After a year of reviewing restaurants and six months of full-time food writing, here's the thing I didn't realize at the start: I would have to eat a lot of garbage. I had dishes and meals that still make me shudder and wince. There is a lot of high-priced mediocrity out there.
And then, there are the moment of bliss, the bites that made me realize why I wanted to do this in the first place. The bites that made me scream curse words in delight (it's a Brooklyn thing). The bites that sent me scrambling to my smartphone to snap Instagram pics and giddily text friends and loved ones. In the order they leaped back to mind, here are the best dishes I had this year in South Florida restaurants.
1. Pastrami sandwich, Smoke BBQ, Fort Lauderdale: You know the famous scene in "When Harry Met Sally ... " when Meg Ryan fakes ecstasy in New York's iconic Katz's Delicatessen? My first bite of Smoke BBQ's pastrami sandwich was like that. Only my foodgasm was real. After a half-dozen more visits, I still think the housemade pastrami —moist, smoky, explosive — is as good as Katz's. "Meat butter," I called it, its black edges coated with pepper and coriander and its ruby-red fatty interior glistening and almost translucent. Kudos to chef Mike Porcari, an Italian guy from New Jersey, for knocking it out of the park. And I'm happy to report that the owners have finalized a long-term lease after a dispute that landed in court. Smoke BBQ, 3351 NE 32nd St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-530-5334, EatBBQNow.com. Pastrami ($12.95 sandwich, or by the pound) is offered daily in limited supplies.
2. Crispy pork guy, KYU, Miami: My favorite new South Florida restaurant, which opened in Wynwood in February, offers many tasty dishes, including beef tartare on Zak the Baker bread, a crunchy crab rice pot topped with egg, and a coconut cake dessert that made me rethink my dislike of coconut. But the single best bite at KYU (pronounced "cue") came from a simple $12 dish named "crispy pork guy," salted fried cubes of pork belly, served with lime and dipping sauce. The texture is just insane — crunchy on the outside, warm, gooey and gelatinous on the inside, like some campfire marshmallow made of pig. Chef Michael Lewis drew inspiration for the dish from a street vendor in Thailand, "the pork guy," where he snacked every night while on vacation. KYU, 251 NW 25th St., Miami, 786-577-0150, KYUMiami.com
3. Sashimi lunch platter, Sushigo, Boca Raton: Perfection on a plate can be found in a strip mall next to a pawn shop, tattoo parlor and Papa John's. For nearly five years, sushi chef Sung Gook Joe, a Nobu alum, has run a small, expensive restaurant that takes fresh fish very seriously. His lunch sashimi platter ($18.95) is an affordable way to dive in. It includes three slices of tuna, three slices of salmon, three slices of hamachi, three slices of wahoo, and a California roll. It comes with a small mound of freshly grated wasabi. It is raw fish at its pristine finest. Sushigo, 477 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-347-7888, SushigoJoe.com
4. Cashew cheese platter, Plant Food + Wine, Miami: When I went vegetarian for a week in October, I was mostly miserable, besieged by all manner of unappetizing faux meats and cheeses. But not at Plant Food + Wine, a great restaurant that happens to be vegan. The creative kitchen knocked out many wondrous plates, but my favorite was the "cheese" platter ($28) made from cashew, served with pickled vegetables and crackers. Somehow, the varietals — blue cheese, white truffle, smoked cheddar, mixed peppercorn — were better than the real thing. Did I just say that? Pinch me, I must be dreaming. Plant Food + Wine, 105 NE 24th St., Miami, 305-814-5365, PlantFoodAndWineMiami.com
5. Seafood jambalaya, Ends Meat Eatery, Hollywood: My favorite new Broward restaurant is a hole in the wall in downtown Hollywood run by a couple that used to sell fish sausages from a food truck. Kevin and Georgianna Dreifuss keep wowing me with their inventive, ever-changing fare. He handles the kitchen, she does desserts. My favorite dish, seafood jambalaya, is no longer on the menu, but you can still get smoked shrimp, clams and the signature mahi-mahi, mango and habanero fish sausage in other dishes, including a cioppino ($26). The jambalaya might return, but until then, I'll make do with the addictive pot roast with poblano grits, or crispy jerk chicken with pigeon pea risotto. Ends Meat, 1910 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-391-7400, EndsMeat.com
6. Spaghetti alla bottarga, Zona Blu, Weston: I can eat pasta every day, but it's not every day that I come upon a version that offers a new wrinkle. I found it at Zona Blu, which specializes in cuisine from Sardinia, an island off Italy's coast. Bottarga is pressed salt-cured mullet roe, and if that doesn't sound appetizing to you, trust me, you'll be lapping it up when it comes shaved atop a mound of steaming, olive oil-slicked spaghetti, flecked with bread crumbs and chunks of fresh tomato. The dish ($18) is velvety, umami goodness. More please! Zona Blu, 189 Weston Road, Weston, 954-617-7999, ZonaBluWeston.com
7. Crème brulee doughnut, Bake Shack, Dania Beach: The humble doughnut isn't so humble at this breakfast and lunch spot that opened in March, with creative and surprisingly refined doughnuts coming daily from the deft hands of veteran baker Keith Freiman. My favorite: the revelatory crème brulee ($2.25). It has a slight crunch and faint scorch marks on top from a kitchen torch. It is light and airy, filled with a balanced crème center that is not overly sweet. Who knew junk food could be high pastry art? Eat your heart out Homer Simpson. Bake Shack, 238 S. Federal Highway, Dania Beach, 754-217-4235, BakeShackFl.com
8. Spear-caught grouper, JWB Prime Steak and Seafood, Hollywood: The high-end steakhouse at the Margaritaville Beach Resort in Hollywood actually does a better job with fish than beef, spurred by its innovative spear-caught fish program. A fisherman who works exclusively with the restaurant roams local waters to nab lionfish, grouper or snapper, and the results are stunningly fresh. On the night I dined, I had grouper ($40) from Jupiter, grilled and then sauteed simply in olive oil atop a mound of bok choy. Best piece of fish I had all year. JWB Prime Steak and Seafood, 1111 N. Ocean Drive, Hollywood, 954-874-4462 or JWBrestaurant.com
9. Roasted cauliflower steak, One Door East, Fort Lauderdale: Chef Jeremy Bearman, who earned a Michelin star in New York, is helming the creative kitchen at this new small-plates spot opened by Valentino Cucina Italiana chef-owner Giovanni Rocchio. The cauliflower steak ($21) is good enough to make you swear off meat, at least for the night. It's a delicious roasted hunk with Earl Grey raisins, brown butter, capers and madras. Sweet, spicy, savory. One Door East, 620 S. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, 954-368-6902, OneDoorEast.com
10. Oxtail stew, Rocksteady Jamaican Bistro, Boca Raton: Sitting quietly at the end of a strip shopping center with several eateries, Rocksteady packs a flavorful, subtle punch. This is island food in an upscale setting. The oxtail stew ($16.95) is good to the bone, rich and soulful and served with rice and pigeon peas. Rocksteady Jamaican Bistro, 2399 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-465-3167, RocksteadyJamaicanBistro.com
11. Spicy shrimp ramen, GoBistro, Hollywood: On a brisk winter night, there's nothing better than a comforting bowl of noodle soup. But the spicy shrimp ramen ($18) at this small spot on Hollywood Boulevard is so good, I eat it all year long. Plump jumbo shrimp, runny egg, crunchy veggies, a hint of Thai spice with coconut broth, noodles that are mellifluous when slurped, it's mmmm, mmmm good. GoBistro, 2035 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 754-263-2826, EatGoBistro.com
12. Pepper-crusted Gorgonzola burger, Yard House, Hallandale Beach: Yes, the Yard House is a chain, and yes, burger snobs might prefer hipper gastropubs. But when I want burger-and-beer comfort, there's no topping the pepper-crusted Gorgonzola burger ($13.25)with caramelized onions, crimini mushrooms and arugula. It's perfectly balanced, with quality meat, a soft potato roll to soak up the juices, and ingredients that complement and don't overwhelm the patty. Order it with a Lagunitas IPA or Belgian blonde ale, and life is good. Yard House at Gulfstream Village, 601 Silks Run, Hallandale Beach, 954-454-9950, YardHouse.com
13. Fish dip, Burlock Coast Seafare and Spirits, Fort Lauderdale: Too often, fish dip drowns in sour cream or mayonnaise, but chef Gavin Pera's smoked fish dip ($12) at Burlock Coast in the Fort Lauderdale Beach Ritz-Carlton is a revelation. This is no creamy concoction, but a vibrant burst of fresh shredded red snapper or red mullet, spiked to life with aged vinegar, fresh herbs and sea salt. The fish is smoked in-house with cherry wood. Forget the bread or crackers, this is good enough to eat with your fingers. Burlock Coast, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-302-6460, BurlockCoast.com
14. Sandwich No. 11, La Mia Focaccia, Fort Lauderdale: When a soulful place moves to bigger digs, sometimes something gets lost. Not so with South Florida's best sandwich shop, where owner Chiara Troccia still lovingly bakes the flavored and pillowy focaccias with pride. They are the round foundation of one of the most satisfying lunches around. My choice: the No. 11, with prosciutto, salami, fresh mozzarella and arugula, on tomato basil garlic bread. La Mia Focaccia, 6330 N. Powerline Rd., 954-772-9499, LaMiaFocaccia.com
15. Brisket and creamed spinach knish, Rappy's, Boca Raton: Rappy's is less than a month old and is experiencing some bumps, with complaints from deli veterans about high prices, service stumbles and nontraditional offerings. But veteran restaurateur Burt Rapoport's homage to his family has some promise, including a knish stuffed with chopped brisket and creamed spinach ($5.95). The pastry shell is flaky, and somehow the package comes out lighter than the sum of its parts. Rappy's, 5560 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton, 561-314-6840, Rappys.com
16. Cheesecake (tie): Junior's, Boca Raton and Caffe Europa, Fort Lauderdale: I have to leave 2016 on a sweet note, but can't decide between two pieces of perfection. The iconic New York cream-cheese cheesecake from Junior's, the Brooklyn landmark which in October opened an outpost in Boca Raton. Or the housemade Italian ricotta cheesecake at Caffe Europa in Fort Lauderale. Let's call it a draw. Guess that makes 17 dishes. A perfect way to ring in 2017. Juniors, 409 Plaza Real (Mizner Park), Boca Raton, 561-672-7301, Juniors.com and Caffe Europa, 910 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-6600, CaffeEuropa.com