When my foodie friends arrive for a first visit to SoFla, I deceive them immediately. In my old Taurus wagon, I drive them north on I-95. We pass marinas and canals ("Venice of the Americas," I tell them), cruise onto Andrews Avenue and over the New River ("Have you ever seen a jail on such an awesome slab of real estate?"), and then eastward on Las Olas. Along the beach, up Sunrise, north into Wilton Manors and past all the gay fabulousness, and then we're home. "This is Fort Lauderdale!" I say. They're impressed, or at least consoled that South Florida mightn't be as barbaric as they thought. In their minds, an image forms of their imminent vacation: Strolls down scenic shopping streets, a trip to the Galleria, a burger on Mary's lanai. But we will do none of these things.
Here is the secret known only to longtime Floridians, and especially longtime Floridian foodies: East of I-95 in Broward County has a few bright spots, like Hollywood Beach,
which retains some whiff of the mangrovified funk that made it a
three-decade haven for dropouts, burnouts, and itinerant Jimmy Buffett
impersonators. But the moment we're home, I begin adjusting my visitors'
expectations. "Yes, perhaps we'll go to Las Olas tomorrow, but tonight
I'd like to take you to this really excellent microbrewery. Tell me,
have you ever heard of Coral Springs?"
Because no matter how
excellent Las Olas looks, no matter how happening Beach Place seems to
be, how sophisticated the Borgish mass of the Galleria may appear, or
how retro-chic looms Pier 66 as it reflects the evening light, we won't
be going there. Ultimately, I take my visitors west. West to Coral
Springs, to Lauderdale Lakes, to Sunrise, to Plantation -- to all the
dumpy, sprawling, one-story suburban vomitslops where, improbably,
actual families and actual entrepreneurs and actual Floridians have
spent the last two decades making life interesting.
University Drive, surely one of the most aesthetically deficient
thoroughfares in the United States. On a northward drive beginning at
Sunrise Boulevard, a traveler on University passes within spitting
where orthodox Jews and be-burqua'd women eat side-by-side), an even
cheaper purveyor of almost equally brilliant vegetarian Indian food (Woodlands Vegetarian Indian Restaurant), two topnotch Korean BBQ joints (Gabose, and especially Myung Ga), a whole universe of craft beers (World of Beer), and then into Coral Springs, where it's a quick jog to Big Bear Brewing Co.'s masterful pizza and microbrews, or to an outpost of Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza (which is actually an eastlander chain, but the Coral Springs location is better 'cuz you can sometimes get a table.)
a heavenly jaunt. Granted, the western spots, with the possible
exception of Big Bear, look like hell. Especially Marumi, the strip mall
address of which could be converted to a dollar store with only the
barest rejiggering of decor. I can't take visitors there when they first
get off a plane, because the stultifying flatness of the land, the
useless patches of grass in the swamp-killing office parks, the uniform
roofs and fake stucco of the neighborhoods would send any sensible guest
screaming back to the airport ticket counter. They must be eased in
slowly. Eventually they are won over. No visitor has yet questioned my
reluctance to visit Las Olas or Beach Place. They're too busy eating to
wonder, sometimes, why it is that so many South Florida foodie gems are
secreted out west, in the barely settled swamp frontiers. The obvious
answer is this: Only business people can afford to open restaurants on
the glitzier boulevards, and most business people are not chefs. Chefs,
with their lesser business acumen, must go elsewhere. It's a facile
theory, but I hope it's true. Maybe as the word spreads, and as people
realize that a dumpy little Marumi is worth a dozen high-polished Japanese Villages,
the strip mall geniuses of Coral Springs and Sunrise will find their
wallets fattened. Then, perhaps, they will expand their operations
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eastward, and Fort Lauderdale will become as delicious as it is pretty.