Is awarding a restaurant "best chain" a backhanded compliment? We doubt Buca di Beppo would think so. A cavernous Italian dinner house where portions are prodigious -- two-pound meatballs make this place a contender for the "Best Restaurant for Gluttons" category as well -- Buca di Beppo is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable chain restaurants in the nation, next to Cheesecake Factory. That's quite an accomplishment for an eatery whose name translates as Joe's Basement. The food here is way over the top: focaccia-style garlic bread, feet-long pizzas, and family-size platters of fried calamari or veal limone. The décor evinces even less restraint, with thousands upon thousands of photos and posters featuring Italian and Italian-American idols such as Sophia Loren and Joe DiMaggio. Try sitting in the Cardinal Room or at the Pope Table for a truly religious experience.
Correct bean-to-meat ratio? Check. Trace amounts of cayenne? Roger. Chunks of ground beef, not minuscule scraps? Oh yeah. Not too tomatoey? But of course. Le Tub is one of those last remaining bastions of true funkiness left in Broward and Palm Beach counties -- rough wood tables, checks and credit cards not accepted, no tap beer -- and the victuals are just as singularly entertaining as the bathroom fixtures used as seats and tables. The chunkified chili is what you're paying for, not the surrounding substrate. (The stuff comes in a Styrofoam container with a plastic spoon.) Order by the cup, bowl, or five-gallon pail and love every bite.
Downtown Hollywood is far from a perfect world, but it offers at least one culinary ideal. Chinatopia indeed aspires to a vision of perfection; its execution of multiregional Chinese fare comes damn near close to it. Mild Cantonese favorites, including tender steak kew or boneless crispy duck, vie with zestier dishes such as eggplant Szechuan flavor with shredded pork or Hunan triple delight. But no matter the origin of the recipe, you can count on Chinatopia to reproduce it faithfully. In terms of innovation, there are few surprises here, but when you look for the ideal restaurant, consistency is usually the key, and Chinatopia has that in Utopian abundance.
Coffeehouse mania swept much of the country during the 1990s, but, alas, it didn't make much of a dent in South Florida. (No, Starbucks doesn't count.) So local brew hounds found reason to rejoice when Meredith Huhn and Jay Motley opened Barefoot Coffee in November. It has the bona fides caffeine junkies expect. Start with some eclectic furniture: a crescent-moon sofa, brown Naugahyde recliner, and assorted hardwood chairs. Then add monthly rotating displays by local artists, which are also for sale. The recent Knarley Harley's Beach Whimsies exhibit included landscape paintings and fish sculptures made from driftwood, fishing gear, and hammered copper. For further diversion, one can go online at Barefoot for $8 an hour. Huhn or Motley will help electronic novices set up an e-mail account. And of course at the center of it all is that nectar of the java gods -- espresso, latte, cappuccino, and brewed. Barefoot has sidestepped the deli route -- and the interminable lines that ensue -- in favor of a respectable selection of bagels, muffins, brownies, and pastries. And its evening hours make the joint a handy stop before or after taking in a movie at the next-door Gateway Cinema.
Frankly this local restaurateur, who at one time owned 15-plus eateries in the South Florida area, was in something of a slump for a couple of years there. He separated from his wife of almost two decades, broke up with partner Burt Rapoport, and sold off his empire -- Prezzo, Max's Grille, even his flagship Maxaluna -- piece by piece. The boy looked down. But he's taught us never, ever to count him out. Now he's back with Max's Place in Bal Harbour in Miami-Dade County and a brand new place in Manalapan in Palm Beach County called Max's WatersEdge. He even has one of his old executive chefs, Pierre Viau, back behind the stove at latter locale. So keep your pity to yourself. All Max is interested in these days is your appetite.
It's probably no secret that we've been fans of chef-co-proprietor Tony Sindaco since he opened this cool little joint a couple of years ago. What may surprise you is our loyalty -- we still think he's tops. Check out some recent menu offerings: barbecued mahi-mahi and wild-mushroom torta with Jack cheese, mango salsa, and jalapeño sour cream; black grouper with roasted cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and a coulis of vine tomatoes; seared Maine scallops with Savoy cabbage, warm garlic-bacon potato salad, and cider sauce. You'll note several uniform things about the dishes at Sunfish Grill: Almost every main ingredient is fish or seafood, and without fail all are consistently modern without descending into fusion confusion.
If Cohiba can be considered the Queen Mother of Cuban comfort food, then we're clasped to her big, warm, soft bosom. From her we get our basic nourishment: black beans and rice, fried yuca, chicken noodle soup. From her we draw strength: pounded palomilla steaks, roast pork so tender it brings a quiver to our lips. From her we gain confidence -- or is it sugar? -- along with coconut flan. She gives it to us straight when we need it (just a plain ol' Cuban sandwich) and dresses things up with a flourish when we deserve it (shrimp with mushrooms and brandy). Call us mama's boys and girls if you must. But we're never going to leave her, so you might as well get used to it.

Why such passion for a sandwich that's not even good for you? Because it tastes so good, that's why. And the sandwich at Tropical Café is an exemplar of the genre. A huge, pressed Cuban roll stuffed with ham, Swiss cheese, and home-cooked pork (roasted to tenderness for four and a half hours) can easily get you through the day and only set you back $4.99, including a small bag of potato chips and a soda. But if you're especially hungry, there's a special or even a supremo, each a third again as large. If you'd rather not take all your daily cholesterol in one shot, a medianoche is a smaller version on a sweet roll with honeyed ham substituted. And if you're just not in the mood for the Earl of Sandwich's clever device to enable him to stay at the gaming tables during meals, Tropical Café boasts a diverse menu of Cuban specialties such as shredded beef, carne con papas, or lechón asado (that's roast pork to you, gringo) -- each served with rice and black beans, plantains, and that ubiquitous soda. Tropical Café is owned and operated by Humberto Fajardo and his wife, Sol Maria. While the operation on Andrews Avenue is an open-air experience where patrons perch on high stools lined along a sidewalk counter, the Searstown café is an indoor 50-seater. Maybe the latter is not as picturesque, says Berto, who came to Miami from Havana at age 19 and has worked in Cuban restaurants since, but it is air-conditioned!

If you think, given the name, that this corner delicatessen must serve some awesome steak sandwiches, you're right. Some of the tastiest Philly cheesesteaks originate here, along with other grilled sandwiches such as the steak-and-egg special, chicken Parmesan, or even a Cuban sandwich pressed as beautifully as a shirt. But if you think, given the name, that there's no way you could get a real New York deli sandwich filled with just-fatty-enough corned beef or spicy pastrami, you'd be wrong. The Steak Shop carries those items as well and even has a full Greek complement of gyros and souvlaki, as well as chili-cheese fries, Chicago-style hot dogs, and sausage and peppers. In the end the only assumption you really can make about this deli is that, while it may be all over the map, any direction you go will be correct.
This elegant little café offers a wide range of happy endings -- from a simple ginger cookie to a sinful Chocolate Decadence. It's all good. In addition to classic cakes, this neighborhood favorite mixes things up with trendy chocolate bread pudding or an upscale rendition of carnival fare. "It's all air and sugar," laughed one recent customer after happily biting into an elephant ear. A fitting description: The main ingredients at Stork's are sweetness and light.

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