Restaurant Reviews

Over the Hump

Every once in a while, I'm reminded that the rest of the nation's food media simply don't understand the South Florida eating scene. For instance, a couple of seasons ago, contacted me about reporting on our farmers' markets for a special countrywide feature that would run from May to November. I would have gladly taken on the job if (a) I had not been in the latter half of a pregnancy at the time, and (b) our farmers' markets were actually open from May to October. Down here our markets are in business from November to May, when it's not so hot that the vegetables ripen and rot in the humid air.

Then there's, for which I did work until that site's editorial department got sucked down the dot-com drain. Located in San Francisco (where else), would come up with a general topic for its many critic stringers across the nation, for which we then would choose ten restaurants that fit the bill. This practice was fine with me until I received an impossible assignment: Pick the top ten best places to dine outdoors. Dear Lord. Around here, the opposite would have packed more editorial punch -- we have so many thousands of eateries to choose from that I'd rather have written about the top ten restaurants for indoor dining.

But then, how can I expect folks from other regions to grasp the concepts of dining in subtropical weather when even local cities like Lighthouse Point are having a hard time with the notion? For instance, why would some of the members of the Lighthouse Point city council have bothered fighting Mark James, proprietor of Humperdinks, for a year over his plans to install outdoor dining, then adjourn to the sports lounge in Humperdinks for after-meeting cocktails?

I guess because we're all a little twisted in our own way down here. And contrary. And just a teeny bit unethical. Must be that subtropical sun -- addles the brains, don't you know.

Fortunately the 15-year-old Humperdinks, which James took over two years ago, is as straightforward as they come. "We were already established as a great family/neighborhood restaurant spot for regulars," James explains. "But I want word to get out that Humperdinks is becoming known as a regional hot spot. Previously we were known for Chicago hot dogs, but we've changed it radically. I've tried to give it an eclectic feel. Now we have entertainment seven nights a week with no cover. We have an upscale sports lounge where you can watch every sporting event on TV. We're one of the few places that combines all that with a menu that goes from chicken wings to prime rib."

From what I've seen of Humperdinks, James's vision has pretty much become reality. A casual country kitchen of a restaurant, with colonial-style kitchenette furniture and kitschy images of pop-cultural icons such as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe everywhere, the place has an old Vegas feel. James ultimately won his fight with the Lighthouse Point city council; he just recently finished installing a 38-seat, state-of-the-art patio with tens of thousands of dollars worth of electrical hookups, a tiki bar comprised of cedar and bamboo, and beautiful stonework, landscaping, and wrought iron fences. The result is that Humperdinks has been transformed from local staple into the new hot spot.

James is also the kind of guy who likes to spout mottoes. "If you had a good time, tell a friend," he suggests. "If you have a problem or suggestion, tell the management immediately." And honestly there's no trickery at all in either service or food. The staff welcomes you whether you're a political activist or a mom with a child in a Baby Björn carrier. You can dine just as well on an order of chicken wings, which are done perfectly in accordance with the best Buffalo tradition, or a "fresh garden-lover pizza" topped with homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella, tomatoes, black olives, broccoli, peppers, and onions.

Not only does the pizza dough contain natural spring water and organically grown herbs, even the hamburger buns are baked to order. That practice ensures that the thick, char-grilled burgers, themselves a rare treat, are matched with a good, juice-absorbing bun. Soups and chili are also house-made, though a broccoli-cheddar soup served the night we dined could have used some more simmering to relax the tougher particles of vegetable. A couple of salad dressings are also nicely rendered, including the vinaigrette that accompanied the house salad, comprising a mix of lettuces, red cabbage, carrots, tomato, and cucumber.

In addition to its reliable wings and burgers, Humperdinks completes the bar-food trifecta with its stellar baby-back ribs. Slowly roasted until they lost all sinew and grit, the ribs were practically candied with barbecue sauce. Pair 'em with natural-cut French fries, fried until golden, or just-sweet coleslaw, and you'll have no complaint.

In such a casual atmosphere, I'm usually reluctant to attempt more upscale items, but Humperdinks does a highly capable job of serving entrées ranging from stuffed shrimp to chicken breast topped with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, red peppers, and mozzarella cheese. The former turned out be half a dozen jumbos stuffed with Alaskan snow crab meat and seasoned bread crumbs and moistened with a lemony butter sauce. The latter was a generous breast, burdened with an almost absurd amount of veggies and cheese. Both main courses were accompanied by a choice of potato, including the fully loaded baked spud that you rarely find in the current Atkins-crazed culinary atmosphere.

Oddly enough the one dish we didn't really enjoy was the "combo sandwich" for which the 200-seat place has been known since it opened: half sliced roast beef au jus, half Italian sausage, both served on a freshly baked French roll with sweet or hot peppers. The beef was too thoroughly done for our liking, and the sausage wasn't crisp enough. In a way, though, we appreciated that Humperdinks has changed and improved so much that one of its previous signature items no longer rates.

A root beer float for dessert sounds savory, but something about the tiki bar in the early evening begged us to indulge in some creamy strawberry cheesecake in the twilight. If you miss the bar, which closes around 10 p.m., adjourn to the sports/entertainment lounge for the same slate of desserts, plus a range of coffee-and-liqueur drinks, because only after you appreciate every single aspect of Humperdinks can you agree with another of James's favorite slogans: "We have a menu for every taste and a place for every mood." Now that, my friends, is very much about the South Florida I know, understand, and love.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick