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Restaurants & Bars 5

Ft Lauderdale area & Key West pleasures

markp | Mar 13, 200412:37 AM

Just got back from a week in South Florida, with a night spent north of Lauderdale and a few days down in Key West. This trip would have been a much lesser experience without the generous guidance of flavrmeistr, sm koppleman and the rest of you South Florida chowhounds. I raise my fork to you. Thank you. On to the highlights...

TACOS AL CARBON... I've lived in LA and now reside ten miles from what I consider to be one of the finest, most authentic taquerias in these United States -- Mole Mole in Poughkeepsie NY -- and I was impressed with and delighted by the al pastor and carne asada tacos at Tacos Al Carbon in Lake Worth. Superb, fresh guacamole too, all washed down with a delicious horchata agua fresca. Lots of local Spanish-speaking contractor-type guys taking an early lunch here at 10 am while I ate my late, vacationers' 4-taco breakfast. 24/7 family run place with some very funny hand-painted signs in the parking lot. Told my waitress about the raves. She made me write down the URL for her papa. I did and added "su comida es lo mejor" on a napkin and got a smile and thumbs up from the family patriarch. Thank you flavrmeistr. This place is great.

PADRINO'S CUBAN CAFE... Because my travels were not to take me through Miami, Calle Ocho and the highly touted Versailles, I wanted to at least sample some good quality South Florida Cuban. When I pulled up to The Fountains Plaza in Plantation, I started getting a sinking feeling, for the Fountains is a malloplex of gimmicky-looking theme restaurants. Well, despite the high-concept trappings, Padrino's turns out to be the real deal. Delicious ropa vieja, tender roast pork smothered in sweet onions, savory black beans, non-greasy plantains, delicate yucca... Superb Cuban coffee and very good flan. All for a song. A place that looks like a TGIF or Bennigans on the outside, with the heart of a Cuban family run joint. This was my wife's favorite meal on our trip and we almost missed our plane home in an attempt to squeeze in one last lunch there.

MANNY & ISA'S... Islamorada tourist trap, downhill alert or did we just catch 'em on a bad day? Sullen staff, tired food, no Cuban coffee ("machine is broken")... Some Scandanavian tourists came in, effusively describing their last great lunch at M&I's 3 years before, how wonderful it was to be back, and inquired about getting a few slices of Key Lime pie to eat at one of the lovely deck tables outside. They were curtly informed -- twice -- that if they wanted to eat on the deck they could order their pie "to go." The crestfallen expression on that Scandanavian guy's face left a sadness in my heart that still lingers.

BLUE HEAVEN... It's better than the hype, the rum drinks are superb (ah those mojitos), the yard chickens are a non-presence and the wait wasn't even that long. I swear the spirit of Tennessee Williams is lurking at this place, and he's smiling. Enjoyed two great meals here. The signature dishes are the ones to try -- the BBQ shrimp is a must and the sublime scallps in lemon butter sauce. Joy is in the details. They like to load every plate with four or five almost bite-size side dishes. Lots of love and lagniappe in this food. Nothing else in Key West compared. We walked out of Pepe's and the Half Shell Raw Bar to go back to Blue Heaven. A dreamlike place.

BO's FISH SHACK - The much-praised fried fish sandwiches were good, but their chesseburgers were a revelation -- among the best I've ever eaten -- cooked on an open grill, top grade perfectly ground beef and utterly devoid of grease. Served on melt-in your mouth Cuban bread. I ate one and then had to try another, such was my disbelief. I can't think of a better way to cap off your Key West snorkeling expedition than with a BO's cheeseburger and one of their fresh limeades.

FIVE BROTHERS' GROCERY - Who in the world is happier than the sleepy-eyed man riding his rented bicycle to 5 Bros Grocery at sunrise to rub elbows with the storytelling local cops, contractors and cemetary workers as he sips his first sweet and strong cafe con leche of the day and waits to be handed his order of Bollos and Cuban mix sandwiches for his still-sleeping family? No one. As the sun begins to cast its early moring shadows on Key West, no one in the world is happier than that man.

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