There are the classic regional favorites like Cuban sandwiches and key lime pie. But a conversation about Florida fare must also include seafood, and the catch we can cook up from our surrounding waters.
Author Bruce Hunt highlights 180 seafood restaurants and markets throughout the state in Seafood Lover's Florida, a new book that comes out this month.
Hunt is more of an expert on Florida than culinary arts. The third-generation Floridian calls himself a lousy cook but says he is "ardently passionate about good food."
"I'm actually happiest walking into a joint with a screened porch and fish-cleaning tables out back," Hunt writes. "I'm particularly keen on hunting down places that are well off the beaten path: local, mom-and-pop dives, with 'Florida flavor' food."
Still, he appreciates meals at a white tablecloth as well. And whether casual or upscale, seafood always seems to taste better next to the water, he thinks.
Variety, also, adds to the flavor of Florida's seafood.
"Long before the term 'fusion' became part of the modern food-world lexicon, Floridians were creating dishes that blended cultural styles," Hunt writes. "As a result, Florida-style seafood reflects many influences: Spanish, Cuban, Bahamian, Greek, Puerto Rican and Italian, to name only a few."
Seafood Lover's Florida includes 40 restaurants from Tampa Bay. Here are three blurbs taken from Hunt's book that showcase some of his favorite seafood spots in Tampa Bay.
Ulele (1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa), which opened in August 2014, is one of Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart's most ambitious projects. More than just a restaurant, this was also a complex historic building restoration, and it was key to the revitalization of downtown Tampa's riverfront Tampa Heights district. Gonzmart's appreciation for native-to-Florida shines through here, so seafood features prominently. For an adventurous beginning try the Alligator Hush Puppies, with gator meat, ham, duck bacon, corn and jalapeno. Many of the dishes are cooked on their 10-foot-diameter "barbacoa" open grill.
Billy's Stone Crab and Seafood Restaurant (1 Collany Road, Tierra Verde) has an extensive selection of seafood items on their menu, like Wild-Caught Mahi with Mango Salsa, and plump Grilled Deep-Sea Scallops. Some diners even come for the steaks (they have a reputation for having the best steaks of any seafood restaurant in the Tampa Bay area). But most come to Billy's for the stone crab claws, which they get fresh off the boat direct from a select group of Gulf Coast crabbers that Billy's has worked with for decades.
At Locale Market (179 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg), a gourmet food marketplace owned by chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona, there are separate stations for different types of food, with an emphasis on the fresh and seasonal. But I am most intrigued by the seafood station, which occupies the center of the market. They offer fresh gulf whole and filleted fish: swordfish, snapper, grouper, plus all types of shellfish: oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and lobster. And they also prepare some marvelous walk-away seafood dishes like Salmon Poke: cubed raw salmon in a sweet honey-sesame-soy sauce; and Grilled Octopus Salad with chickpeas and tomatoes.