Friday, July 24, 2009

Florida Food under the Florida Sun

I didn't know what I had in store when I came down to Florida in April. After a long winter full of cheeses and sausages and casseroles and potatoes and hearty breads and big beers in northeastern Switzerland, weeks of pastas and pizzas and fried fritters in Italy, and a cold few weeks spent in Ohio with my family eating all the comfort foods I’d dearly missed during the last year and a half abroad, boy did I welcome the sunshine and the sunny Florida food that came along with it.As a state that benefits from so many diverse cultural influences, Florida offers some of America’s finest regional fare. Southern American foods are found here at their best – I’ve had many a helping of barbecue, fried chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, crawfish boils, and cornbreads so far this summer, and look forward to many many more. There’s also a strong Latino and Caribbean influence, so cubanos, empanadas, beans and rice, tostones, and Jamaican meat pies are easy to find. I can’t wait to tell you all about these foods and the cultures behind them and the amazing Southern and Latino meals I’ve had in restaurants and made at home. But first, I think it only appropriate to give you a little taste of that sweeeeeet sunny Florida lifestyle by taking you on a tour of the some of the cheeriest restaurants I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to define this uniquely Florida style of food and dining, because it has a lot to do with the casual, relaxed, friendly vibe that can only survive in a place where people enjoy year-round great weather and beach access. None of the restaurants below would make it through a Boston winter, that’s for sure! The Florida breeze is a crucial element in these dining experiences, as all are either on or very near the beach. At most of these eateries, the best seats in the house are unquestionably outdoors or in open air dining rooms and decks. Seafood is always abundant on the menu, and smiles come at no extra charge. :)

One item ubiquitous on the menus of Florida-style restaurants isn’t easily found in other parts of the world. Fried gator is so representative of Florida that I just had to have it as an appetizer at my wedding rehearsal dinner at Kingfish Grill in St. Augustine. The conch fritters at Caribbee Key in Neptune Beach are buttery and light and served with a spicy mayonnaise-based dipping sauce.Conch fritters incorporate the best qualities of two of my other favorite fritters – the batter is like a hushpuppy, and hidden inside are tender morsels of conch, just like Japanese takoyaki sneaks pieces of octopus into perfectly round little batter balls.
Conch on FoodistaThe roasted corn and crab chowder at Caribbee Key is also a winner, and Phil always orders the blackened mahi mahi sandwich with house-made sweet potato chips.This next quintessentially Florida restaurant wins the prize for the coolest restaurant name ever.
Squid Lips! Awesome! And, even awesomer, the food is just as good as the name. A dish that just perfectly depicts the sunshiney tropicality of Florida food is the coconut onion rings at Squid Lips. Boy were these perfectly executed. Thick, sweet Vidalia onion rings dipped in a coconut rum batter, rolled in shredded coconut, and deep fried. Heck yeah! I could eat these every day! The island dipping sauce complemented them so well and I’m determined to replicate it at home. I detected some orange juice, orange zest, and ginger in there but it will take some serious experimentation to get it just right.My family enjoyed the sandwiches they ordered – fished coated in that same coconut rum batter, topped with mango chutney and smothered with melted Swiss cheese……and a lobster-n-crabcake sandwich, both served with French fries and coleslaw…Clearly seafood is the way to go at Squid Lips (my aunt was unhappy with her pulled pork sandwich in a Jamaican jerk barbecue sauce). I mean, the place is literally on the water.And, gosh, what’s more Florida than key lime pie?Squid Lips has an extensive raw bar menu, too, and while I didn’t order anything from it, I did have a plateful of plump raw oysters at another place right on the beach. This is what Florida is all about, man.Know what else it’s all about? Super casual eateries right next to the ocean.Stir It Up on Saint Augustine Beach takes casual dining to the next level; the only tables are outdoor picnic tables, and orders are taken through a window. When yours is ready, they call you out by your first name. Shirts, shoes, showers – all optional here, my friend. The menu, which you can see here, offers smoothies, sandwiches, burritos, and salads with many of the names inspired by the songs of Bob Marley, all using the freshest of ingredients. I had The Wailer burrito, loaded with beans, rice, cheese, salsa, hummus, avocado, and shredded carrot.(BTW – how cute is my ma?)Another place right near the beach in Saint Augustine in THE spot for an afternoon beer and some seafood snacks. The Oasis is family friendly and always buzzing. They’ve got a full raw bar, and the steamed oysters with lemon and drawn butter were devoured so quickly that I wasn’t even able to get a photo. I did manage to immortalize Phil’s pile of friend shrimp and my overflowing twice-baked veggie potato with broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and cheddar. This sucker was a meal in itself.Cheers to Florida’s beaches, sun, and top-notch casual eateries!Kingfish Grill
252 Yacht Club Drive, Saint Augustine, FL
(904) 824-2111
Kingfish Grill on Urbanspoon

Caribbee Key (sometimes referred to as Sunny Carribbee)
100 First Street, Neptune Beach, FL
(904) 270-8940
Sunny Caribbee Grille Tropical on Urbanspoon

Squid Lips Grill
1660 Indian River Drive, Sebastian, FL
(772) 589-3828
Squid Lips on Urbanspoon

Stir It Up
A Street & A1A Beach Blvd., Saint Augustine Beach, FL
Stir It Up on Urbanspoon

The Oasis
4000 A1A & Ocean Trace Road, Saint Augustine Beach, FL
(904) 471-3424
Oasis Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Alisa said...

Wow!What a delicious blog you have here!Im SO craving for those conch fritters.I'd love to guide our readers to your site if you won't mind.Just add your choice of foodista widget to this post and it's all set to go, Thanks!

christine said...

Hello! I found this blog in Foodista and followed it here. This is a lovely blog. By the way you can place more Foodista widget in your past and future blogs so that other Foodista readers can follow and see your blog too. Just search for a related recipe or food in Foodista and use its widget. I hope to read more from you. Cheers!