade now. Against all odds, he has become a fixture more interested in challenging his own and his customers' palates than becoming a brand. You'll find Morfogen's menu reassuringly familiar: There are the short ribs, only served as a ragu under homemade ceppo with truffles and porcini. There's the filet mignon, but with sauteed chanterelles and Neuske's bacon. And although the kitchen's hand may occasionally slip with the salt shaker or a piece of fish may arrive just shy of dry, Morfogen will never bore you. If you could marry a restaurant — smart, good-looking, modest, creative, and destined to age gracefully — this one would be the love of your life.
Paula Palakawong and Ravin Nakjaroen have their finger on our collective, turn-of-the-century pulse. They take Thai food, upscale it, and purify their menu with organic meats and locally farmed produce and seafood. Then they create from them gastronomic works of art and set the whole caboodle in a space with all the attributes of the most luscious spa imaginable, so that eating becomes an intensified, transcendent experience. What could be more au courant? Raised ponds, geometric rows of lotus flowers, Thai poems written in bas relief, and a menu featuring American products like Niman Ranch pork and Maine lobster cooked with Thai accent and spirit make eating at Four Rivers a thoroughly voluptuous experience. This young couple, who have never run a restaurant before, have managed to outclass the most experienced and well-capitalized restaurateurs in town with an effortless grace that comes from doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment. You've been waiting your whole life for sweet chili-glazed foie gras with spiced lychee and pineapple compote. You just didn't know it.
Pizza Fusion
Tabatha Mudra
Started in 2006 by two Fort Lauderdale school buddies, Vaughn Lazar and Michael Gordon, Pizza Fusion opened in Deerfield purveying organic pizza. But the guys pushed their concept right to the cutting edge: delivering those organic pizzas in Prius hybrids, powering their website with wind, printing their menus and boxes on recycled paper, using biodegradable flatware, and even taking your order with pens made of recycled cardboard. Their oblong, thin-crust pies — baked with organic white, whole grain, or gluten-free crusts and topped with combinations like Key West shrimp and pesto (yummy) or chopped plum tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar and olive oil (fantastic) — are damned well worth picking up the phone for. All their vegetables, chicken, tomato sauces, and oils (and even most of their beer and wine) are 100 percent organic. Prices start at $13 for a medium and $16 for a large, ranging up to a $48 surf and turf topped with organic strip steak, shrimp, and lobster. A second store opened in Fort Lauderdale in March, and the boys have already begun to take the concept on the road. They say they're "saving the Earth, one pizza at a time," but they may well save our stomachs and our consciences too.
Fran's Chicken Haven
Christina Mendenhall
Trying to tell the difference between one fried chicken or another is as tough as trying to tell one live chicken from another. Can you really discern if your leg came from Publix or KFC? At Fran's, the difference is noticeable and tasteable. Fran's opened in 1964 in a depressing Boca Raton strip mall as a takeout joint. When Stacey Fuentes bought Fran's in 2003, she inherited the cooking style, which involves scalding the birds to rid them of the yellowish fat, then frying them in vegetable oil. What emerges is golden and crisp on the outside and meaty and sweet on the inside. The pieces are huge, and Fuentes is credited with bringing in homemade collard greens, mashed potatoes, candied yams, rice, and black-eyed peas. As it says on the wall: "The rooster may crow, but the hen delivers the goods."

Best Of Broward-Palm Beach®

Best Of