Taqueria Elvira
Any Mexican will tell you that there's no such thing as a Best Mexican Restaurant. Ex-pats from south of the border know that you go to one taqueria for your tripe soup, another for your mole, a third for your chile rellenos, and a fourth for your tacos barbacoa — depending on who's in the kitchen. At Taqueria Elvira, hidden in a half-empty shopping plaza behind Congress Avenue, the Osorio family knows how to make an eminently respectable burrito ($8.99 for one filled with beef tongue and served with refried beans and yellow rice), an excellent huevos a la mexicana ($4.99 with rice, beans, and tortillas), and a fine, smoke-infused taco barbacoa ($1.75). But the thing that's going to knock you flat with admiration and change the way you think about lunch forever is the quesadilla ($1.99 each). Forget everything you think you know about quesadillas — those limp, tasteless rounds served as "small plates" at fern bars, filled with Monterey Jack and swimming in bottled tomato salsa. These are not those. The Elvira quesadilla is a pillowy, oily, handmade tortilla, maybe three-quarters of an inch thick, folded over and sealed around homemade queso fresco (or shredded chicken or picadillo), then topped with more shredded queso and lettuce and served with a fruity, fiery green salsa. The texture of the tortillas is spongy and melting, like the lightest pancake. The cheese inside is a cross between freshly churned butter and artisanal mozzarella, and its effect is to induce involuntary moans. This quesadilla is ideally matched with a bottle of Mexican Victoria beer — a pilsnery, darkish brew — or a glass of horchata, a milky rice water sweetened with vanilla and cinnamon.
Café Claude comes as a blessed relief: Both atmosphere and menu are stubbornly, willfully oblivious to trends — it's like meeting a lost tribe of French people who've been living undiscovered in Deerfield since the end of the Second World War. The décor hasn't changed a thread since Mary and Claude Pottier opened the place in 1989, and enough time has passed that the drop ceilings, weird carpet, and silk plants exert a wry charm. By the time the cheerful French servers (all of them well-preserved ladies of a certain age in cashmere sweaters, knee-length skirts, and sensible shoes) get through with you, you'll be thoroughly won over. Delights are many, in a very classic French bistro vein: homemade duck confit with du Puy lentils ($12.95), saumon mariné with caviar, asparagus tips, and dill sauce ($12.95), or even a simple green salad dressed in luscious, creamy tarragon dressing (gratis, with your entrée). Outstanding specials might include a creamy, melting yellowtail snapper poached in lobster sauce with sides of skinny green beans and pommes Duchesse; or a slow-cooked cassoulet of white beans that have absorbed all the wild, unfamiliar flavors of sausage, smoked pork rinds, lamb, and preserved duck — and you'll be taking at least half of it home ("Eeets even bettair tomorrow"). Entrées can get pricey (roasted rack of lamb with ratatouille is $31.50), but prix fixe and early-bird menus are good value. A dessert cart wheeled around at the end is irresistible — pear tart with almonds, raspberry tart with custard, chocolate torte, cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries — and a porcelain pitcher of sweet cream tipped over your plate as the grande finale.
Born a ramblin' man? If your footloose life leaves you occasionally dateless, you need to know how to fully appreciate a meal in your own company. And that goes for you single girls too who might occasionally want to partake of a solo supper without the condescension or the sneer on some waitron's mug that signifies "woman alone = crappy tip." Mosey your moss-free self over to this charming French bistro, perched seaside with one of the best ocean views in the south, a breezy patio strung with lights, a staff of waiters who couldn't be less obnoxious and an interesting list of French wines by the glass and half bottle. Owner Bruno Barnegaud and his American wife, Kathleen, have been serving lone Montreal businessmen plates of pâté de campagne and moules marinires since they took the place over from a friend five years ago (who'd named the place after his Maman). People-watching on this strip of sand is unsurpassed — the beautiful, the bad, and the ugly stroll hand in hand along the renovated three miles of Broadwalk to keep you amused while you dig into delicacies that combine the best of the Caribbean — the fresh fish, the curries — with classic Bordeaux dishes.
Madras Cafe
Despite a sizable Broward population of immigrants from the subcontinent where vegetarian cooking is a high art, there's still a dearth of Indian restaurants here willing to venture into the uncommon cuisine of south India. But Madras continues to buck the trends, serving idli, sambar, and those delectable little savory doughnuts called dhai vada, plus lesser-known dishes from the southern coast — like the marvelous, hot sour Malabar fish stew made with kingfish and curry leaves. Excellently cooked North Indian clay-oven specials are here too, like chicken tandoori marinated in yogurt that falls off the bone in one lovely bite. And anybody still craving lamb vindaloo and chicken korma won't go hungry. But it's the feel of the place, in all its bustle and warm scents, in the melodious accents coming from the next room — where extended Indian families come for the buffet — that really makes Madras a place to lodge deep in your heart. The staff can't seem to stop smiling, busboys keep refilling your basket of fiery papadams, and owner Soye Thomas, originally from Madras, really cares if you're happy with the number of dried peppers in your vegetable chettinad.
What can you say? It's a Ting thing. When you get a craving for grapefruit soda and jerk chicken, you want to go where the meat is spicy and tender and the Ting is larger than that glass-bottle thimble they pass off at most Jamaican joints. And on top of that, you want your meal served up hot with a side of booty jam videos, under the glow of fly orange neon lights. Yeah, you want the Hot Pot. This strip-mall staple knows how to stew its ox, curry its goat, and jerk its chicken better than anyone else around, and they built window boxes into each booth's wall so you can kick back and watch B.E.T. while you E-A-T. The lunch specials pile on enough caramelized plantains, shredded cabbage, and brown gravy to keep you going until noon tomorrow, so consider it $5 well-spent. Or, if you're more of a breakfast person, swing by earlier and try out their morning fish dishes. Then go brag to all your friends that you had a kick-ass breakfast with Beyoncé and Usher — don't elaborate.
Along with Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Haitian, Mexican, and Cuban eateries, western Fort Lauderdale now boasts at least three Honduran restaurants that have all sprung up in the past year. La Costa, housed in an old doughnut shop across from a car dealership, looks to be popular with Central Americans and curious gringos alike. If you're just getting hip to Honduran cooking, try the baleadas (Spanish for "single shot") first. Served everywhere from Tegucigalpa to La Ceiba, baleadas are hot, fat, fluffy tortillas smeared with beans, crema, and strips of marinated steak. They function as utilitarian staples, appropriate for everything from breakfast to midnight snack. Some call it a Honduran burrito, and two of them are positively belly-stuffing and set you back a whole $7.50. Judging solely by the baleadas barometer, La Costa comes out way ahead, but it's worth noting that the specialty house breakfast (just your typical Honduran fare of eggs, meat, white cheese, refried beans, crema) bests the competition as well.
Few things in life spread happiness like the discovery of a good Thai restaurant in the neighborhood. We're not talking some fusion club with a DJ and a parade of supermodel wannabes sipping saketinis — that just spreads ennui. But a pretty place, preferably run by a not-unfriendly Thai family that offers takeout or dine in and stays open seven days for lunch and dinner, that's a fail-safe pleasure-generating machine. Because a body has to get its fill of pad Thai and tom yum gai, and a body has to have an affordable place to park its butt with a few pals on a rainy Tuesday night, right? Thai Bayshore, centrally located in Lauderdale, fully embodies this simple proposition. A husband from Bangkok, Pat Siri, with ten years' experience in the restaurant biz, waits tables while his wife, Nida, cooks from family recipes. Both of them personally chose the decorative details (wooden screens, Buddha statues, a stone-relief sculpture) and had them shipped in from Bangkok. The pace is leisurely, the colors soothing, and the music low enough to encourage interesting and intimate conversation. The presentation of the dishes is beautiful and the ingredients sublimely fresh. In summer, the Siris celebrate mango season by bringing in bushels of ripe fruit from a local monastery and serving them with sweet, sticky rice doused in coconut milk — a serendipitous sensual pleasure that also happens to be good for you.
Japango
Parkland is placidly rich horse country. You can drive for miles and never see much beyond green paddocks and the occasional glimpse of a McMansion lurking behind electronic gates. But you have to hand it to the moneyed: They don't skimp when it comes to feeding their nags (beet pulp, soy oil, molasses) or themselves (uni, toro, caviar). Chef Kevin Lee had the good sense to plunk down his fashionable fusion restaurant in the place most likely to attract the Taverniti and BCBG set, and he woos them with kobe steak, foie gras, and port wine reductions creatively twisted to resemble traditional Japanese fare. It's L.A. by way of Kyoto. A plate of tuna tataki comes dabbed with duck liver and American paddlefish caviar, a seafood salad tosses octopus and crab with mango, and "duck two ways" drizzles grilled duck breast with hoisin lime sauce and sets it next to a little trio of the most delicious flash-fried minced duck meat egg rolls you'll ever burn your tongue on. Of course, the place is a madhouse, with the pretty people lined up three deep at the bar. Make a reservation, and be sure to touch up your highlights.
CayDa Vietnamese Restaurant
It's almost the season to think about squeezing into that bathing suit again — you know, the one you bought three years ago, telling yourself you could drop five pounds no sweat. The ongoing existential conundrum is this: Can one continue to behave like a disgusting glutton and simultaneously keep one's figure whittled down to the proportions of Mary Kate? The Vietnamese have solved this dilemma by refining, over thousands of years and with a little help from their skinny French occupiers, a cuisine to keep the ladies svelte under those body-hugging silk dresses — and the Duong family at Cay Da (which means banyan tree) will cheerfully share the secret. Steaming bowls of hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($3.95), laced with mushrooms, scallion, and chopped tomatoes, have all the caloric wallop of sucking on an herb-infused cloud. A fresh, whole fried snapper ($20.95) drizzled with ginger sauce is meant to be eaten one prissily delicate bite at a time (chew slowly; put down your fork between bites!). Seafood curry ($16.95) is as light as an ocean breeze, and even the special sizzling house crepe ($14.95) wraps the thinnest of rice pancakes around a fresh and unfussy filling of juicy shrimp, dusky bean sprouts, and slippery mushrooms. You could eat each of the 20-plus homemade specialties on this menu — even the sliced duck breast — one at a time with no break between courses and still find yourself shedding pounds practically in your sleep. And at these prices, you'll save enough dough to buy the matching coverup for that suit. Not that you'll need it.
The Dutch Pot Jamaican Restaurant
Photos courtesy of The Dutch Pot Jamaican Restaurant.
It's no secret that this region has a wide selection of Caribbean restaurants catering to South Florida's African diaspora. Certain eateries have a French Caribbean flair, while others stick to traditional West Indian dishes. Either way, there are tons of Caribbean restaurants to explore, especially in the Lauderhill area, where they seem to exist in every strip mall and plaza. Still, popular Jamaican haunt the Dutch Pot sets itself above the other restaurants with stellar service, a loyal following, and food that's packed with as much flavor as your taste buds can handle. Step inside and a rush of aromas greets you at the door. Every day, the staff prepares its own jerk seasoning, brown stew, and homemade curry. Lovers of seafood should show up for breakfast — the steamed fish head and ackee (the national fruit of Jamaica) and salt-fish dishes are as authentic as it gets. They offer conch as well, but it's always freshest in the islands, so eat this one at your own risk. The curry chicken is the best meal on the menu, with meat so tender that it falls off the bone. And they know the secret to an enjoyable Caribbean meal is in the fluffiness of the rice and peas. Everything here is delicious, and the serving sizes are also huge and guaranteed to fill you up.

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