Florida cuisine is not that of the Deep South. Nor is it influenced unduly by the nearby Caribbean. What is it, then? The foods we prize are often the result of our location. The beneficence of the Gulf of Mexico, the absurd number of sunny days -- these things provide a number of indigenous delicacies.
Gators were first listed as an endangered species in 1967, their numbers threatened by hunting and habitat loss. Then the American alligator was removed from the endangered species list in 1987 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced a complete recovery of the species. Whoa, did it recover. Conservative estimates put the population at more than a million in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Georgia. Because they can tolerate brackish water as well as freshwater, they can be found in rivers, swamps, bogs, lakes, ponds, creeks, canals, swimming pools, and lots of Florida golf courses. They seldom eat us, but we like to eat them. Specifically nuggets of tail meat, often battered, fried and served on a stick. Believe me when I say, it doesn't taste just like chicken; more like swordfish morphed with frogs' legs. For a succulent sampling, head to the venerable Skipper's Smokehouse, Tampa's beloved indoor-outdoor live blues venue, a huge, moss-festooned live oak providing shade. They offer gator a few ways: in chili, as part of a gator tail dinner with hush puppies and a couple of sides, as a sandwich or just as a nugget appetizer. It's a novelty item worth trying once; subsequently switch to Skipper's truly delicious grouper reuben. 910 Skipper Rd., Tampa. (813) 971-0666
SMOKED FISH SPREAD
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish:
Floridians like to catch fish. Some are delicious (grouper, redfish, etc.). Some make you wince a little (kingfish, mullet, Spanish mackerel, amberjack). For those fish that are oily, fishy or otherwise a little hard to swallow, we have a plan. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
At Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish and they'll smoke your catch fillet them, throw them over a smoldering red oak fire in the smokehouse, then package them up for you to take.
But even non-anglers should angle for a visit. It's been an institution for more than 50 years in Pinellas County, prized for its laidback style and inviting picnic tables. Even the Food Network got all moony-eyed about this place in 2006. The smoked fish spread with saltines is good, the salmon is excellent, the mullet is an intensely fishy acquired taste -- but Ted Peters also produces some fabled cheeseburgers and German potato salad that is balanced precariously between the zing of vinegar and the smoke of bacon. This is a beer-drinking establishment, it gets fairly busy, and it closes early. No credit cards. 1350 Pasadena Ave., South Pasadena. (727) 381-7931.
In a way, Floridians are ahead of the curve. One of our favorite delicacies is a renewable resource. Stone crabs, harvested Oct. 15 to May 15, meet us on the table and live to swim another day. During the season, fisherfolk haul them up, yank off one claw, and throw them back to grow another.
It's big business in the state. According to Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, last year's season brought in nearly 3 million pounds of stone crab claws, total sales topping out at $26.5 million. One of the local heavy hitters for these crustaceans is Frenchy's. The original Frenchy's Café opened in 1981, but since then several other businesses have been opened by the same owners (Frenchy's Saltwater Café, 419 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach, (727) 461-6295; Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, 7 Rockaway St., Clearwater Beach, (727) 446-4844; and Frenchy's South Beach Café, 351 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, (727) 441-9991), all fueled by their own fleet of commercial fishing boats.
Eat them like the locals, chilled with mustard sauce, but it's not exactly gauche to ask for them hot, adorned with only a squeeze of lemon and a pool of clarified butter. 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. (727) 446-3607.
Stone crabs are a drop in the bucket when compared to the state's citrus industry. Despite some recent setbacks (a vicious citrus canker), it is estimated that the growing, packing, processing, and selling of citrus generates a $9 billion per year impact on Florida's economy--not surprisingly, the orange blossom is the state flower.
The citrus fruit industry has been big business in the state since the 1890s when Chinese horticulturist Lue Gim Gong introduced a new variety of orange and a hardier grapefruit. Today, citrus is Florida's leading cash crop, producing 90 percent of the country's orange juice (almost all Florida oranges are juiced, not sold whole). To get a sense of the full range of the state's wonderful citrus, head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the Citrus Place. Ben Tillet's family has been in the citrus business for more than eight decades, lending him the gravitas and authority to walk you through the goods: navel oranges this time of year, honeybells coming soon after the new year, followed by temple oranges, honey tangerines and Valencia oranges. White and pink grapefruits are nearly year round, and Tillet makes a wonderful fresh-squeezed juice that is an ever-changing mélange of fresh citrus. 7200 U.S. Highway 19, Terra Ceia. (941) 722-6745.
La Segunda Central Bakery:
In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches, whereas in Pinellas County the grouper sandwich reigns supreme (the Cuban demoted to earl of sandwiches). Go to La Segunda Central Bakery for an audience with the king. The bakery turns out something like 6,000 Cuban loaves daily: About 36 inches long, with a zipper-like seam down the top, with the remnants of a palmetto leaf charred along the seam (used during baking to hold the top of the bread together and create the signature crack along the top).
The sandwich guts are hotly contested by aficionados in both Tampa and Miami. The pillowy interior of the loaf is piled high with roast pork and Genoa salami (that's a Tampa twist), Swiss cheese (some say Emanthaler), sour pickles, and spicy mustard—the whole thing warmed and flattened in a special hot-press. It has to be ruthlessly pressed to render the outside crisp and the inside majorly gooey. 2512 N 15th St., Ybor City. (813) 248-1531.
KEY LIME PIE
A regional oddity, sure, but key lime pies are way more Floridian than that all-American apple. Graham cracker crust cradling a piquant filling of egg yolk, condensed milk and the juice of tiny key limes, it's not complex, but divine when it's good.
Mike's Pies in Tampa makes 30 kinds of pies, selling between 4,000 and 6,000 each week to 55 distributors in 25 states. Mike Martin's biggest seller is key lime, shown, by a good bit, but he has won 13 national championships at the annual Great American Pie Festival for a range of pies, some from family recipes dating back more than 100 years. When he started baking in 1992 he wasn't going to offer a key lime. Didn't much care for them. But then he did some research.
"I tinkered with it in the beginning and haven't tinkered since," he said. "We haven't budged from that recipe." Available at Junction Ice Creamery and Coffee House, 4004 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 805-6936.