Grouper, grits and Key lime pie: 9 famous Florida foods — and where to find them
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Every U.S. state lays claim to certain culinary specialities, and Florida is no different. If your mind goes straight to Southern comfort foods like barbecued meat, grits, fried fritters and Key lime pie, you have your pulse on the foods locals love to make at home and order when dining out. The Sunshine State is also blessed with miles upon miles of coastline — and that means access to incredible fishing. If you’ve never tried Gulf shrimp, Florida stone crab or grouper, those dishes are a must-eat on your next visit here.
To whet your appetite, we’re sharing nine famous Floridian foods and the 36 best places to sample them the next time you’re in town.
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Florida stone crab — a seasonal treat
Some visitors plan their trips to the Sunshine State based on Florida stone crab season. Available only from mid-October through mid-May, these gifts from the sea and their tender and sweet meat never disappoint. Fishermen harvest these crabs from Biscayne Bay near Miami, throughout the Florida Keys and along the state’s Gulf Coast. Because of that, Florida has a lock on the industry and there are a few famous restaurants that are devoted exclusively to this menu item. The wonderful thing about Florida stone crabs — for us and the crab — is that the most delicious part, the claws, regenerate. Crabs are harvested live, its claws are removed and the crustacean is returned to the sea where it will live to generate another set of claws in about a year to 18 months.
Where to try it
Crab & Fin — In Sarasota, locals and visitors head to Crab & Fin for fresh seafood of all types, but it’s those seasonal Florida stone crab claws that keep people coming back. They are served chilled with dijon mustard sauce and lemon. If that’s not enough, you can order two other types of crab from the menu: St. Lawrence River snow crab and Alaskan giant red king crab.
Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach — Joe’s is the stuff of which legends are made. A family-run business since 1913, the speciality of the house is the Florida stone crab, cracked and served with mustard sauce. In fact, before Joe’s, no one really ate these crabs. It took this restaurateur to show locals and visitors alike the lure of the Florida stone crab, which was originally served with hash browns, coleslaw and mayonnaise.
Key Largo Fisheries Cafe — Down in Key Largo, this restaurant has focused on fresh-from-the-sea dockside dining since 1972. Key Largo Fisheries serves Florida stone crab caught fresh, cooked and chilled or as a chowder. For dessert, try the guava rum cheesecake.
Move over PB&J — grouper sandwiches rule
Head to any seafood restaurant in Florida and you’re almost sure to see grouper on the menu. This fish won’t win any beauty contests — it’s big, pudgy and has bug-out eyes — but so tasty. Atlantic goliath grouper can reach 800 pounds and they are fished in the waters off both of Florida’s coasts. There are many species of grouper in addition to the goliath, including black, red, speckled, snowy, yellowfin, yellowmouth and more. Grouper are sold in markets across the state, and many seafood restaurants specialize in cooking the fish, which has mild white flesh that’s incredibly tender when cooked. Grouper sandwiches — fried, grilled or Cajun-style — are popular with some of the most famous restaurants serving the sandwich located on the Gulf Coast.
Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida
Where to try it
Frenchy’s Original Cafe — On the Gulf Coast, with several locations up and down Clearwater Beach, Frenchy’s says it has perfected the grouper sandwich, and many diners agree. The restaurant group launched in 1981 and serves fried, grilled or blackened grouper sandwiches. Its grouper Reuben on toasted marble rye with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing is a perennial favourite. Grouper cheeks are another delicacy served here. Sample them with the special house sauce.
The Snook Inn — On Marco Island, a Gulf Coast barrier island, The Snook Inn has served grouper for the last 35 years. Their version of the grouper sandwich includes a filet dipped in beer batter, deep-fried, stuffed into a brioche bun and topped with lettuce, tomato and onion. (If you’ve sworn off fried foods, they also serve blackened and grilled versions.) Not only is the sandwich delicious but the Marco Bay waterfront location is inspiring. The sunset view from the Chickee Bar is one of the best on the Gulf of Mexico.
Peg Leg Pete’s — The super family-friendly Peg Leg Pete’s on Pensacola Beach serves fried grouper sandwiches dressed with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce. The restaurant also prepares a delicious grouper nugget po’boy on a hoagie roll. Pro tip: Start your meal with an order of oysters. They’re also a speciality here.
Shrimp and grits for breakfast, lunch or dinner
If you’re not from the South, you may not be familiar with grits. Handed down from the Muskogee Native American tribe, grits are a type of preparation of corn that’s similar to Italy’s polenta. Corn is ground in a stone mill to create the “gritty” feel. Home cooks and chefs soak the grits overnight before boiling them and then finishing them with cream, butter and sometimes cheese. In Florida, grits are often served with shrimp, since these crustaceans are harvested along the coastlines of the state. Spicy sausage is also often an ingredient. Floridians eat shrimp and grits for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Where to try it
Another Broken Egg — For our first shrimp and grits recommendation, we present Another Broken Egg. It’s a chain, so you’ll find outposts across Florida in places like Jacksonville, Pensacola, Clearwater, Tampa, Naples and Boca Raton. Its version of this Southern speciality is made with Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage and sauteed red peppers and onions, then served with garlic bread and lemon. The other real hit on this menu is the lobster and brie omelette.
Howley’s Restaurant — In West Palm Beach, Howley’s has been an institution since 1950. You’ll recognize the building straight away due to its retro old-style diner look. Its version of classic shrimp and grits starts with six jumbo shrimp served over cheddar grits and topped with a spicy Creole sauce.
Flora-Bama Ole River Grill — For families, you can’t beat a visit to Flora-Bama Ole River Grill on Orange Beach in Pensacola with its beach and dock views. All the seafood is super fresh and locally sourced. A favourite menu item is Big Earl’s shrimp and grits, which adds smoked Gouda to stone-ground grits and then tops it with blackened Gulf shrimp and a creole cream sauce. Finish off your dinner with a slice of New York-style cheesecake, wrapped in puff pastry, deep-fried and topped with strawberries.
Must-try conch fritters
OK. Hear us out on the appeal of conch (pronounced “konk”) — aka sea snail — as a delicacy. In the American South and across the Bahamas and Caribbean, conch is used in a variety of seafood-based recipes, including conch chowder, conch salad and conch fritters. The mollusc’s meat is mild and sweet, sort of like a clam, and it’s used to elevate the flavour of deep-fried fritters. Like hush puppies or clam cakes, they are served as appetizers with a variety of dipping sauces or as a side on a fishermen’s platter.
Where to try it
Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant — On Florida’s First Coast on Jacksonville Beach’s boat ramp, Safe Harbor is a laid-back seafood restaurant with picnic tables on a deck that looks out from the marina. Here you can order all kinds of shrimp and fish baskets, salads, po’ boys and, of course, conch fritters. Their version has a crispy crust while the inside stays fresh and light.
Lazy Flamingo — On the barrier island of Sanibel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Lazy Flamingo has two outlets and both serve awesome conch fritters. They’re made with queen conch, packed with vegetables as well as lemon and hot sauce.
The Conch Shack — Many aficionados will tell you that The Conch Shack serves the best conch fritters on Key West in the Keys. For dipping sauces, you can choose from a spicy pink option or one with a Key lime base. If you’re trying to stay away from fried foods, try the cracked conch with Key lime aioli instead.
The best Cuban sandwiches across the Sunshine State
Cubans have lived and worked in Florida for nearly 200 years, first as fishermen and then later, from the mid-1880s, in the tobacco industry in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighbourhood. Miami also became a hub for resettled Cubans. So, it’s no surprise that a food named for that Caribbean nation would make its debut here: the Cuban sandwich. It’s made with roasted mojo-marinated pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. The filling is stuffed in Cuban bread and then the whole sandwich is pressed and heated to perfection so the cheese is nice and melty.
Where to try it
Columbia Restaurant — You’ll find one of Florida’s best Cuban sandwiches in Tampa’s Ybor City at Columbia Restaurant. This 115-year-old establishment says it serves “The Original Cuban Sandwich – A Tampa treasure!” (Note that the proprietor also has restaurants in Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach and Orlando.) Columbia serves just the sandwich or pairs it with a cup of soup at lunch and dinner.
Havana Cuban Food — Over in West Palm Beach, the place to pick up a Cuban sandwich is the 25-year-old Havana Cuban Food restaurant. This classic version includes ham, pork and Swiss cheese, but you have to request the mustard and pickles. The sandwich is steamed and hot-pressed and is served with rice, beans or sweet plantains.
Versailles — Visitors to Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood have been visiting Versailles for the last 40 years to sample Cuban cuisine and try its legendary sandwich. The restaurant has a few options that include the original Cuban sandwich with sweet ham, roast pork, and Swiss cheese on toasted Cuban bread with mustard and pickles. You may also want to try the Versaille Especial that adds a layer of Spanish sausage, or the Spanish Baguette that’s filled with Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and Cantimpalo chorizo sausage.
Empanadas may be Spanish but Floridians love them
Empanadas originated in Spain and Portugal, but various recipes have flourished over the years in Florida and now they are pretty ubiquitous on menus — especially at Latin American restaurants. An empanada is basically bread or pastry that’s stuffed and then baked or fried. Fillings can be savoury or sweet and people love them because you can snack on the go.
Where to try it
Hola Cuban Cafe — In Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, head to the historic downtown and you’ll find Hola Cuban Cafe off the main drag. It’s a small shop with a nice outdoor area so you can dine in or place a to-go order. Try a breakfast empanada that’s stuffed with scrambled eggs, ham and Swiss cheese. The family-owned shop also makes other flavours of empanadas each day. Choices could include spinach and cheese, beef or guava and cheese.
Manolo — On Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, Manolo is a casual establishment that services empanadas filled with chicken, ham and cheese, onion and cheese, beef and spinach. The family’s first restaurant was founded in Burgos, Spain, in 1930 and the culinary tradition has stayed in the family ever since.
Sergio’s — Also in Miami but on Coral Way, Sergio’s has been making plump empanadas that are a meal unto themselves since 1975. Locals love the chicken and beef versions and the kitchen recently showcased a batch of empanadas with tiger stripes in honour of the TV show “Tiger King” craze.
The best barbecue in the South
Florida may not have the BBQ cache that Texas, the Carolinas or Missouri have, but it comes darn close. There are plenty of mom-and-pop restaurants across the state that serve up finger-licking good barbecued ribs, chicken — and sometimes even alligator
Where to try it
Captain Jack’s Smokehouse — On Gateway Boulevard right before the bridge to Amelia Island, you’ll find the relatively new Captain Jack’s Smokehouse. “Captain” Jack and his wife Sandi were fixtures on the professional BBQ circuit before opening up shop. This casual restaurant has a terrific salad bar and outdoor seating overlooking the marsh — but you come here for the barbecue and the options are enticing. Order a platter that includes pulled pork, beef brisket, country link sausage, pork belly, St. Louis ribs and smoked chicken.
MichelBob’s Championship Ribs & Steak — The original output of MichelBob’s is in Naples but there’s a version on Marco Island, too. In business since 1979, BBQ lovers return to this spot for tender baby back ribs, pulled pork, sliced pork, BBQ chicken and BBQ beef. Sides include onion rings, sweet potato tots, coleslaw, corn on the cob and baked potatoes.
Tom Jenkins BBQ — This restaurant in Fort Lauderdale made its name with its signature homemade barbecue sauce, but it has expanded to not only serve BBQ but also all types of Southern comfort foods. Try the pork spare ribs and baby back ribs, smoked chicken or turkey, beef brisket, smoked sausage and Mississippi catfish with hush puppies. When it comes to side dishes, you can’t go wrong with the collard greens, baked beans or the tomato-based Brunswick stew.
One slice of Key lime pie won’t be enough
Sweet and tart Key limes grow through the Florida Keys and, in fact, across most of the state. It was natural then that the state’s official pie would use this special citrus fruit. The crust is traditionally made with graham crackers or sometimes pastry, while the filling is a whipped concoction of Key lime juice, condensed milk and egg yolks. The filling has a custard-like consistency and is often topped with either homemade whipped cream or meringue. Key lime pie is a staple on dessert menus at restaurants across Florida.
Where to try it
Keylime Bistro — Located just steps from the Gulf of Mexico in the Captiva Island Inn, Keylime Bistro has a few signature items that are worth the visit. The stuffed grouper topped with lobster and Key lime hollandaise sauce is one of the restaurant’s most popular entrees, but save room for the incredible Key lime pie. It starts with a granola/graham cracker crust. Then, there are two layers of filling. The bottom baked layer is traditional with Key lime juice, condensed milk and egg yolks. Once that comes out of the oven, a second creamier layer — of cream cheese, Key lime juice, condensed milk, sugar, vanilla and whipped cream — is spooned on top. The pie is topped with a thinly sliced lime and whipped cream. A raspberry sauce adorns the plate and acts as a nice balance to the tart flavour of the pie filling. Buy it by the slice or purchase an entire pie to take home.
Bob Roth’s New River Groves — We’ve focused on restaurants throughout this guide, but Bob Roth’s in Davie is a traditional Florida roadside stand that also sells all sorts of other delectables like fruit, fudge, honey and boiled peanuts. You can also grab breakfast or sandwiches here, but people make the drive just for Terry’s Famous Key Lime Pies. With a graham cracker crust, silky lemony filling and a very generous amount of whipped cream on top, many say this is the best Key lime pie you can find outside of the Keys.
Green Turtle Inn — Down in the Florida Keys on Islamorada you’ll find the Green Turtle Inn, which has been in business in one form or another since 1935. Its current iteration is solely a restaurant. The dessert menu has some very intriguing options, including a Key lime pie made with a macadamia nut crispy rice cereal crust.
Pecan pie — quintessential Southern comfort
Millions of Americans enjoy a slice of pecan pie every Thanksgiving, but it’s a popular dessert in Florida year-round. Pecan groves flourish in the Sunshine State and in nearby Georgia, providing a supply of quality nuts for baking. A rolled pie crust is filled with a mixture made from eggs, butter, and brown sugar or molasses. Pecans are arranged on top prior to baking.
Where to try it
Wright’s Gourmet House — This gourmet sandwich shop has been serving excellent meals in Tampa since 1963. The pecan pie on the menu is “old fashion” style, made with Karo syrup and a dash of vanilla, according to Wright’s menu. You’ve got to love sweet things to try it, since this dessert is packed with sugar along with a powerful pecan punch.
Yoder’s Restaurant & Amish Village — Yoder’s has been a mainstay in Sarasota since 1975. It’s grown from a small restaurant to include a gift shop, deli and fresh produce market. The restaurant serves comfort food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Homemade corned beef hash, pressure-fried chicken and country fried steak with gravy are just a few of its specialities. For dessert, consult the pie menu that includes 10 cream pies (including Key lime, banana cream and peanut butter cream) and more than 20 baked varieties, including pecan pie and chocolate pecan pie. If you’re dining in-house, place your order for an a la mode slice.
P Is for Pie — If you’re visiting Orlando, check out this pie shop that offers savoury treats like shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie and BBQ chicken, plus a dessert selection that will keep you coming back to this shop near Harry P. Leu Gardens and Audubon Park. A long list of pies include three types of pecan pie: bourbon chocolate pecan, chocolate pecan and Southern pecan.
Featured photo by PixelCatchers/Getty Images.
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