Pho Saigon Cuisine
John Linn
No other Vietnamese joint around has mastered the art of banh mi like Saigon Cuisine. That's because, in its previous life, Saigon Cuisine was a humble deli, serving those Vietnamese-style submarine sandwiches by the rickshaw load. But even after upgrading to an expansive, modern dining room replete with a well-equipped stage, Saigon Cuisine still serves the finest banh mi around. Flaky and crisp baguettes are stuffed with carrot, daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeños, and plenty of house-made Asian charcuterie, plus whatever combo of sambal and lemongrass-garlic sauces you deem necessary. In addition to the subs, the place whips out more than 150 authentic Viet dishes. There are shimmering bowls of pho, fragrant with ginger and anise, and bubbling, cauldron-sized hot pots that elicit oohs and aahs when served. Wash it all down with one of the fab smoothies made from soursop, papaya, mango, and more, each studded with chewy tapioca balls ripe for sucking through a fat straw. Yep, Saigon Cuisine lives up to its name and then some.
Tropics
Gustavo Rojas
There is no such thing as stability in the restaurant biz , especially among those restaurants unwilling to change with the times. That's a big part of what makes the three-decade run at Tropics so special. If they've updated their menu, décor, or clientele since the '70s, there's no sign of it. What may be Wilton Manors' eldest gay establishment soldiers on, filling nearly full houses' plates with relatively inexpensive and really excellent steaks, fine cuts of salmon, delicately seared burgers (available only at the bar — try with Gouda), and a classic preparation of osso buco. Tropics' waiters pride themselves on serving the cheapest, strongest drinks on Wilton Drive and on possessing maybe the most dedicated customer base in Broward County. They're probably right on both counts. Tropics brings in the same old queens, night after night, for years and years. They figure: Why go anywhere else?
Fort Lauderdale ain't what it used to be. Take it from us: It used to be funky. There were more diners than fine dining establishments back in the day, and the enclaves of the ancien riche were few and far between. None was lovelier than the lounge atop Pier 66, which rotated every 66 minutes, giving the assembled a panoramic view of Broward County, from downtown Fort La-di-da to downtown Hollywood. Nowadays, the lounge is closed to all but private events, except on Sundays. On Sundays, you can pay $65 for a brunch with unlimited champagne and bloody marys and munch on sushi, foie gras, crab cakes, mushroom tortes, and other utterly unrelated delicacies while taking in a view of "the Venice of America" that gives the title more credence than a street-level view could ever provide. This is what "class" used to look like in Fort Lauderdale. Would that it did, still.
Blue Moon Fish Co. Lauderdale by the Sea
It's no secret that Blue Moon Fish Co. is a more-or-less perfect seafood restaurant with a more-or-less perfect location on the Intracoastal. What's harder to understand is how there is any gainfully employed Floridian who doesn't spend every Sunday morning sitting on Blue Moon's deck for brunch. They serve unlimited entrées! We're talking about salmon strudel! Mahi in vanilla-rum butter! All you can eat! Plus an all-you-can-eat oyster bar with fresh-shucked shrimp and clams. Plus an omelet bar. Plus a bloody mary. This is all for less than $30. Where the hell else can you sit on the water and eat infinite crab cakes for $30? Nowhere.
Mustard Seed Bistro
As far as boutique bistros go, the Mustard Seed is definitely a romantic spot. The dim lights, muted walls, and high-back leather benches ensure as much, as do the hushed service and tinny 1940s jazz tunes buzzing softly from the speakers. But the real love affair is between the owners — handsome power couple Timothy and Lara Boyd — and their customers — a largely female clientele that is thoroughly enraptured with the pair. It's easy to see why. Lara plays the part of elegant host, courting diners from the front of the house with grace and charm. Tim, meanwhile, lets his food do the romancing. He (with help from chef Ernesto Rado) revamps bistro classics and delivers them with a sexy spin, as with his mussels bathed in piquant curry broth or his slow-cooked duck with cherry gastrique. Even at lunch, when the place dresses down for the luncheon crowd, those crisp white plates of tuna niçoise and pressed sandwiches are arranged so smartly as to have those housewives, businesswomen, and cougars alike all moaning in glee.
Tryst
A well-designed restaurant should mean something to everyone who eats there, and that's just what happens at Tryst. The bistro and bar is laid out as mercurially as its menu of eclectic small plates, inexpensive wines, and intriguing craft beer. Inside, the space runs from cool and comforting to chic and sultry. The winding, dark-wood bar glows with candlelight, slipping from the hip checkered foyer to the rustic brick walls in back. There, if you're lucky, you can dine at an ornate marble table with hand-carved, high-back chairs that overlook the whole restaurant. If the weather's good, slip out to Tryst's lush patio. The cool, breezy area is like vanilla to the dining room's chocolate. Out there, wall-mounted fans blow dewy air over white tables framed by tropical palms and tall wooden trellises. It's the perfect spot to sip a cocktail and nosh on olives or charcuterie. Yep, whether you're going for a summer lunch, after-work drinks, or a late-night rendezvous, Tryst is one meeting spot you'll feel comfortable in at any time.
Brew Urban Cafe
It's a majestic coffee shop that also serves wine and beer — perhaps that's why Brew Urban Café is appropriately nestled in the slew of bars of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Tucked behind Tarpon Bend off Second Avenue, silver tables and chairs are planted on the sidewalk — usually filled with folks who can carry conversations. Inside, among the plush chairs and half-moon booths, there's a great mosaic of a coffee-drinking goddess. Indie, local art hangs on the walls courtesy of the art/DJ event Brew hosts each month called Dialect. Be ballsy and try the godzilla: That's 40 grams of protein and four shots of espresso. Or go for the electric shock: That's a vanilla-and-cinnamon-infused espresso, complete with a caramel glaze. Every coffee-shop-goer's dream is fulfilled: free wi-fi and friendly baristas. The microbeer selection includes Dogfish Punk, Stoudt American Pale Ale, and Rogue Dead Guy. Just try to find a Bolshevic Revolution anywhere else. Or, really, just try to stroll into a bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale and get served coffee.
E.R. Bradley's Saloon
Christina Mendenhall
An outfit that truly understands how to get you hammered ought to be able to manage the aftereffects. Bradley's does: No sooner have they cleaned up from their raucous late-night blowouts than a new shift arrives to serve gargantuan breakfasts and brunches. Seven days a week from the crack of dawn, this is food calculated to soak up whatever booze you have left in your system — heavy-duty sponges like the "BLT breakfast" stack of eggs, bacon, and tomato; shrimp and grits; roast chicken burritos; Philly cheese steaks; and blue cheese bacon burgers. Named for Colonel E.R. Bradley, the hard-drinking, gambling, horseracing Irishman who opened a casino on Palm Beach (he raised four Kentucky Derby winners and undoubtedly nursed many a julep-flavored hangover), the saloon has six fully stocked bars — one with plashing fountain, others with screens tuned to the ball game — all open to waterfront breezes good for soothing jangled nerves. A Sunday brunch buffet dishes waffles and hair-of-the-dog mimosas, but it's those tranquil Monday-morning breakfasts when the place is mostly empty — eaten to contemplative views of the Intracoastal — that really shore you up to get past humpday.
Brother Tuckers
Thanks to great strides in the craft beer revolution, finding quality brews at restaurants all across South Florida has been a lot easier this past year. But one place in particular makes seeking out rare and unique beers a way of life. That would be Brother Tuckers, a Belgian-style beer hall hidden away in Pompano Beach. The place is somehow still as much a secret as the crazy list of little-known beers it trucks in on a weekly basis. Scan the handwritten chalkboard by the bar and you'll find brews like Wild Devil, a naturally fermented IPA/Belgian variant from Victory, and Gemini, an unfiltered imperial ale from Southern Tier. They stock obscure saisons from the likes of California's Bruery and even local selections from Inlet and Native. The staff are all total beer geeks too, always game to wax poetic over the candy-like quality of a good quadrupel or to make sure that every beer you order ends up in the perfect glass — chalice, snifter, or otherwise.
Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar
Christina Mendenhall
Simplicity is the key to avocados, and Rocco's understands this. They don't mess with mayo or blenders or any such absurdity. A waiter wheels out a cart loaded with fresh avocados and a mortar and pestle. He throws in some cilantro, tomatoes, onions, and a dash of Rocco's secret spice mix, which includes paprika and other goodies. Everything is mashed together in front of your salivating stare. The result is addictive. Scoop this stuff up with crunchy, fresh tortilla chips — also dusted with secret spices — and you won't be able to stop.

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