Big Al's Steaks - Delray Beach

"Whiz?" the cashier asks, and it's a test to see if you've ever had a real Philly cheese steak, the kind from South Street, where the grease and exhaust fumes are plentiful and no one raises an eyebrow at cheese that comes in a can.

If you can't stomach the Cheez Whiz, it's fine; they have American and provolone. They also have doughy, soft, and slightly greasy rolls to cradle the fresh rib-eye steak, plus perfectly salted fries to satisfy your drunken cravings after the bars close. Top your steak with peppers and onions, and grab a table on the sidewalk. Inhaling this snack takes less than five minutes, long enough to remember that living in Florida isn't bad — so long as it occasionally tastes like Philly.

Bombay Cafe

Tucked into a random medical-office strip mall near the Florida Atlantic University campus, Bombay Cafe concocts its delectable creations without frills like tablecloths or even table service. Order at the counter, grab some plastic utensils, and wait for the best combination of spices you've tasted all year. The vegetarian curries are outstanding, especially the mattar paneer — curried peas and chunks of cheese. A perfect marriage of buttery-smooth tomato sauce and simmering masala spices — turmeric, ginger, garlic, chili powder — make it impossible to stop spooning this dish on your plate. The red lentil daal is equally impressive. Most entrées are cooked fresh to order — no congealed buffet food here. The food is fast, cheap, and unapologetically exotic. Tourists haven't discovered this place, and that's a good thing.

Shalama's Halal Roti Shop

On first glance, Shalama's Halal Roti Shop looks like the sort of dicey hole in the wall where you might find yourself at 2 a.m. after a night-long drinking binge. But look closer and you'll catch a glimpse of the kitchen located just behind the front counter. Inside, you'll see a handful of hard-working matriarchs doing the same sort of time-tested home cooking that goes on in households all across Trinidad and Tobago. Those ladies have all the techniques down: making dough by hand and cooking flatbreads to order; sweating down garlic, onions, and Scotch bonnet pepper in a giant wok; gently coaxing flavor out of fatty, marrow-filled bits of lamb and chicken, then rendering those slow-cooked ingredients into curries bursting with character. When it all comes together, the results are magical. There's the spicy-sweet interplay of stewed meat and curried squash. And the textural variation of soft filling and chewy flatbread wrapping it all together. It's perfect drunk food, no doubt, but that's largely because it's also perfect soul food. And that's something that makes sense no matter what country you call home.

Morton's, the Steakhouse

Filet mignon is a down pillow disguised as beef. It has many characteristics of the average down pillow. It's soft and cottony, sort of round, extremely comforting... and has all the flavor of a sack of feathers wrapped in cotton fabric and seasoned with years' worth of dandruff. But let's say when you separate the short loin from the tenderloin, you cut through the bone that lies between them instead of just removing the tenderloin. What you get is a filet mignon with a wraparound bone, which when cooked contributes loads of very un-filet mignon-like deep, meaty flavor while retaining all that down-pillowy tenderness. What you also get is a hard-to-find steak that at Morton's commands a whopping $52 price tag, enough to afford a whole closet full of real down pillows. But then you'd still have to spring for dinner.

Valentino's Cucina Italiana

In a small, simple space on Federal Highway, chef Giovanni Rocchio is inspired. The gastronomist reinvents everyday recipes, turning them into extraordinary dishes via his crafty technique. Rocchio could fashion marinara sauce out of water, but it's his oversized ham and egg ravioli that's a whimsical tribute to everyday Italian. Freshly made squares of pasta are piped with fresh ricotta and spinach, forming a protective border for an egg yolk to be gingerly placed inside. With tender touch, the filling is sealed and the ravioli briefly boiled, then finished with truffle butter and crispy pancetta. A slice of the knife releases tangy yolk that commingles with succulent and salty sauce served alongside grilled asparagus and prosciutto bread. This pasta dish could be better only if Valentino's decided to open for breakfast.

Gran Forno Bakery
C. Stiles

A flagrant threat to the last of the remaining Atkins dieters, doughy clouds of bread beckon passersby from the window. It's nearly impossible not to peer inside and admire the bakers making breads fresh daily in their quiet determination. Neither the carb-conscious nor the flour fanatics can resist the blinding urge to devour treasures like oversized muffins, crusty rectangles of ciabatta, fennel-raisin focaccia, or hazelnut biscotti. As if the bakery weren't satisfying enough, a second location on the boulevard (a casual eatery, Gran Forno Pronto) opened recently to give special attention to the breads: panini, pizza, bruschetta, and pastries. Get to Gran Forno early to have full pick of the breadbasket. Do pay your parking meter — otherwise you might be fleeing into the street with flour-dusted fingers and lips.

Keese's Simply Delicious

Kesse's menu boasts a dish called "The Best Wrap" — your choice of protein with peppers, avocado, lettuce, fresh mozzarella, grilled tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, and onions. Sounds great, but the "best" is actually trumped by a menu option a few choices away, Steve's Wrap. We'll forgive the error, since Kesse's has several contenders for the title. Steve's Wrap is Mediterranean ecstasy with falafel, baba gannouj, tahini, eggplant and tomato salad, lettuce, tabbouleh, avocado, grilled bell pepper, and onion — components that combine to create the most flavorful mush you could ever eat, interrupted by small crunches from the falafel's crisp exterior and the stray veggies throughout. It's a welcome bear hug for your insides. And if that isn't enough, it comes with thick-cut seasoned fries that surpass all that you dreamed a fry could be — all for under ten bucks.

Manny's Cafe and Bakery

Considering South America's colonial history, it makes sense that colloidal kitchen-sink sandwiches have taken root in so many parts of the continent. Just consider the chivito (Uruguay), the lomito (Chile), or the butifarra (Peru): These towering monstrosities are larded with everything from filet mignon to avocado to sauerkraut, which sure seems like the ultimate middle-finger salute to those minimalist "bocadillos" the Spanish are so proud of. It's in that fine tradition of next-level cookery that the sandwiches at Manny's, an Argentine bakery in Coral Springs, are crafted. Each day, Manny's bakes crusty, delicate bread from scratch and piles it high with all manner of exceptionally prepared ingredients. Its butifarra would make any Peruvian less homesick, layering house-made country ham with pickled red onions, olives, and a tangy sauce. Equally satisfying is the chicharron, which packs nearly an entire pork shoulder's worth of juicy fried pork into a strata of roasted sweet potato, onion, and tangy mayo. But it doesn't stop there. Manny's does brusque baguettes stuffed with pan-fried steak Milanesa and lines soft rolls with layers upon layers of sheer cold cuts. It even makes some damned fine migas, Argentina's addictive answer to the tea sandwich. Factor in the decidedly populist prices and Manny's will have you pledging allegiance to the wonders of South American sandwich making.

Calypso Restaurant & Raw Bar
Candace West

Be prepared for a hearty embrace from the staff when you walk into crowded Calypso for a weekday power lunch. The warm service is guaranteed to shed any 9-to-5 woes; maybe you can't tell the boss to eff off, but you can take a 60-minute gustatory vacation. When you're not in the mood for jerk wings, curry, or seafood platters, the crusty blue-crab cake cutter will surely nourish your palate. The more-crab-than-cake is fried to a deep golden brown and packs a punch with island seasonings. Just a small amount of cracker binds the crab together, and although the homemade roasted pepper sauce is damned tasty, this sandwich doesn't need it — use it as dipping sauce for the crispy steak fries instead. If only it were prudent to sprawl a beach chair on the blue- and white-checkered floor, diners could park here all afternoon instead of returning to the office.

Tarks of Dania Beach
Photo courtesy of Tarks of Dania Beach.

Those in the know don't go to glorified wing houses for the best chicken wings in town. They go to a kitchen painted sea-foam green and sit (that is, if you can find a spot) or stand drumstick distance from fellow in-the-know diners. Tark's has been a Dania Beach institution for 45 years, so the folks there know chicken wings as well as their local seafood. Order the meaty drumettes "hot" and be prepared to discard your outer layer. Get 'em "terminator" and prepare to say hasta la vista to your shirt. But the best flavor, which meets all prerequisites for glorious deep-fried wings, is simply "garlic." Crispy, saucy, and flecked with minced clove, these hunky bundles are so juicy, they sweat. Best of all, ten wings come free with a purchased pitcher of beer on Wednesdays.

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