Benny's on the Beach

Philosophical question: How can you tell the dancer from the dance? How to separate the French fry from its environment? If you could surgically remove, say, that single Benny's fry -- crisp, salty, and golden -- from its plate and whisk it away from these surroundings -- the wooden pier, the gossiping pop and suck of the wavelets, the aromas of Hawaiian Tropic, salt air, and trolley exhaust; if you could spirit it to a place free from the absurd Technicolor tangerine hues of the setting sun and the ocean's sad, late-afternoon turquoises, from the babble of flirting couples and cranky tourists, and the high whine of a drive-time traffic report from a forgotten radio -- would it still be the same French fry? Or would it have become something else entirely?

Keese's Simply Delicious

Big breasts. Hot legs. Juicy thighs. Isn't fried chicken the best? For more than 40 years, Keese's Simply Delicious has dished out perfectly spicy, sublimely crispy, just-greasy-enough pieces of fresh-fried heaven, even keeping its old family recipe through several management and ownership changes. But besides the fine fowl, Keese's has the advantage of its almost-oceanfront location. So order your two-piece/two-side dinner -- for less than six bucks. (Try the slaw and the intriguingly spiced baked beans). While you wait the requisite 17 minutes cooking time, brown-bag a beer from the gas station across the street and stroll past the tacky-yet-charming shops and cafés of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's pier district. By the time you make a leisurely lap, your food will be ready to grab and carry back to the beach for a seaside picnic. Just be wary of jealous bystanders. Keese's chicken looks and smells as good as it tastes.

When you order chicken wings, you want the whole shebang: a lopsided w of drummie, drummette, and that extra pinky on the end that functions best as a handle. That's what they serve at this tiny, carryout-only soul-food joint. A ten-piece box sells for $5.50 and comes in four varieties: mild, hot, lemon pepper, and "the famous Pompano Wings." The latter are bathed in a sauce that's neither hot nor exactly sweet. Neither spicy nor bland. Call it a flavor not found in nature. Gray's makes it easy to fulfill your fowl cravings, as it's open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. They deliver with a $20 minimum order.

Sure, you say, "You think I'm going to drive across hundreds of acres of sugar-cane fields just for a piece of meat?" Well, take heart in this: You'll float back home after you try this melt-in-your-mouth slab o' heaven. Jellyroll's offers a solid assortment of "upscale" soul food, but the chicken-fried steak and brown gravy, for $6.95, is the best. It includes a choice of two side dishes, among which are green beans and ham, black beans and rice, and collard greens (cooked with liberal portions of pork). The steak is lightly breaded and fried to a delicate crispiness. The restaurant is visually appealing too, with antique collectibles and old-time photos of Pahokee displayed throughout its brightly lit interior.

Cannoli Kitchen
Liz Dzuro

Maybe you've noticed the high price and low quality at the supermarket: America is currently undergoing a tomato famine. Well, not so much a famine as a shortage, which makes the sumptuous, fresh-tomato-topped slices at the Cannoli Kitchen all the more impressive. Existing in the culinary nether-region between New York thin crust, Chicago deep dish, and California gourmet, Cannoli Kitchen's slices come in 17 "signature" styles, like chicken fiorentina with ham, spinach, and mozzarella; Mexican with ground beef, salsa, lettuce, tomato (fresh!), green peppers, and cheddar cheese; chicken Alfredo; portobello; and the divine artichoke with sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, capers, and mozzarella. Takeout slices ring in at just over $3, and there are plenty of other Italian specialties -- including awesome hot and cold subs, pasta, and seafood, all at modest prices. If you like thinking in the long term, grab three fresh-frozen slices for five bucks. Now that's a cool deal.

John G's

As Zagat, Fodor's, or any assorted tourist map will tell you, the best breakfast around is at John G's. But the line at this place is often too much; it frequently snakes out the door and around the building. So here's a trick: Cut up to the takeout counter and bring your eggs to Lake Worth's public beach, which is just across the parking lot. G's is famous for its pancakes, with the blueberries baked inside ($5.95), but the best omelets you can find on or off the beach are also here. Their Italian is full of sausage, peppers, pepperoni, and melted cheese ($8.50), or try the Hawaiian, chock full of sautéed vegetables, a grilled pineapple slice, and cheese sauce ($7.95). G's will pack up your beach brunch, and then you can eat it blanket-style as you laugh at the poor schmucks waiting in line.

Pizza Rustica

They call it a slice, that slab of pizza in front of you. It looks about the size of a laptop and sits on two paper plates. Cut from Pizza Rustica's signature square pans of the stuff, these are a meal cut into three-bite squares. They come with a laundry list of toppings, including imported prosciutto, yellow squash, and shiitake mushrooms. There's the campagnola -- with sweet sausage, roasted peppers, sweet onions, and plum tomato sauce. Or the pizza putanesca, covered in Sicilian anchovies, kalamata olives, jalapeños, red onions, and pepperoni. Finish them off with a pizza filled with hazelnut chocolate. The slices cost $2.75 to $3.75 and the full pies $11.50 to $29. But what makes these slices better than the competition is the fact that you don't have to leave the house: Pizza Rustica delivers any order of three slices or more. Why order so much? You don't need more than a slice for a meal. But if you order just a little, you have to leave the couch.

Cafe Del Rio

Here's a little story about the fajita that could. One day, the fajita looked at his peers with their white, flaky tortillas, boring veggie mixes, and dry, flavorless meats and said, "There's got to be more than this." So he left his tiny taco stand in Nowhere, Idaho, and headed for Florida, Land of the Unique and Daring. Here, he encountered the folks at Cafe del Rio, who promised a makeover that would make him unrecognizable to those stale fajita friends he left back home. So the Del Rio people tossed chicken, steak, and shrimp into a tumbler with seasonings and marinades to make them flavorful and exquisitely tender. Then they added some yellow squash and zucchini to the standard veggie mix of onions and green and red peppers and adorned the sizzling skillet with a shiny, jade-colored pepper and a little silver cup of butter touched with cilantro and jalapeño. Why butter, you ask? Well, my child, butter makes the flavor of the meats richer (just ask someone at Ruth's Chris), and it adds a nice flavor to the golden and puffy tortillas that Del Rio makes fresh to blanket the whole affair. Of course, the guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes, Tex-Mex rice, and refried beans topped with melted shredded cheese were thrilled with the results, and they agreed that the prices asked were more than fair (just under $12 for beef or chicken, a little shy of $14 for shrimp, and nearly $15 for a combo of the three). And they all lived happily ever after in my stomach. The End.

The salsa at this modest and friendly joint isn't the finest only because it's free and plentiful but also because it's damned near perfect. Color: A bright, beautiful pink from the combo of diced tomatoes and onions. Taste: Like God has decided to prove to the world that he really does exist. Texture: Crisp and fresh. "We make it five times a day," says Eduardo Argueta, general manager of the Riverfront location. "And we throw away what's left at night and start fresh the next day. It has to be fresh to be tasty." But at Olé Olé, it's not just about the salsa. The fare is all first-rate. If you're with a friend or two, try the fajitas for three, which runs only about $23 and comes with a mountain of your choice of chicken, shrimp, or steak (or any combo of the three). And enjoy the margaritas. They're always strong enough, of good quality, and totally authentic, like the rest of the place.

Hamburger Heaven

This place is famous for its stellar beef, which is the very heart of good chili. Hamburger Heaven has long been one of Palm Beach's only moderately priced lunch spots, with crowds waiting in line far out the door to enter the 60-year-old diner. Most of 'em have come for the burgers, like the aptly named Beverly Hills, which comes with avocado and ranch dressing. But Hamburger Heaven's chili ($2.95 a cup or $5.95 a bowl) makes a good rival; it has big chunks of ground beef, red beans, and a sauce that's tangy but not spicy. Even though Hamburger Heaven is most certainly a diner, its chili doesn't have that diner feel -- you know, the sticky, murky texture that comes from being in a crock pot for a week. This sublime dish has a smooth consistency so that the floating chunks of beef and beans stand out. It's astounding, but if you simply can't pass up getting a burger when you visit Heaven, try the San Antonio ($9.95), which is smothered in jalapeños, cheddar cheese, raw onions, and, as you guessed, a mound of chili. Best Barbecue

Gou Lou is a fleshy spectacle unmatched elsewhere in Broward. A hole-in-the-wall with only two small tables, the carry-out restaurant devotes most of its space to a behind-glass display of roasted ducks, chickens, and pigs. You'll easily identify the species: Each animal is roasted whole, usually with heads attached. On a recent visit, ducks and chickens hung by their heads or feet, each a shimmering golden brown. A roasted pig dangled from a stainless-steel rack, its crispy head lying below it. On a nearby rack, succulent, deep-red ribs dripped with juices. Your order is chopped to your specifications as you watch. Honey-barbecue ribs or honey-roasted pork cost $6.50 a pound. Roasted ducks are $13.95, or $7.50 for a half. Chicken with head is the bargain of the bunch at $3.75 a pound.

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