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New York City
by the F&W staff
Nam This small, elegant space in Tribeca proves that Vietnamese restaurants needn't rely on a formula of Formica and fluorescent lighting. Downtown families as well as groovy singles come for authentic food: The bo luc lac (seared beef with tamarind vinaigrette) and ca chien (crispy red snapper with chile-lime sauce) are so good no one will want to share (110 Reade St.; 212-267-3777).
Euzkadi This tiny brick-walled dining room in the East Village showcases bold Basque flavors from its namesake region. The zesty olive-anchovy tapenade is addictive, but save room for the bacon-wrapped stuffed trout (served sizzling in a skillet) before moving on to the unusual selection of Basque cheeses or a heavenly bowl of silky rice pudding with chestnut puree (108 E. 4th St.; 212-982-9788).
Pigalle Onion soup, poulet rôti, cassoulet and other classics are available around the clock at this stylish theater-district brasserie. Perch on a green banquette or sit at one of the zinc bars, then tuck into a bowl of steamed mussels and an order of frites and fool yourself into thinking Eighth Avenue is just another Paris boulevard (790 Eighth Ave.; 212-489-2233).
Dim Sum Go Go The modern minimalist design, the absence of circling carts (all dishes are made to order)--who'd recognize this as a dim sum restaurant? Along with traditional Chinese cuisine, there are innovations like pink chicken-filled dumplings and bean curd skin stuffed with wild mushrooms and spinach (5 East Broadway; 212-732-0796).
Inside To take advantage of the best seasonal ingredients, Anne Rosenzweig and Charleen Badman (both formerly of the Lobster Club) change the menu weekly at their friendly West Village restaurant. Entrées like trout stuffed with Jerusalem artichokes and dill are paired with sides of creamy cauliflower or Provençal fries (9 Jones St.; 212-229-9999).
Max Soha This cozy trattoria has cultivated a loyal following of Columbia University students, professors and SoHa (south of Harlem) residents who come for generous portions of homemade pastas like spaghetti with lamb ragù. Start with a warm crostino toscano (liver pâté on grilled Tuscan bread), and let the charming waiters uncork another bottle of wine for you (1274 Amsterdam Ave.; 212-531-2221).
by Lisa Futterman
Amarind's After a nine-year tenure at the posh and pricey Arun's, chef Rangsan Sutcharit is drawing his own crowd to his new Thai spot. Forgo the predictable pad thai for Amarind's signature spinach noodles with crabmeat in a chile sauce, or for one of the rich, complex Panang curries (6822 W. North Ave.; 773-889-9999).
Kismet Chef and owner Wendy Gilbert has transformed her former Savoy Truffle location into a quirky and mysterious candlelit den, where couscous, merguez sausage, grilled kebabs and fatoosh (pita bread and olive salad) satisfy those in search of a Moroccan escape. The friendly Gilbert greets guests, ladles spicy tagines and sweet-talks diners into ordering homey desserts like the chocolate-cherry baklava--just as if she were entertaining you in her own home (1466 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-772-7530).
La Scarola Italian-American families and local celebrities sit elbow-to-elbow at this festive and lively storefront for no-nonsense dishes in gigante portions: pasta e fagioli, grilled calamari, veal chop alla Gabe (10 ounces of breaded meat) and (of course) platters of garlicky pasta. If you can squeeze in dessert, have the cannoli with an espresso (721 W. Grand Ave.; 312-243-1740).
Ixcapuzalco Geno Bahena of Chilpancingo (and formerly of Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo) recently created this colorful restaurant named for his coastal hometown in Mexico. Now he's turning out remarkable seviches, like lime-marinated marlin, and tamales to complement the moles and other dishes that pay homage to his mother's Oaxacan roots (2919 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-486-7340).
Café Laguardia Host Carlos Laguardia welcomes you into this Cuban oasis, handing out complimentary shots of "witches' brew" (a fruity rum concoction) to those who wait. Once you sit down, sample Havana black bean soup, fried pork medallions served with yellow rice and pigeon peas, and ropa vieja (tender shredded beef in a tomato sauce). Add a touch of the house-made garlic sauce or hot sauce to keep things spicy, and cool off with Hatuey beer or the signature mango margarita (2111 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-862-5996).
By Tom Sietsema
Colorado Kitchen In this witty retro storefront, diners can choose from a range of comfort dishes--from a simple lemon-sage roast chicken or pearl onion gratin to an elaborate napoleon of Virginia ham and Gruyère cheese. Caution: The homemade doughnuts served at brunch are habit-forming (5515 Colorado Ave. NW; 202-545-8280).
Meze Young Washingtonians come here for wonderful Turkish cooking served in snack-size portions. Ancient Greek goddesses painted on the blue walls watch over the two-story dining room as the crowd enjoys smoked salmon and feta cheese bruschetta, mussels fried in almond batter and eggplant stuffed with ground lamb, served until the wee hours (2437 18th St. NW; 202-797-0017).
Spices Just a Metro stop away from the National Zoo, this pan-Asian kitchen produces hits like young gingerroot salad in a Thai dressing and mango sticky rice. And following a major face-lift, there's now reason to linger at the glamorous sushi bar for red snapper nigiri and spicy, crunchy yellowtail roll or at an alcove table for the curry laksa--noodles in a spicy coconut milk broth (3333-a Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-686-3833).
Two Amys Named for the two owners' wives--one of whom runs the capital's stellar Obelisk restaurant--this spare, stylish Neapolitan pizzeria turns out oak-wood-fired pies of distinction that are at once tender and crackly, with toppings like vongole (hot peppers, garlic and cockles). Start with some herb-and-citrus-roasted olives or salt cod croquettes, and don't skip the Marsala custard dessert (3715 Macomb St. NW; 202-885-5700).
By Steven Raichlen
Joe's Take Away The carryout counter at Joe's Stone Crab, an 89-year-old landmark, may be Miami's best-kept dining secret. Load up on superlative fried oysters, two-fisted fish sandwiches, legendary lyonnaise potatoes and key lime pie, and you'll still have cash left over to share an order of stone crabs (11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-4611).
5061 Opened by the owners of popular Les Deux Fontaines in South Beach, this lively, eclectic "delicatessen" brings a modern industrial design, complete with continuously playing vintage movies, to the newly trendy neighborhood of Morningside. You can't go wrong with the pâté and cheese platters and the wild mushroom meat loaf (5061-75 Biscayne Blvd., Morningside; 305-756-5051).
Tap Tap The blaring live music and vibrant decor (painted by some of Miami's top Haitian artists) make this South Beach joint fun, but the real attraction is the home-style Haitian cooking. Adventurers can try lanbi Creole (Creole conch) or kabrit boukannen (grilled goat), while just about everyone loves the griyo (fried spiced pork) and red beans and rice (819 5th St., Miami Beach; 305-672-2898).
Hosteria Romana Located on picturesque Española Way, this sidewalk café specializing in Roman cuisine is a Little Italy caricature: Note the checkered tablecloths and relentlessly cheerful waiters. Dishes like carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried Jewish-style artichokes) join superior eggplant Parmesan and saltimbocca alla romana (veal with prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella) on a menu that plays equally well with tourists, local families and neighborhood cops (429 Española Way, Miami Beach; 305-532-4299).
By Susan Brennan
Mother's Bistro & Bar Owner Lisa Schroeder proves that mother knows best with her comfort favorites: biscuits in gravy, chicken with herbed dumplings and a 24-hour pot roast, all served in a chandelier-lit space within a historic building. Need more love? Check out the M.O.M. (Mother of the Month) specials, like picadillo empanadas, pork tamales, chicken paprikash and pork goulash (409 SW 2nd Ave.; 503-464-1122).
Café Castagna At this less expensive offshoot of the original Castagna restaurant next door, eclectic dishes like grilled spot prawns with chickpea salad, crisp pizzas (with toppings like chanterelles, ricotta and roasted garlic) and pappardelle with rabbit are a great prelude to the must-have root beer float at the end of the meal (1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd.; 503-231-9959).
Mint One of Portland's top mixologists, Lucy Brennan isn't afraid to take risks: Her signature cocktails are the dubious-sounding (but delicious) avocado daiquiri and the cilantro-laced Ad Lib (vodka and citrus juices). Enjoy them with such Latin-inspired dishes as prawn and mango salad with vanilla bean vinaigrette or a Cuban lamb burger with mint chimichurri (816 N. Russell St.; 503-284-5518).
Tartine At this old-fashioned French bistro, the menu revives forgotten classics like canard à l'orange and escargots. Brush up your français with the engaging chef, Gigi Machet, who will happily speak French to you throughout your meal (1621 SE Bybee Blvd.; 503-239-5796).
by John Kessler
Fritti Chef Riccardo Ullio dealt with the crowds at Sotto Sotto by opening this Neapolitan pizzeria in the vintage mechanic's/service station next door. Pies with salt-cured capers and anchovies, and seafood fritto misto heaped with lemons on a square of butcher paper, now draw their own clientele, especially when it's warm enough outside to open the garage doors (311 N. Highland Ave. NE; 404-880-9559).
Commune This sister to Matthew Kenney's Manhattan restaurant has taken up residence in an old warehouse with red backlighting and a 25-foot-long communal table. Start with simple, confident dishes like duck with carrots and lime, and braised short ribs with shallot marmalade, then go upstairs to the terrace bar for a nightcap and the wonderful view of the Midtown skyline (1198 Howell Mill Rd. NE; 404-609-5000).
The Swallow at the Hollow This old knotty-pine barn in an Atlanta suburb serves the area's freshest barbecue. Everything is made in-house, from the pit-smoked sausage and ribs to the bread-and-butter pickles and Texas toast. A classic Brunswick stew has squirrel meat, but thankfully, the Swallow's version substitutes roast pork, duck and turkey in a tomato-chile base; it's hearty and satisfying (1072 Green St., Roswell; 678-352-1975).
Taqueria Del Sol At this spot in a gentrifying warehouse district, the South-meets-Southwest flavors range from Memphis BBQ soft tacos with slaw to turnip greens with chile de arbol. The line to order at the counter is long, but it moves at a steady clip--and there's a margarita waiting for you once you sit down and have your food (1200 B Howell Mill Rd.; 404-352-5811).
88 Tofu House Inside a converted old Arby's, a predominantly Korean clientele chooses from a dozen options of the soondubu tchigae (silky tofu stew in a spicy and flavorful broth). Varieties such as seafood, beef or mushroom arrive sputtering violently in a superheated crock, which is calmed only by the addition of a raw egg. Begin the meal with an array of panchan (assorted pickles and salads), and end it with a bowl of sweet ginger tea (5490 Buford Hwy. NE; 770-457-8811).
by Brad A. Johnson
Café Bizou Finally, this tiny-bistro-that-could has opened an outpost on the west side, dishing out steak au poivre and monkfish risotto. A mere dollar buys a fine little salad or soup to complete your meal (2450 Colorado Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-582-8203).
The Kitchen Everyone from guys in tattoos to girls in pearls packs this cinder block diner in Silver Lake for buttermilk fried chicken and grilled wahoo fish with sticky rice and lime-ginger-mint oil. Inquire about the soup du jour or risk missing out on coconutty seafood stew (4348 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles; 323-664-3663).
Lucky Duck Dishes named "Bean No One, Going Nowhere," and "Happy Go Lucky Duck" may sound silly, but this is serious pan-Asian cooking (translation: edamame tossed with mustard greens and hot mustard; shredded duck with chiles and sprouts) in a refreshingly offbeat scene from the guy behind P. F. Chang's (672 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; 323-931-9660).
La Bottega Marino Regulars chatter in Italian--some just popping in to buy imported olive oil, others lingering over colossal bowls of linguine with sun-dried tomatoes or crispy-thin pizzas. Everyone who sits down gets a complimentary plate of tomato checca--like bruschetta, but on untoasted bread (203 Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-962-1325).
Father's Office Sang Yoon, the former chef at Michael's and Chinois on Main, proves that taverns can serve great food, with starters like house-cured white anchovies and entrées such as "lollipops" of lamb served with charred radicchio and black-olive oil (1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; 310-393-2337).
By Michele Repine
Alma From Nuevo Latino chef Johnny Alamilla's seviche menu, the sea bass marinated in Valencia orange juice, spicy tuna with coconut, and sweet scallops in cool cucumber consommé come in orders that can be shared--but you'll want your own scoop of the spiced dark chocolate ice cream (1101 Valencia St.; 415-401-8959).
Panchita's 3 Chef Rafael Campos took over his Salvadoran mother's restaurant and gave it a cool industrial-chic exterior that belies the unpretentious hearty food inside: pupusas (stuffed masa pancakes), seafood soups generous with langoustine and mussels, as well as deep red and tart green moles (3115 22nd St.; 415-821-6660).
Merenda 1997 F&W Best New Chef Keith Luce and his wife, Raney, have opened the perfect neighborhood restaurant. In their 10-table dining room, they serve large portions of daily specials such as saffron-cauliflower risotto, house-made pastas like chard ravioli with walnut sauce, and roasted chicken that's just right (1809 Union St.; 415-346-7373).
Baker Street Bistro Chef Jacques Manuera has not changed the price of his $14.50 four-course prix fixe menu in 10 years, and his loyal devotees keep coming back for classics like endive salad, duck confit and roasted pork loin (2953 Baker St.; 415-931-1475).