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.
Pine Garden
Throw a carrot in any direction in South Florida and you surely won't hit a vegetarian restaurant. The prognosis for herbivores is dispiriting — week after week of bean tacos (hold the lard!), pasta (hold the butter!), and overpriced salads (hold the Chevrie!). Then you stumble across Pine Garden, a nondescript Chinese place wedged next to a craft shop in the blandest of strip malls and you happen to idly pick up one of the paper menus shoved into a holder by the door, and WTF? Here's a list of 120 completely meat- and dairy-free dishes, along with a little write-up extolling the healthful benefits of soybeans. So you settle into your pine booth next to the pine walls among the Asian tchotchkes at Pine Garden Authentic Chinese Restaurant, ask for the vegan menu (it's separate from the regular Cantonese stuff), and prepare to feast on some of the most remarkable faux meat and fish you've ever tasted. The proprietors make fake shrimp, beef, pork, duck, and chicken out of soy protein, soybean threads, potato flour flavored with sea vegetables, and wheat gluten, and they sauté or deep-fry or stir-fry it along with salty black beans and hoisin sauce, with mushrooms and snow peas, crunchy broccoli, basil, bamboo shoots, cashews, and curry sauce, or they roll it up inside a rainbow pancake. They make fried rice with brown rice, tofu prepared more than a dozen ways, and crispy orange "beef" with strips of wheat gluten rolled in yam flour. It's all MSG-free and cooked in vegetable oil. The results range from the weird but interesting to the totally fabulous, and no two concoctions taste anything alike. Service is friendly, and the prices, at $7 to $14 for the entrées, are downright lovely.
Zona Fresca
Seriously, it'll drive your friends and co-workers crazy, but you really can go to Zona Fresca every day and never tire of this independent eatery's fresh Cali-Mex fare: fish tacos on Monday, steak burrito on Tuesday, char-broiled chili rellenos on Wednesday, quesadillas stuffed with cheese and cut-from-the-cob corn on Thursday, ceviche on Friday, nachos on Saturday, and a Baja chicken caesar salad on Sunday. After 17 straight days interchanging the burritos, tacos, and quesadillas with steak, chicken, fish, and veggies, you'll still crave the creamy guacamole, the hot salsa, and the tart roasted tomatillo sauce. Scoop it all up in the crunchy and warm chips. If your regular lunch buddies ever tire of the Zona, find new friends.
Casablanca Cafe
Lauderdale architect Francis Abreu designed this terrific Moorish folly of a house facing the beach on AIA in the 1920s; almost 100 years later, it's still sucking up salty breezes and swirling them around in a vortex of pale stone rooms that look like Scheherazade's digs in Key West. Your main difficulty at Casablanca is deciding where to sit. Depending upon the way you prefer to configure your "outdoors" and who you're dining with, you can settle down at a candle-lit bistro table on the aged brick patio facing the ocean or just slightly indoors behind billowing curtains under high wooden ceiling beams and hanging lanterns or facing Alhambra Street at the open-air bar with the telly tuned to ESPN. Or climb the circular stone staircase to a second floor fit for Rapunzel, where the doors are thrown open on the night and a handful of tables line a secluded balcony with a panoramic sea view. Although the menu is Mediterranean eclectic, the best dishes here are the simplest preparations: aged steaks and burgers, grilled fish, chocolate mousse for dessert, many glasses of wine, maybe a little discreet necking behind a column. Casablanca doesn't take reservations, and it's usually packed. The trick is to time your arrival after the midevening rush has peaked. After brandy and cake, take a post-prandial hop to the beach across the street.
Olio
Christina Mendenhall
Maybe the best wine list is no wine list. Restaurateur Tony Boueri and his brother Joseph have been collecting far-flung wines for a couple of decades and serving them to customers at Boheme Bistro on Atlantic Avenue. But three years ago, Tony built a better place to store those precious extra bottles. Around the corner on SE Second Street, Boueri bought a two-story Mediterranean-revival building and renovated it as Olio Bistro, installing a wine room at the rear of his new restaurant. The floor-to-ceiling racks hold 5,000 to 15,000 bottles, some of them old enough to have acquired a coat of dust. At night, the wine room — with its polished woods, crystal glasses, magnums, splits, jeroboams, rare cabernets wrapped in tissue paper, and, occasionally, a raucous private party — is as rich and strange as a scene in a fairy tale. Choose your bottle from an eccentric selection of California vineyards and the best of Italy and France, priced from $20 to several hundred (an Opus One goes for $150). The corkage fee you pay to sip your prize with a good shrimp curry or a bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels might be the easiest $15 you ever spent.

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