The place is far from fancy, a relic from the ugly era when décor was brown as a burger. Nor have the prices changed much -- a half-pound cheeseburger is the most expensive item on the menu at $3.95. And the service -- do-it-yourself -- is more fast-food than formal. No matter. The hamburgers are heartwarming, stomach-stuffing pleasures, especially when topped with all-beef chili and grilled peppers and onions. Customers with ulcers might want to opt for the plain hamburger, which can be doctored with fixings from the garnish bar, but even those with iron stomachs should consider soothing themselves with a vanilla shake, the best way to wash down a "Jack jumbo."
The best chocolates are rich and creamy and handcrafted by a little old man with a thinning mop of snow-white hair. The best chocolates, at least the best chocolates made by a local artisan, are the dozens of chocolate-coated pralines and truffles on display at a tiny shop in a nondescript strip mall in Boca Raton. The Mr. Roberts in question is a retired Swiss tailor named Heinz Goldschneider who has been churning out bonbons in Boca, including his award-winning white truffles, for almost 20 years.

OK, so there's really only one kind of prepared food at this little joint in downtown Hollywood. But there are more than 15 varieties of gourmet empanadas, those South American turnovers that are ideal for a light lunch or quick snack. Fillings range from traditional ground beef to vegetarian spinach, and include rich guava-cream cheese for dessert. Best of all you don't even have to stop by this 18-month-old bakery -- you can order catering and takeout services via the Internet by clicking on the www.cybermeals.com Website.
When your Hawaii Regional menu is this complicated, your servers better know what they're doing. And these waiters do: They can explain what upcountry greens are, describe the Maui Blanc pineapple wine accurately, and recommend the best items, which just might be the Kahana black ribs appetizer and the honey-sake roast duck entrée. They're polite and attentive, too. Those qualities should be a prerequisite for all waitstaff, but they often aren't in South Florida restaurants, where courtesy often seems as far away, and vigilance as much of an afterthought, as Hawaii.
The most famous crabs in South Florida are the simple, unadorned stone crab claws patrons wait hours to sample at Joe's Stone Crabs in South Beach. Rustic Inn, Broward's lesser-known crustacean haven, is famous in certain circles for a less refined crab presentation. Tucked away near the rental-car lots behind Fort Lauderdale/ Hollywood International Airport, the place is nearly impossible to find but well worth the scavenger hunt. Inside the no-frills seafood restaurant, big-bellied patrons draped in plastic bibs wield wooden mallets with barbarous glee. They reach into big buckets of split blue crabs that are drenched in butter and garlic (like garlic bread in a shell), smash the shells on the newspaper-lined tables, and then suck out the meat with a decisive slurp. Roll up your sleeves and abandon all propriety for a seafood meal in a restaurant that might just as easily qualify as the "worst place for a first date."
Technically a floor show means live, cabaret-style entertainment. And we certainly enjoy the belly dancer who prances around Kasbah, shaking her groove thang along with sequins and spangles. But the real floor show at this tentlike restaurant -- draped from floor to ceiling with silken, brilliantly hued fabric -- is provided by the customers, many of whom are unfamiliar with traditional Moroccan décor and cuisine. We've never seen so many people squirm on the decorative pillows, the only cushions between them and the rugs, and eat carrot-raisin salad and Cornish hen pastry with their fingers (which, by the way, you can lick if you don't feel like wiping them on the thick, white towel the waiter has draped over your shoulder). We appreciate even more the hand-washing rituals: warm water poured from a silver pot at the beginning of the meal, rose-and-orange-blossom waters sprinkled over your digits at the conclusion. The visuals in this place are just as authentic, and some of them as aromatic, as the steaming mint tea and fish tagine.

It doesn't look like much. The décor is akin to a '70s diner, the color scheme predominantly brown. Entrées arrive unadorned on standard-issue dishes. But nothing detracts from the Cooke family recipes. Even the flavorful sauces boost, rather than bury, the meats. Oxtail is marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and ginger for an unexpected delicacy. Jerk chicken has the requisite spiciness while skirting stereotypes. The piquant tenderness of a whole snapper belies its steely stare. Complementary rice and "peas," red kidney beans, cut the spices with coconut. Plantains are sliced to poker chip-width so they plunk, not sink, in your stomach. But the pièce de résistance is the sweet-potato pudding, served in dense, sumptuous squares drizzled with Bailey's Irish Cream. Merton Cooke knows the power of his pie and plies it with charming persistence. Lingering beside the table, he speaks lovingly of his hometown, Montego Bay, where he runs another Cooke's Goose. "Have you been to Jamaica?" he inquires. Almost.

Southwestern cuisine is one trend South Florida could exploit just a little more, and Armadillo Cafe shows us why. Chef-owners Eve Montella and Kevin McCarthy have been running this cozy place for a decade, serving up locally grown hydroponic arugula salad with black beans, roasted corn, and honey-chipotle dressing; fried goat cheese with yellow tomato salsa; Southwest shrimp pasta with avocado, snow peas, and jicama; and marinated leg of lamb with wild-rice pancakes. They complement their hearty, piquant dishes with excellent wine and beer choices, including microbrews such as Bert Grant's Scottish Ale (draft) and Dixie Blackened Voodoo (bottle). Specialty drinks lure the unsuspecting with their sweet descriptions -- the black raspberry margarita, for instance, or the chocolate martini -- but there aren't too many Armadillo novices here. That may soon change. Residents of Davie have long been grateful for the Armadillo's commitment to finely prepared fare. Now it's time for the regulars to share.

There are two ways to serve dim sum: Wheel it around in steam carts, allowing diners to select the small portions of Chinese dumplings, noodles, balls, buns, tarts, and cakes by sight; or make it to order, ensuring that customers receive fresh food and nothing is wasted. Bamboo Garden, which has two other locations in Miami-Dade County, goes both ways. On weekdays diners check off the amount of pan-fried turnip puddings or scallion pancakes they would like from a list of 59 items. On weekends the staff pushes around carts, serving specials of the day in addition to items from the regular menu. Whenever you go, though, and however you order your dim sum, chances are you'll be impressed, as we are, by the artistry invested in the creation of these delicious little tidbits.
Blink as you're about to cross the railroad tracks on eastbound 45th Street and you'll miss this hole-in-the-wall treasure, although your nose will probably steer you back. Almost all available surfaces in the tiny front room are covered with freshly baked, beautifully shaped loaves of bread, rolls, and pastries, displayed not in plastic bags but in baskets lined with colorful napkins. Hand-lettered signs identify the goods, which vary daily: French, Italian, pumpernickel, sourdough, marbled rye, herb, Parmesan, and other breads, along with giant cookies and other sweets. The breads are fat-free and contain no preservatives, and they freeze well. The steep prices aren't posted, presumably on the assumption that if you have to ask, you can't afford it. Don't worry -- it's all well worth it.

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