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Husband and wife Richie and Noi Kasinpila have imported the brisk, invigorating flavors of their native Chiang Mai to the Lauderdale Lakes strip that's become ground-zero for lovers of the Orient; the Bangkok Palace is a few doors down from the Chinese Silver Pond, an Asian barbecue, a Vietnamese café, and a couple of groceries selling bean buns and fish flakes. Bangkok Palace has settled beautifully into this milieu, answering the prayers of we who can't live without a bi-weekly infusion of authentic green papaya, catfish, or crunchy fried egg salad larded with basil, cilantro, and grape tomatoes. The menu is based on gentle Noi's family recipes: hearty seafood clay pot, chicken laab gaii, kew nam chicken noodle soup, and egg-battered frog's legs, each dish tweaked precisely to turn up the volume on a different composition of herbs and spices. And the Kasinpilas' hospitality is as warm as the reds and oranges on their painted walls.
"Upscale" doesn't have to mean expensive or snooty. At El Chamol, chef Lamberto Valdez's contemporary Mexican restaurant in suburban Lake Worth, it means impeccable service and beautiful table settings — waiters who pull out your heavy wooden chair and unfold your napkin; painted Mexican dinner plates and pale-blue-and-green goblets. It means ravishing dishes arranged with an eye for color and composition and a chef who periodically emerges from the kitchen to greet customers or see to a table's special order. And the place is still as laidback as an afternoon in a shaded hammock. The Mexican-born, French-trained Valdez goes far beyond guacamole and chips to experiment with goat cheese and puff pastry, with cactus paddles topped with corn and shrimp, with lobster stuffed into a quesadilla, and with huitlacoche (fungus-filled corn) as a condiment. Even the guacamole is served with flair, handmade to order and scooped from a stone molcajete with corn chips the colors of the Mexican flag. Look for the coarsely chopped and lime-infused tomato salsa, their specialty margaritas, beans simmered all day and served in a cast iron pot, and tortillas that taste like the Mexico of your dreams..
Lucky the locale where the Vietnamese population has reached critical mass: New York has it, L.A. has it, and finally South Florida has it. A big community of Saigon expats means more Vietnamese restaurants and the customers to fill them, ensuring long life for both a restaurant and its happy patrons. A bowl of pho per day makes you healthy and wise. The pho at Sakyo comes with benefits — it's served by a charming family, shy and sincere, in a pretty, understated room, where the chatter in the booths around you is as likely to be in Vietnamese as English. Sakyo's pho is a mysterious, smoky broth layered with thin slices of rare tenderloin and delicate, attenuated noodles, added to which a handful of fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and jalapenos, a squeeze of lime, and a few spoonfuls of peppery sauce produces a soup far more than the sum of its parts. Join this wicked brew with Vietnamese crepes, shrimp and pork filled spring rolls, or the house special barbecued ribs.
What does a wine shop need beside great selection? How about cheese, gourmet foods, a knowledgeable staff, a non-pretentious setting, and occasionally a nice selection of liquor? That's Hollywood Vine. Trying to purchase the perfect bottle and have no one to share it with? Grab the hottie who just walked through the door, uncork the bottle you just bought, move over to their comfy seating area, and strike up a conversation. Like to try the grape before you buy? They have free tastings every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. Can't find the bottle you want in their 600 selections? Proprietors Steven and Luciano are more than happy to find it for you — and they deliver.
Even that dank package store down the block has a weekly wine tasting. Which makes it official: The winetasting market is officially saturated. For wine enthusiasts, this is great news: you can now go anywhere on any night and swish good stuff around. The catch is choosing the best party, and here Wine Tasting Nights at the Museum of Art wins hands-down. There's always a thrill of elitism that comes with entering buildings during off hours, especially museums. On select Fridays at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, you can get that rush while sampling great wines, checking out new art exhibits, and enjoying the extras the promoters schedule that night. Past tastings have featured live music, foreign films, and delicious snacks, all for a $20 cover ($15 in advance).
Call Rhythm Café in West Palm Beach schlocky, and you'll get no argument from the proprietors. The place (3800 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach) is brimming with pop art, thrift store leftovers, books, Florida memorabilia, a disco ball, and, well, junk. But don't diss the food. Co-owner Dennis Williams, along with chef Ken Rzab and sous chef Kurt Kamm give the food a long, creative ride.
You have the cutest, coziest little restaurant.
Thanks. We're a very small place. We only have 12 tables and 15 bar seats —we opened in a space that used to be an old drugstore so we kept the lunch counter and made that into the bar. We only have three wait staff.
How long have you been around?
Twenty years. My partner and I each graduated from the Culinary Institute of America — they call it the Harvard of cooking schools — and worked for the original owner; then he sold it to us 15 years ago. We make everything ourselves — from the bread to all the entrees. Sauces, dressings, desserts. Even ice cream. The menu changes frequently. We have five favorite entrees that are always on there — like pan-seared duck, Key lime chicken, crab cakes. Then we'll do things like duck risotto or pork schnitzel. We call it "creative homestyle food" — it's creative, but the elements are things people recognize.
How do you get your inspiration?
A customer might make a suggestion. Wait staff might put in their two cents. We might be at the computer and say, "Hmm, we're getting salmon tomorrow, and someone will shout, 'Hey, let's try this kind of sauce.' "
So, with the kitschy décor, you must have some favorite B movies.
I love Strictly Ballroom. It's an Australian film — so campy and funny. I've been taking ballroom dance lessons for a year and a half. Then there's The Sound of Music —not really a B-movie, but it's one of those things I don't really tell people I watch!
On June 19, 2008, Barry Star will celebrate his 30th year in business as owner of Hot Dog Heaven, the iconic Fort Lauderdale sandwich stand on Sunrise Boulevard. A Chicago native, Star speaks passionately about his food of choice. He'll tell you about the hot dog's humble days as a Depression-era snack or why neon relish producers switched over to vegetable dye instead of the chemical stuff (Chicago's waterways were turning an unnatural, albeit delicious color). It's Star's obsession with franks that has kept his store turning them out for all these years, even while his competitors have slowly disappeared.
NT: How do you do it, Barry?
I have a simple philosophy of not being too imaginative and creative. I'm a dinosaur. We don't have a microwave oven or even a holding table. It's like a flashback to when you were young and rode your bike to a place and they cooked it right in front of you. The guys in Chicago are now trying to compete with fast food and the quality is worsening. I'd rather raise the price and give you what you came in for than lower it and make an inferior dog. I want to keep making them how I had them when I was a kid; that will never change.
What's your best-selling dog?
Definitely the Chicago dog. I just had some kids come in here this weekend and buy some twice in one day. They said they were from out of town and they just needed to have another one before they left. That's why I do it.
What do you eat when you're not eating franks?
Junk food! My father was a route dispenser, and he used to fill the vending machines in Chicago. So I would hang out with him and go to the Cubs games and distribute Snickers bars and stuff. But I eat good, my blood pressure's good, and I work out. I guess I have good genes, too.
Who would win in a fight: The giant, Chicago-stomping hot dog seen in posters, or Godzilla?
Oh, Godzilla would win; he'd eat the hot dog. It's just his size.