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Remember the nerdy librarian lady in the old TV commercials for Cinnaburst gum? How she cowered in terror when she saw "flavor crystals" on a stick of gum? "There's... just... so... many of them!" She gasped, unable to handle even the idea of that kind of explosion of taste. That's how you'll feel when you open the menu at the Salad Bowl. It lists a whole panel of gourmet salads — and then another panel of "Salads & More Salads" — with a stunning 23 salads at last count. Options range from old standbys — Greek, cobb, caesar — to the sexy Roman beef salad featuring sliced marinated steak, orange slices, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, and walnuts. There's a classic niçoise with potatoes, green beans, and boiled eggs and a Hawaiian with moist breaded chicken, shredded carrots, cucumbers, grapes, and juicy pineapple chunks. The list of ingredients goes on and on: mozzarella balls, pesto sauce, pepperoncini, goat cheese, roasted pork, nacho chips. Whoever does the grocery shopping for this place, we salute you.
Throughout human history, countless innovations have changed the way we conduct our lives: Indoor plumbing. Sticky notes. MTV. But innovations in the realm of food, especially in something as common as sandwiches, are a rarer breed. This is why LaSpada's Original Hoagies, a Broward institution that has been flinging lunch meat since 1973, should be praised for a practice that has brought subology in South Florida to a whole new level: the Meat Blanket. Order a sub at LaSpada's and the hoagie wizards therein will first fill a chewy roll with a layer of sliced-fresh meat. Then, in go the toppings — lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and their own blend of marinated sweet peppers — in such generous quantity as to be spilling out all over the counter. The question then becomes, how does one eat this beastly sandwich, so overflowing with goodness, and not lose half of it to attrition? That's where LaSpada's brilliance comes in. Sandwich makers here top the sub with another layer of sliced meat and fold it into the sides of the hoagie roll, sealing in all that goodness. It's like they're lovingly tucking an adorable baby sub in for bed. Only then you get to eat the baby. Mmmm, meat blanket, baby. Now, that's true genius.
Now a quarter-century old, Café Seville is no stranger to our Best Of awards. Forgive what must feel like insistence, but you'd search in vain for another eatery that puts eels, rabbit, and merluza together on one menu. Seville's famous, five-foot-high specials board has achieved the status of local celebrity. And nobody offers those dishes in a warm little room with such gracious courtesy. All the while, a classical guitarist is playing. Seville combines the ease of a village café with an old-fashioned South Floridian hospitality, the kind of laid-back niceness that went extinct in Fort Lauderdale around 1980. It's not just a Spanish restaurant — don't let that list of charming regional wines confuse you. Seville opens its door every evening and embraces a neighborhood: People gather to measure their years in deepening relationships, in annual celebrations, and in speeches recited over raised glasses — passing down this favorite café from generation to generation like an heirloom jewel.
You know this is an indulgence of the most gluttonous sort. You know you shouldn't go often. But you're smart about it; you try to go with different people most of the time. You coyly suggest it on birthdays and anniversaries — yours and theirs. Just driving by, smelling the steaks, triggers some sort of primitive desire to chew meat. When you arrive, as you move through the open courtyard and elegant, South Beach-meets-Rio décor, your mouth actually salivates just a bit. You're seated and your waiter explains how it all works. It's time. You start with the phenomenal salad bar, with all kinds of gourmet fresh peppers, cheeses, soups, and veggies. Then comes the meat. Sirloin. Filet mignon. Lamb. Flank steak. Top sirloin. Baby top sirloin. Rib eye. Pork loin in Parmesan. Sausage. And it's all brought to you by delightful gauchos dressed in traditional Brazilian garb. You might debate for a moment with your fellow diners which cut of meat is the tastiest. Then you remember the best part: You don't have to choose.
Not only does Tacos al Carbon serve authentic Mexican soul food good enough to grace the table of any proud abuelita; it's also open 24 hours a day, meaning that sweet release never has to wait. Tacos al Carbon spares no parts, crafting more than a dozen varieties of tacos out of succulent lengua (beef tongue), slow-stewed tripa (beef stomach), and deep-fried rounds of crunchy chicharrón (pork skin). Gringo-friendly varieties like grilled beef, chicken, and sausage don't disappoint either. Each taco comes lovingly graced with a mass of onions and cilantro, plus a filling of shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, and cotija cheese if you're so inclined. Stumbling drunks may want to steer clear of the blindingly hot orange salsa, lest their already-rumbling bellies take further abuse. For the rest of us though, it's pure bliss.
Start with the crispy cauliflower, which is flash-fried and covered in a sweet chili sauce so scrumptious that it will make you swear off sweet-and-sour chicken. Then order the sublime loaf, a mixture of lentils, brown rice, water chestnuts, and couscous that will convince you that all meatloaves ought to have "meat" in quotes. Hope your dining partner orders the enchiladas, a mixture of brown rice, black beans, faux cheddar, and shredded gardein (a surprisingly good fake meat product), all covered in a heavily spiced red sauce; it'll prove that Tex-Mex doesn't need to include Holsteins. Finish with the soy-based key lime cheesecake so perfectly tart and sweet that it just might make you vow to never eat any product that involves milking again. OK, maybe you'll forget all this and order a steak tomorrow. But Sublime — this paradise for vegetarians in a sea of meat eaters, this ideal of a restaurant that donates its profits to animal causes, this behemoth of eating with a conscience that seems plopped down from some other metropolis — will redefine your idea of vegan.
Somehow, the era of the $25 or $30 bottle of wine with dinner feels so distant, it might as well have been our Stone Age ancestors who were extracting corks from the Beaujolais with hand-carved flint tools. Restaurant wine has rocketed out of reach for regular people: Now we're guzzling a hurried glass at home before heading out. But that's never been the case at Hi-Life Café, a neighborhood favorite that takes its name seriously. Chef Carlos Fernandez (a Top Chef contender) and host/partner Chuck Smith have long known that food + wine = happiness. Thus, their breezy, California-centered list offers lots of bargains: pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley priced in the mid-30s, California merlots that start at $24, Australian shirazes at $32 and $34, a Spanish sauvignon blanc at $26, half bottles of yummies like Robert Sinskey pinot blanc and Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon, plus many more very drinkable grapes at friendly prices. The wines, naturally, pair perfectly with the down-home luxuries on Fernandez's all-American menu, from his chicken fried chicken and braised short ribs to roast duckling glistening under a blanket of merlot sauce.
If there's one food that pairs best with beer, it's a good burger. This must be why Big Bear, an independently owned and operated brewpub in Broward's western annex, puts as much thought into its stellar burgers as it does into its award-winning suds. Each of the half-inch-thick patties is made from ground-daily chuck and griddle-cooked for the perfect amount of juiciness. They're then laid to rest on an airy, sesame-seed-coated kaiser roll and topped in a few distinctive ways. Our favorite is the bistro burger, a pungent offering that's slathered with balsamic caramelized red onions, roasted garlic mayonnaise, Applewood smoked bacon, and a slab of runny Brie cheese. The black-and-blue burger is great too — it's dusted with a Cajun rub and paired with gobs of salty blue cheese and red-pepper mayo, then set against a sweet slice of Canadian bacon. These burgers may be high-class, but they're all low-cost, each clocking in under $12. Which means you'll have plenty of cash left to pair them with a stellar brew, say a pint of Trappist-style Kodiak Belgian Dubbel, which, at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume, is as big a friend as any burger needs.