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We are what we eat

The gifts are unwrapped, but your guests are still camped out and hogging the hot water. Give them an extra stocking stuffer by guiding them to some of Florida's most delicious indigenous foods. Equip them with the keys and a map, and the hot water's all yours.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

Grouper sandwich

Dockside Dave's Grill

14701 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach, (727) 392-9399

On the Pinellas County side of the bay area, the grouper sandwich dominates, most residents vehemently loyal to their favorite grouper guru. Most aficionados at least grudgingly support the efforts of Dockside Dave's Grill: It's not rocket science, but the combination of snowy white locally caught grouper — battered and fried — and drippy red tomato, crisp lettuce, a few rounds of white onion and a fairly soft roll indeed approaches genius. Add a funky setting and a remarkably edible smoked amberjack spread, and we're in Mensa territory.

Alligator

Skipper's Smokehouse

910 Skipper Road, Tampa, (813) 971-0666

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. Conservative estimates put the population at more than a million.

Despite their numbers, 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 frog 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.

Smoked fish spread

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish

1350 Pasadena Ave., South Pasadena, (727) 381-7931

Floridians like to catch fish. Some are delicious (grouper, redfish). Some make you wince a little (kingfish, mullet, 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 (limited hours, no credit cards), they'll smoke your catch, but even non-anglers should angle for a visit. It has been an institution for more than 50 years in Pinellas County, prized for its laid-back style and inviting picnic tables. The smoked fish spread with saltines is good, the salmon is excellent, the mullet is an intensely fishy acquired taste. Ted Peters also produces fabled cheeseburgers and German potato salad.

Stone crab

Frenchy's Cafe

41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach, (727) 446-3607

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, anglers haul them up, yank off one claw and throw them back to grow another.

It's big business in the state, last year's season bringing in nearly 3-million pounds of stone crab claws, with total sales at $26.5-million. One of the local heavy hitters for these crustaceans is Frenchy's. The original Frenchy's Cafe opened in 1981, but since then several other businesses have been opened by the same owners (Frenchy's Saltwater Cafe, 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 Cafe, 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 gauche to ask for them hot with lemon and melted butter.

Orange juice

Citrus Place

7200 U.S. 19, Terra Ceia, (941) 722-6745

Stone crabs are a drop in the bucket when compared with the state's citrus industry. Today, citrus is Florida's leading cash crop, producing 90 percent of the country's orange juice. To get a sense of the full range of the state's citrus bounty, head south over the Sunshine Skyway bridge to the Citrus Place. Ben Tillett'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 Tillett makes a wonderful fresh-squeezed juice that is an ever-changing melange of fresh citrus.

Cuban sandwich

La Segunda Central Bakery

2512 N 15th St., Ybor City, (813) 248-1531

In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches. Go to La Segunda Central Bakery for an audience with the king. The bakery turns out 6,000 Cuban loaves daily: about 36 inches long, with a zipperlike seam topped with the remnants of a palmetto leaf (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 Emmenthaler), 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 gooey.

We are what we eat 12/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 3:15pm]
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