CHOMP, CHOMP: FLORIDA EATS
Halfway through Hanukkah and with Christmas in our sights, many of us are deep into the season of houseguests. We want to show them the local delicacies. Florida cuisine is not that of the Deep South. Nor is it influenced unduly by the nearby Caribbean. 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 treats.
Skipper's Smokehouse: 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. Whoa, did it recover. Conservative estimates put the population at more than a million in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. 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. 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. 910 Skipper Road, 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). 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, they'll smoke your catch 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 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. It can get fairly busy and it closes early. No credit cards. 1350 Pasadena Ave., South Pasadena. (727) 381-7931.
Frenchy's Café: 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. 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, Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, Frenchy's South Beach Café and Frenchy's Outpost Bar & Grill). 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.
Citrus Place: Even in light of citrus greening and other recent challenges, citrus 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, Florida produces 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 Tillett's family has been in the citrus business more than eight decades, lending him the 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. 7200 U.S. 19, Terra Ceia. (941) 722-6745.
La Segunda Central Bakery: In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches. Go to La Segunda Central Bakery, which turns out something like 6,000 Cuban loaves daily: About 36 inches long, with a zipperlike 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, sour pickles and spicy mustard — the whole thing warmed and flattened in a special hot-press. 2512 N 15th St., Ybor City. (813) 248-1531.