Johnny V Restaurant
Michele Sandberg
Name: Johnny V (Johnny Vinczencz)

Age: 43

Hometown: St. Louis

Claim to Fame: One of South Florida's most sought-after and most restless chefs

What he's done for us lately: He kicked off the year by opening Johnny V Restaurant/Lounge on Las Olas Boulevard. This after hopping around South Beach and Delray Beach for a decade or so, experimenting with Caribbean and Southwest cuisines, making his name among comfort-food-loving diners. The new place is getting raves. There's something familiar but subtly different about dishes like sage-scented Florida dolphin (with rock shrimp-flecked plantain stuffing) or the lobster shepherd's pie. This is American home cooking with attitude.

What it takes: "At certain levels, either you have it or you don't. You can learn your cooking skills. But the creative end? That's a gift."

China Lane Restaurant
Located just west of Presidential Circle in Hollywood, China Lane is nestled in a strip mall that gives it the perfect location for movie night. After all, since Blockbuster Video is one block east, you can pick up that new release, then grab your piping-hot order of moo goo gai pan ($8.95). But this Chinese restaurant offers much more than anonymous takeout. With a book-sized menu advertising dozens of authentic Chinese dishes, China Lane serves up the spicy, saucy, and sweet on beds of white and fried rice until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 p.m. all other days. And this ain't Grandma's MSG-filled Chinese joint either. You'll see young professionals and municipal workers nearly every night. This may be due to the restaurant's location in a recently rejuvenated area of Hollywood. Readers' Choice: P.F. Chang's

Best Place for a Volcano Roll and a Thai Friend

Saito Bangkok

Nok arrives at our table, beaming her angelic smile over a plateful of volcano rolls. She sets it down, then brings us more Sapporo. How old could she be? 19? Yet so independent, so brave, here all by herself. We are going to Thailand next week. This dinner is anticipation. "You make me miss my country," says Nok, giggling and struggling for words. "What hotel are you staying in?" Two days later. Bangkok. The telephone rings. Nok's friend. In case we need anything. Why stick to Broward and Palm Beach? Nok is the sweetest waitress in the wooorrrllllldd!

The first thing you'll want to do is buy some tumeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and black peppercorns. Next, you'll take a mortar and pestle and crush the seeds (don't grind!). Now you've got your masala spice mix and can begin prepping the rest of the ingredients for your home-cooked Indian meal. No, we're not kidding, and yes, this is exactly why people who want to eat Indian food tend to do so at restaurants. So the question begs to be answered: Where to find a great Indian restaurant? And the answer zips back: "Go to Nabab." The place has all the vindaloos, tandooris, tikkas, and kebabs, along with less common regional treats such as "mild" murgh from Kashmir (with nuts, fruits, and spices), "medium hot" gosht kadai (lamb dish from Peshawar), and "very very very hot" South Indian mirchi masala (lots of peppers). Try making one of these at home -- even if you succeed, the cost for spices alone will exceed Nabab's average entrée price of $10. It's best to eat out when you desire Indian food and bester yet to do it at Nabab.

From the outside, Punta del Este looks like a dive bar. It's located right next to a laundromat called Sexy Suds. But if you're brave enough to go inside, you'll find a lobster Creole ($14.95) that'll make you cream your jeans and fried cassava ($1.75) that's almost better than sex. In fact, if you're not gettin' any, Punta del Este is a food lover's substitute for a night of hot loving. And if you're really advanced, prepare for the threesome. The Punta Del Este Special Combo ($12.95) features three meats (pork, palomilla steak, and chicken), served with rice and beans and sweet plantains. Finish it off with a steaming cup of café Cubano, and then, muchacha, let's rumba! UPDATE: This restaurant is closed.
Sweet Tomatoes
OK, so you have to queue up with what can be described only as an arthritic chorus line of elderly people who, for some unexplained reason, seem to have extremely sharp elbows. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. But once you plop the two big, empty, white plates upon your tray (only novices take one) and begin to work your way down the aisle of prolifically piled produce, you'll be so focused on composing (piling) towers of greens with every salad garnishing imaginable that you won't even notice the body blows from the woman behind you who's trying to grab more garbanzo beans. And that's just the beginning. After taking a seat, it's time to get up again to fill up bowls of daily soups and chilis -- chicken noodle, with giant wedges of roasted chicken, deserves a "best chicken noodle soup" citation all its own. Two types of pastas tossed every 20 minutes, along with freshly baked breads, muffins, and minisquares of pizza focaccia make it tough to save room for dessert, but most patrons manage some frozen yogurt with multiple toppings. All of this for the ridiculously low dinner price of $8.69 --kids under 3 years old eat free, ages 3 to 5 cost $1.49, 5 to 12 go for $4.49. Get in line. Readers' Choice: Houston's, Cheesecake Factory (tie)

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