A Taste of Coastal Florida
Feeding your family on vacation can be an expensive proposition. But in Coastal Florida, you needn't spend a lot to eat well. Good restaurants serving delicious food abound at coastal destinations. Diners and counter-service cafés, serving mounds of food for a few dollars, are everywhere. Each restaurant offers its own specialties, from gourmet to ethnic and downright southern. It may seem that trendier cuisines are taking over, but you'll find most Floridians like to eat good traditional down-home food and barbecued steak from over 20,000 ranches statewide.
Fish tops most menus, even those in the smallest mom-and-pop eateries. Whether you eat tuna or pompano from the ocean or catfish from a nearby river, you'll find it served boiled, grilled or charcoal-grilled, or fried. The Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean yield fresh yellowfin tuna, pompano, grouper, swordfish, and mullet, among others. Shrimp, grilled or steamed, is a popular favorite. Plus, cooks in each coastal area serve up their own special dishes from its particular waters, such as smoked mullet on the west coast, oysters-on-the-half-shell from Apalachicola Bay in the Panhandle, and conch (pronounced “konk”) chowder and fritters in the Keys. Some chefs in Miami's trendier restaurants combine local fish with an assortment of citrus fruits and juices.
In many areas, during the winter you'll notice oranges, grapefruit, limes, and tangelos for sale at roadside stands. Varieties seem endless, with some fruit offering special qualities such as remarkable sweetness or no seeds. Pick up any locally grown citrus fruit and you'll immediately notice the difference between it and the ones you buy at your supermarket back home.
You'll find you get the freshest and cheapest fish at fish camps, rustic eateries located on the banks of a coastal river where your meal was swimming just a few hours before. Here, lunch or dinner will cost you no more than $8. And while fried catfish tops the menus at most fish camps, you'll find other selections as well.
Floridians love their shellfish, too. The tender claws of stone crabs, eaten dipped in butter, are just heaven during mid-October to mid-May. You'll find oysters served at “raw” bars along with regular and jumbo shrimp, dipped in spicy cocktail sauce. Spiny or Florida lobster is another favorite.
And right up there next to fish on the menus, you'll find alligator. Restaurants in the Everglades area have always served alligator tail in a variety of ways, including deep-fried. And, yes, it tastes like chicken. Now restaurants in other coastal resorts have added this Florida favorite to their menus.
You'll find that good old-fashioned Southern home-style cooking and soul food also have their place in Florida cuisine, especially in diners and cafés in the northeast and the Panhandle. Southern fried chicken and fried fish both come with a choice of grits or hush puppies. And grits replaces potatoes with most breakfasts. Northern Florida cooks also add okra, collards, black-eyed peas, or fried eggplant to roast beef, with which you'll usually get cornbread to soak up the thick gravy poured all over everything. And because of their proximity to Louisiana, northern cooks use okra in gumbo as a way of using up leftovers. You'll find Cajun food, itself, usually served in more upscale trendy restaurants. Another Florida favorite is hearts of palm salad, based on the delicious heart of the sable palm tree.
One traditional Southern dish is hush puppies, deep-fried balls of cornbread with tiny pieces of chopped onion. Hunters are believed to have tossed these treats to their dogs to keep them quiet while they prepared their supper following a hunt.
To top off any meal, most restaurants offer Key lime pie, a dessert with origins in the Florida Keys. Made from the small limes that grow there, it's similar to lemon meringue but with a tangier taste. You'll find the best in Key West.
The farther south you travel along Florida's coast, the more ethnic and exotic the food becomes.
Cuban food has become a staple of Miami cuisine. Simple Cuban dinners are often a better value than their equivalents back home. Most consist of pork, beef, or chicken — always fried with the skin on and spiced heavily — served with a combination of yellow or white rice, black beans, fried plantains (similar to bananas), and yucca. Thick seafood soups, like sopa de mariscos (shellfish soup), are also popular.
Don't be misled by trendier restaurants serving Cuban food. Often it's the same as you'll get in a place charging $4 to $6 for the same thing. Many Cuban cafés have street windows where you can buy a small cup of sweet and rich café Cubano, Cuban espresso, for less than a dollar. If you're feeling tired, this will definitely pick you up — it might even throw you around a bit, too. If you'd rather have something a little milder, try café con leche, Cuban coffee served with warm milk or cream.
Along the west coast, you'll find plenty of affordable, family-run Greek restaurants, serving specialties like moussaka and pastitsio and delicious Greek salads, originally brought to Florida by the sponge fishermen of Tarpon Springs. Minorcan food, found around Saint Augustine, offers a spicy stew of seafood and chicken mixed with vegetables and rice called pilau.
And if you're traveling in the Everglades area, try Indian fried bread and mashed cassava root.