Culinary explorers willing to push past Florida’s thicket of homogenized restaurants are rewarded with a bountiful, sublime feast of land and sea that mixes rustic traditions, gourmet inventions and a hemisphere’s worth of cultures.
Gourmands looking to notch up one-of-a-kind experiences will only be held back by their nerve: boiled peanuts, frogs' legs, snake, alligator, chitlins (hog intestines) - how far will you go? Less adventurous gastronomers should stick to Miami and make forays to places like Tarpon Springs for its Greek cuisine and Jewish Miami Beach for its kosher delis.
Exploring Florida, one dish at a time
In rural north Florida, they take green or immature peanuts and boil them until they’re nice and mushy, sometimes spicing them up with Cajun or other seasonings. Sure, they feel weird in the mouth, but they’re surprisingly addictive.
Tarpon Springs Greek salad
Please don’t ask why, but in Tarpon Springs, Greek restaurants started hiding a dollop of potato salad inside a regulation Greek salad – now you can find this odd combination throughout central Florida.
The meat comes from the tail, and even at its best, it’s chewy. Alligator tastes like a cross between fish and pork, and is usually served as deep-fried nuggets, which overwhelms the delicate flavor. Try it grilled. Most alligator is legally harvested on farms and is common enough to be found in grocery stores.
Those who know say the ‘best’ legs come from the Everglades; definitely ask, since you want to avoid imported ones from India, which are smaller and disparaged as ‘flavorless.’ What do flavorful Glades' legs taste like? Well…like chicken, sort of, only, not.
The first recycled crustacean: only one claw is taken from a stone crab - the rest is tossed back in the sea (the claw regrows in 12 to 18 months, and crabs plucked again are called ‘retreads’). Joe Weiss of Miami Beach is credited with starting it all, and his claws, cakes and bisque can still be had at Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant.
This Haitian fried specialty is tops: pork cubes marinated in garlic and sour orange juice, then fried. Find it by following your nose in Miami’s Little Haiti.
Key lime pie
Key limes are yellow, and that’s the color of an authentic Key lime pie, which is nothing more than a custard of Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks in a cracker crust, then topped with meringue or whipped cream. If your pie is green, or stands ramrod straight when cut, then just push it back. The extra-tart Key lime matches well with the oversweet milk, which nicely captures the personality of Key West Conchs.
Florida menu decoder
Florida menus have both a Southern twang and Spanish accent:
- arroz - rice; arroz con leche - rice pudding
- batido - Latin milkshake (smoothie): fruit, ice, sweetened condensed milk and sometimes sugar
- ceviche - raw, lime-marinated seafood and fish
- cornpone - cornmeal pancake fried in a skillet; also called johnnycake
- empanada - latin American savory turnover
- frijoles - beans
- fritters - anything mixed or dipped in batter and deep-fried: from corn to conch to alligator
- gallo pinto - Central American red beans and rice
- grits - coarsely ground white corn (a cousin to polenta); a Southern staple, served with cheese or gravy
- hush puppies - deep-fried cornbread nuggets
- jerk - a Caribbean seasoning and marinade; for pork, chicken or beef
- moros y cristianos - Cuban rice and beans (literally Moors and Christians - blacks and whites); also called congri
- plantains - like bananas, but starchier and less sweet; served fried with Cuban meats
- po’ boy - the South’s answer to the Yankee hoagie or sub sandwich
- sour orange - an ugly orange that tastes like a lime, and is a major component of Cuban cuisine; naranja agria in Spanish
- tres leches - Nicaraguan ‘three milks’ cake; a sponge cake full of creamy syrup and topped with meringue.
This is an abbreviated article from the Food & Drink chapter of our latest Florida guide.
For more opinion, advice and background on food from Florida, ask a question of the knowledgeable folk at the Get Stuffed branch of the Thorn Tree forum.
This article was updated in June 2012