Broward's Foodie Heaven Isn't Las Olas Pretty but a Slew of Strip Malls on University Drive
|Marumi's tofu steak: You won't find this east of I-95.|
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.
Consider 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 distance of South Florida's best and most inventive Japanese restaurant (Marumi Sushi), a blessedly cheap purveyor of brilliant southern Mediterranean food (Sunrise Pita, 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.)
It's 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 care.
I 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 eastward, and Fort Lauderdale will become as delicious as it is pretty.
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