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Writer Victoria Fedden visits Brazil, Japan and even Africa without ever leaving South Florida at these authentic, mom-and-pop eateries.
I was born with wanderlust. Growing up, I pored over my family’s collection of World Book encyclopedias and maintained an impressive collection of small plastic dolls wearing traditional costumes. The problem was my family didn’t share my passion for global adventure, although we did visit EPCOT a few times. That’s where I first tried a Moroccan bastilla, and where I learned that by tasting new foods we can instantly be transported without having to deal with airport security lines or baggage claim mix-ups. As an adult, I’ve had opportunities to travel abroad, but not as often as I’d like. Travel is a luxury, and we often don’t have time to jet into the next hemisphere. Luckily, we live in South Florida, so it isn’t necessary to endure an arduous journey to experience a different culture, and the best part—ethnic eats. People from around the globe move here to enjoy our unparalleled beaches and laid-back lifestyle, making South Florida one of the most diverse areas in the U.S. So, I decided to take a worldwide trip around town. Here are just a few of the truly authentic, mom-and-pop places that offer international cuisine steps away from home.
Toa Toa Chinese Restaurant
Toa Toa looks like the average Chinese diner with vinyl booths and glass topped tables. There’s oolong steaming in metal pots, bowls of crispy noodles, and of course the Chinese Zodiac place mats, but that’s where the similarities end. The restaurant offers an extensive Hong Kong-style dim sum selection, or the more familiar, and equally delectable, dinner menu. Flavors are bold, but don’t be intimidated. The baked and steamed buns, noodles and stir-fried string beans are not to miss. The friendly staff will guide newcomers and recommend the best dishes—even for vegetarians.
4145 NW 88th Ave., Sunrise / 954.746.8833 / toatoachineserestaurant.com
El Guanaco Taqueria y Antojitos
It’s hard to pinpoint the secret to a perfect taco, but the owners and chefs at El Guanaco certainly know. It may have something to do with the exquisitely handmade-to-order corn tortillas, but maybe it’s the drinkable red sauce or the green tomatillo salsa. El Guanaco specializes in home-style Mexican and Salvadoran food, and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Go for the pupusas (soft stuffed corn cakes), topped with pickled cabbage. The restaurant also makes transcendent tamales and coffee that stand up to that of any upscale café around.
331 NE 44th St., Oakland Park / 954.351.0792 / elguanacooaklandpark.com
925 Nuevo’s Cubano’s
This spot is located across from a car dealership at the corner of Sunrise and Andrews in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and if that doesn’t sound like a picturesque location, prepare to be surprised. What was once the Valdes family’s home has been transformed into an open kitchen, garden and folk art gallery. Order at the window (there is no indoor seating), eat at the bar, take away or find a spot outside where there’s plenty of seating in the back and alongside the restaurant, which is decorated with paintings, flags, mosaics and rooster sculptures. Devour slow-roasted pork, media noche, croquetas, fritas, and the best Cuban sandwich anywhere. Don’t forget to ask for the homemade hot sauce (more flavorful than fiery). With Cuban food this spectacular, a trip to Calle Ocho, much less Havana, isn’t necessary.
925 N. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale / 954.806.8375
Mediterranean Kebob House
Authentic Turkish food located in a strip mall next to a Marshalls? Absolutely. Salads are the stars here and can be sampled as an appetizer. But, they can’t outshine the 16 different kebabs, zucchini pancakes and sautéed eggplant. The spicy ezme and tangy, garlicky tzatziki are addictive, squeezed between triangles of warm pita. End the meal with Turkish coffee and richly caramelized Kazandibi custard.
1676 S. Federal Highway, Delray Beach / 561.276.5582
Dutch Pot Jamaican
During peak lunch hours, the line out the door is an indicator of Dutch Pot’s well-deserved popularity. Enormous portions of authentic Jamaican specialties—like brown stew chicken and curry goat piled into a Styrofoam clamshell—are dished out. The restaurant even has ackee and salt cod for breakfast. There’s plenty of callaloo and festival too, plus syrupy Jamaican punches (pineapple ginger is a winner). Cafeteria-style standouts include jerk pork and fall-off-the-bone, yellow curry chicken with fluffy mounds of rice and peas. All meals come with a sweet and vinegary shredded cabbage salad. Dutch Pot does have a couple of small tables, but it’s mostly takeout, so get a meal, drive east and picnic on the beach. You’ll swear you’re in Negril.
6029 Kimberly Blvd., North Lauderdale / 954.979.1915 / dutchpotrestaurants.com
Levy’s Kosher of Hollywood
For more than 20 years, Levy’s has been a Hollywood institution known for its superb Middle Eastern meals. The restaurant is Glatt kosher, so it’s dairy-free, and with most dishes veggie-based, Levy’s is extremely vegan-friendly. This is no typical, New York-style Jewish deli, though. Go for the falafel, the velvety humus and unrivaled baba ghanoush. It’s possible to make a meal from the pickle selection alone, but doing so would mean missing out on the shish kebabs or the chicken sesame schnitzel. Catering is available and highly recommended.
3369 Sheridan St., Hollywood / 954.983.2825 / levyskosherofhollywood.com
Casa do Pastel
Most South Floridians are fairly familiar with Brazilian churrascarias with grilled meats impaled on swords and extensive salad bars, but there’s more to Brazilian cuisine than picanha. Casa do Pastel, located in an unremarkable strip mall on Sample Road, is a small café, bakery and luncheonette that specializes in casual Brazilian comfort foods—most notably pastel, the Brazilian version of the empanada. Each thin, crispy pastel is made to order using hundreds of filling combinations that are both sweet and savory, and never heavy or greasy. Be sure to try the coxinha (chicken pie) and pao de queijo (small, puffy cheese breads), and wash everything down with fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice or cashew fruit juice.
430 Sample Road, Pompano Beach / 954.781.8778 / casadopastelusa.com
Sasaya Japanese Market
There are no sake bombs or sushi boats in this modest storefront, but you will find the freshest, most expertly crafted Japanese sushi in Fort Lauderdale, as well as hundreds of household items, trinkets, magazines, foods and drinks from Japan. Sasaya, one of Broward’s best-kept culinary secrets, does a brisk, mostly takeout business, but there are two tables where customers can enjoy sushi with no-frills on paper plates. It’s so good no one cares.
1956 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale / 954.761.8010 / sasayajapanese.com
Looking for a low-key alternative to ritzy steakhouses? No problem. East Boca’s Argentinian Deli is a modest diner that will grill a succulent cut of beef at a third of the price with a hundred times the flavor. Argentina is known for its high-quality beef, and the chefs at Argentinian Deli are experts. Try the skirt steak, and pair it with homemade mashed potatoes (better than mom’s), or a classic empanada. Argentinian candy, groceries and beers are on sale at the counter, where a slice of torta de ricotta or a selection of pastries can be purchased to-go.
501 NE 20th St., Boca Raton / 561.672.9003 / argentiniandeli.us
Woodlands Indian Cuisine
You can fly 18 hours to India, or you can drive to Lauderhill, but the all-you-can-eat, South Indian vegetarian buffet at Woodlands rivals anything you’d find in Mumbai. Dare we say, it might even be better. Get there early to avoid the crowds. If curries redolent with exotic spices, buttery naan, fragrant pots of sweet chai and golden mango lassis aren’t enough to make you a die-hard fan, you’ll be a Woodlands devotee after biting into the dhosa—a crisp, rice flour crepe filled with mashed potatoes and caramelized onions. Carnivores won’t miss the meat.
4816 N. University Drive, Lauderhill / 954.749.3221 / woodlandsus.com
Meal in a Pie South African Groceries & Food
Never heard of South African food? Meal in a Pie serves a lesson on the foodie genre located just off Federal Highway in northeast Fort Lauderdale. This hidden gem serves up hot, flaky South African meat pies, similar to an English pasty. Squares of handmade puff pastries are filled with well-spiced ground and shredded meats, veggies, cheese and even lentils. Be sure to try the chicken curry (disclaimer: it’s spicy!), the vegan lentil bobotie and the vegetarian spinach and feta. Grab a South African creme soda and a pack of chocolate coconut cookies to enjoy after sampling the sausage rolls and the Biltong—shaved beef dried with vinegar, salt and coriander.
4440 NE 20th Ave., Oakland Park / 954.202.9118
Frank Billisi Jr. calls Mimi’s Ravioli “Italian pasta heaven,” and he’s right. Fresh mozzarella, ravioli, manicotti and stuffed shells made hourly can be ordered to feed a family of four for under $25. The eatery dates back to the 1970s, when Billisi’s great uncle Joe and his wife Camille (nicknamed Mimi) opened the Hollywood shop. In need of assistance during busy season, Joe called Billisi’s father, Frank, who was living in New York, and asked him to relocate the family to South Florida in order to help run the business. A truly family-operated store, Mimi’s sells imported specialty items from Puglia, Italy, in the market-style front, while the counter displays cannoli and biscotti. Pizzas are made from scratch in a brick oven visible to shoppers. Billisi suggests ordering the mozzarella caprese, claiming Mimi’s offers “the best fresh mozzarella in the world.”
5714 Johnson St., Hollywood / 954.983.3711 / mimisravioli.com