Vegging: Palmetto, Florida Dining

An old Florida tomato town grows ever tastier.

In the 1920s, Manatee County harvested 6,000 acres of vegetables. By year 2000, that had stretched to 28,000 acres producing 450 million pounds of tomatoes.

Chances are, most of those tomatoes made their way through the tomato-shipping warehouses of Palmetto, Florida, to reach the world.

At least two gave their life for the wonderfully fresh and sneakily fierce salsa I dipped into at Alvarez Mexican Food.

A mainstay of Palmetto dining since 1976, it represents the culinary traditions for one side of the tracks of the Palmetto dichotomy: growers vs. pickers.

A newer, riverfront scene represents the upscale side of old Palmetto, which rises again from its lovely streets and river shores.

But let me back up, because I suspect many will be wondering at this point “where the heck is Palmetto, Florida?”

First let me say, if you saw the Woody Harrelson movie by that name, there’s little resemblance to the unassuming river town that faces downtown Bradenton on the opposite shore of the Manatee River.

The fertile soil along the river was first discovered in the mid-1800s by Major Robert Gamble, who arrived here from Scotland, via Virginia and Tallahassee, where he had learned about sugar-planting.

You can visit his plantation manor, now Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, on the way into Palmetto as you exit off Interstate 75 at Ellenton.

Hurricanes, freezes, and market losses eventually drove Gamble out, but pioneers followed in his footsteps, planting celery, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, and other ground crops.

Their farms flourished, and along the river they built graceful mansions of Victorian and Georgian persuasion.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1902 came bricks to erect handsome storefront facades along Main Street, which runs perpendicular to Riverside Drive.

Palmetto’s low profile in modern times has allowed it to hold onto its architectural treasures and agricultural heritage.

Manatee Riverwalk North, plotted cooperatively with downtown Bradenton’s Riverwalk South, tours the town’s historic buildings and sites including Palmetto Historical Park, a collection of original and recreated pioneer structures that tells the story of Palmetto past.

The circa-1914 brick Carnegie Library, one of the first libraries south of Tampa, serves as the park’s introduction and historical museum.

On a quiet day out of season, you may have to stop in to ask for admission into the other buildings, which include a post office, one-room schoolhouse, recreated chapel that is a composite of three original Palmetto churches, and the Cypress House Museum, which is devoted to military artifacts.

The adjacent Manatee Agricultural Museum keeps its doors open and exhibits staffed.

Within its barn-like structure, it holds a growers hall of fame, hands-on activities for kids, antique farming equipment, and displays that trace Palmetto’s farming and fishing roots.

Here I learned that today citrus out-acreages tomatoes in Manatee County, but that the county nonetheless is the top tomato producer in the state.

It made me hungry, so that’s when I headed to Alvarez, with its Alamo-style façade and festive porch.

Seemed like the whole town was there on lunch break, from the Hispanic work force to the white-collar tomato-shipping bigwigs.

I expected to find them riverside, but evidently the local population is in on this secret.

Down the road a ways, I happened onto another local taste treat at Peppers in Palmetto.

The little shop carries hundreds of varieties of locally made and imported hot sauces, plus the line of tropical fruit jellies produced next door at Palmetto Cannery.

The owner doles out tastes, and after a sample of mango jelly, I walked out with a jar of that plus one each of key lime jelly, tangerine marmalade, and orange marmalade.

On another tip, I stopped on my way to Emerson Point at Palmetto Meat Shop to admire three-inch thick slabs of steak and fill my lungs with the aroma of barbecue at a bona fide, family-run, dying-breed style butcher shop — wishing I had a big cooler to fill up with the sausages, prime cuts, seafood, and deli specials.

Emerson Point Preserve is another hidden secret on Snead Island, a newer upscale neighborhood west of downtown.

Take a hike along the county park’s trails, and you’ll find yourself atop an ancient Indian shell mound overlooking bay water vistas and their rampant bird life.

Paths follow the three bodies of water that surround the point – the river, Terra Ceia Bay, and Tampa Bay – and delve into thick woods.

Dinner time brought me to meet a local friend at Riverside Café, which overlooks a marina full of yachts at Regatta Pointe Marina.

Locals and yachties hang out on the waterfront deck at this popular spot where you can find anything from a burger to Greek specialties and seafood dinners.

Next stop: martinis at Mangrove Grill, the very latest and upcoming in upscale at the emerging Riviera Dunes condo complex rising up along the river east of downtown.

Since my friend poo-pooed this as “foo-foo” and NOT a locals’ favorite, I sipped down my pomegranate martini and we headed somewhere with more old-time character: Woody’s River Roo Pub & Grill is a good place to chill with a beer or a Woodyrita (a golden margarita with cranberry juice), maybe munch on some wings or peel-and-eat shrimp, and listen to the band du jour or the karaoke crowd.

The crab-stuffed tomato reminds you that you’re in tomato territory. Grouper, crab cakes, sugarcane-skewered shrimp, and shrimp scampi hearken to the water that practically gulps Palmetto.

For the tops in seafood and exotic flavors (ostrich, kangaroo, wild boar, octopus, and alligator, to mention a few), I recommend Lee’s Crab Trap.

There are two: one north of town on Highway 19 and one just off the interstate in Ellenton.

The notebook-sized menu is largely given over to, of course, crab. Try it steamed (stone or king), provençal, deviled, Norfolk style (baked in lemon juice and butter), or in a variety of other treatments.

The grilled crab cakes—lightly bound chunks of prime meat—and three-crab soup with asparagus are excellent.

All the soups have a distinct from-scratch, long-mulled flavor that makes you understand: This town is all about food and the heritage stirred into it.

IF YOU GO:

For Riverwalk and general information, contact the Manatee Chamber of Commerce: 941-748-4842; http://www.manateechamber.com.

  • Alvarez Mexican Food, 941-729-2232, 1431 Eighth Ave. W.
  • Emerson Point Conservation Preserve, 941-721-6885, 5801 17th St. W.
  • Lee’s Crab Trap, 941-722-6255 5611, Hwy. 19; 941-729-7777, 4815 17th St. E., Ellenton
  • Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, 941-723-4536, http://www.floridastateparks.org/gambleplantation, 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton
  • Manatee County Agricultural Museum, 941-721-2034, 1015 Sixth St. W.
  • Mangrove Grill, 941-723-2556, www.mangrovegrill.com, 102 Riviera Dunes Way
  • Palmetto Historical Park, 941-723-4991, 515 10th Ave. W.
  • Palmetto Meat Shop, 941-722-5991, 1810 10th St. W.
  • Peppers in Palmetto, 941-729-9888, 3601 Hwy. 41 N.
  • Riverside Café, 941-729-4402, 955 Riverside Dr.
  • Woody’s River Roo, 941-722-23915717 18th St. E., Ellenton
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