24 Hours of Unleashed Eating in (Un-walled) Mexico Beach

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Sugar-white sand lines gem-toned waters in Mexico Beach.

We found  it! The ultimate restaurant in Mexico Beach. After forsaking Yelp and TripAdvisor, we gut-instincted it to Highway 98’s roadside Shipwreck Raw Bar. Well, technically, it’s just east of Mexico Beach – an unlikely named town in Panhandle Florida, free of trumped-up walls and border-crossings – in neighboring Port St. Joe.

I wanted oysters. More and more oysters. Toucan’s Tiki Bar had whetted my appetite with a basket of succulent, salty fried oysters straight from the source in oyster town Apalachicola, some 30 miles to the east.

Oysters, Hush Puppies, and Beachfront

So our first stop on our Mexico Beach chowdown mission was Toucan’s, which has been the go-to place since my first visit some 20 years ago. Toucan’s constitutes, aside from the beach, the town’s biggest tourist attraction. Funky and colorful in an Old Florida way, it settles right into the snow-white sand. Folks come for the day to sun, play volleyball, and bite into its big juicy burgers, Apalach oysters,  and classic Panhandle fried food. But fried in a good way. The best way. I don’t even like hush puppies, but I could not  stop eating Toucan’s. In short: a tough act to follow.

Breakfast at Sharon’s Café stuck to the Southern theme: neighborly with counter seating and booths and a waitress welcome of “morning y’all.” Of course we had to order biscuits and gravy and chicken fried steak, although the waffles and pancakes were awfully tempting.

Killer Seafood

killer_1For lunch, we figured a place called Killer Seafood would serve us some raw oysters, but alas, not an oyster on the menu. I can roll with the punches when it comes to seafood, so the Killer Bread Bowl ended up on my plate.

On a chill January afternoon, it not only hit THE spot it hit every spot. Port St. Joe is known for its bay scallops and they, along with local pink shrimp, floated in a tomato-y broth well-seasoned with thyme, a bit of fennel, and other sundry savories.

I doused it with the house Killer Seafood Hot Sauce, bite-y with a horseradish base, and didn’t stop scooping and dipping until I reached the bowl’s gooey, doughy bottom, which made a sort of thickener and each bite a new delight.

My husband, Rob, had settled on a fried shrimp po’ boy. Southern-born, he thrives on the Panhandle’s penchant for fried. And the hush puppies here may have even trumped Toucan’s. Our vote was split there.

Oyster Heaven

shipwreckoys_1So when we landed at Shipwreck to find NO fried food, Rob was a bit disappointed. I, on the other hand, reveled in the selections of raw and baked oysters on the half shell – and at considerably more reasonable prices than at Toucan’s. Act followed!

We split a tray of half-dozen raws, which actually held eight. Eight squeaky fresh oysters with a cup of horseradish, a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, a squeezer of ketchup, and a sleeve of Saltines.

Next course: oyster stew for me and Wench’s Crab Bisque for him. The menu promised three oysters to a cup but, again, the kitchen seems a little rusty on math, and I happily slurped down five oysters stewed just to tender doneness in a rich broth of cream, butter, and oyster liquor. Absolutely perfect, like Christmas Eve all over again (a family tradition). The bisque was thick enough to stand the spool up in, and the high-flavor result of long, loving prep.

The Kicked Up a Notch steamed shrimp fired away with sriracha, cayenne, and Old Bay. Then the piece de resistance: The sample platter of oysters gave us the choice of three out of eight styles of oysters offered, four of each style.

The St. Joe Beached was our favorite – baked with bacon, cheddar, and feta. The Mexico Beached earned its name (and our love) with fresh pico de gallo, lime, and Mexican cheeses. Spinach and basil with panko bread crumbs and garlic butter filled the baked Rocky Beached oysters with subtler flavors.

We left quite proud of ourselves for discovering this gem without Yelp help, but as it turns out, it didn’t pop up because we were searching Mexico Beach. We did eventually find it rated 4.5 stars, but not listed among the top 10.

 

 

 

Cuban Nuances in Tampa’s New Generation of Restaurants

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Ulele restaurant

Senor Castro may have left this world, but the intrigue and influence of the Cuban culture is still alive and well in Tampa, a historic Cuban cigar-making town since the 1880s. Ybor City is the Cuban foodie epicenter with such historic, landmark restaurants as the original Columbia Restaurant, La Tropicana, Carmine’s, and La Segunda Central Bakery.

But Cubano foodways are not confined to Tampa’s Latin district. Cuba and its Spanish abuela insinuate themselves into most menus, even the newest, finest, and most progressive. Besides the ubiquitous Cuban sandwich that everyone claims bragging rights to, you’ll see and taste the influence in dishes from ramen to ice cream.

I was recently engaged in a mission to sample and write about six of Tampa’s most up-and-coming restaurants. There I found delightful ways that Cuban cuisine had purposely or unknowingly creeped into the chef’s head.

In the case of Ichicoro Ramen, the fusion is intentional. The roast pork asado in its Tonkotsu ramen bowl takes cues from Cuban pork mojo. If that’s not evident enough, consider the CuBaoNo – a not-so-subtle nod to the Cuban sandwich in an Asian bun. “This is Tampa,” says manager Eric. “Our Asian fusion has to incorporate that tradition.”

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Tonkotsu ramen

Oxford Exchange, just off downtown Tampa near the university, may emulate a British club, but there’s jolty Spanish cortado (similar to café con leche) beside sthe tea sommelier’s menu.

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Coffee at Oxford Exchange

It was less of a surprise to find tostones – albeit breadfruit tostones rather than plantain – at Seminole Heights’ darling Rooster & the Till. Considering that Chef Farrell Alvarez has Colombian roots, Latin influence is expected. It came with the crisp chicken thigh and yuzu habanero kosho the night I dined.

Also no big surprise at Ulele, one of the latest brainchildren from Columbia Restaurant dynasty kingpin Richard Gonzart. Although the culinary concept is defined as native American, the Naviaera Espresso Chocolate Swirl Ice Cream uses a coffee blend straight from Ybor City.

A native Tampan, Chef Jeannie Pierola has reached semifinalist status four times in the James Beard competition and was recently a guest chef at the Beard House. Her latest edison: food+drink lab near downtown draws on influences from here to Cyprus. The paella negra on the dinner menu the day I visited draws on strong Spanish tradition with a few of Chef Jeannie’s trademark twists such as squid ink rice, saffron uni foam, and piquillo pepper jam.

Chef Greg Baker at Fodder & Shine had me stumped. He professes strict Southern cuisine (with his own interpretations), and whereas I expected Florida Cuban influence to show up, it took a while to find it. There it is! On the Cornmeal Cake Sandwich, topped with killer collard greens, tomato, green pepper, scallion, and cayenne vinegar slaw. And served on – tada! La Segunda Cuban bread.

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Cassadega, Florida: Of Ghosts & Rare Mediums

camp_2The “spirited” conversation began the night before we seven girls departed for Cassadega, Fla., and our 7 p.m. appointment for a séance.

The responses to my post flew in like so many ghosts: “How does one pack for an overnight girls séance trip to Cassadega?”

From Birgie, one of the group: “I’m letting the spirits guide me in my packing . . .”

From a friend: “Flower crowns and vodka”

My response to that: “They’re actually telling us not to drink (much) before the séance but I may need wine or vodka after to sleep in the purportedly haunted Cassadega Hotel. ☠👻”

From a fellow Florida travel writer: “yes, it is haunted. Man wearing too much cologne – which does NOT mask the cigar smell – likes to touch your toes.”

We were already familiar with that cigar-smoking bloke. We had made the trip to Cassadega a few years prior to have readings and a tour of the town and its Spiritualist Camp. On the tour, we learned about Arthur, a former opera singer from New York who has a penchant for cigars and booze.

We did not actually see a ghost, but my friend Colleen swears that when she went to the porch of the Cassadaga Hotel to have a cigarette, the empty chair at her table started rocking. Arthur looking for a smoke?hotel

As odd as it may seem that a number of Cassadega’s population are, well, dead, the living population has its own quirks: It consists of about 200 Spiritualists, psychics, mediums, and healers.  I’m fairly open-minded about all that, but was ready to give it all an objective assessment.

“We get a lot of good spirits here because we welcome spirits,” said Lillian Selph, one of the living who guided our tour, which started at the Cassadega Bookstore, across the street from the Cassadaga Hotel.

Built in the 1920s, the block-long, two-floor hotel is not your average flappers-age accommodations. Besides the fact that guests report visits from Arthur, the hotel strays from the norm with its schedule of group readings, séances, and other psychic events. Inscriptions on the wall of the lobby’s ladies rooms speak of fairies and enlightenment.  The gift shop carries crystals and essential oils. Not to mention the self-propelled rocking chair on the porch.

The hotel can arrange readings, although as far as the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is concerned, it’s on the “other side of town.”

Just across the street, the circa-1905 bookstore is the second headquarters for visitors finding their path through town. It carries much of the same metaphysical gifty stock, plus séance smudge sticks, stones, incense, and T-shirts that read “Cassadaga. Where Mayberry meets Twilight Zone.” I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.

The bookstore is headquarters for all manner of spiritualist events from bingo to transfiguration demonstrations. Its dry-erase boards holds the names and phone numbers of “on-call” mediums for the day. Here is where we signed up for our guided tour of the camp.

“The rules are different here,” Lilian started out. “Think of it like a condo association.” A condo association for mediums and healers, that would be. Within the confines of the “camp,” Cassadaga requires its professionals to undergo four to six years of training and a certification evaluation to hang a shingle. Cassadaga Hotel is outside of the confines, but asserts its own standards.

Certified mediums don’t need to use tools such as tarot cards, tea leaves, or palms, Lilian said. If you feel you’ve picked an incompatible personality, you can ask for another at no charge. They are extremely fraud-avoidant in Cassadaga.

Along the one-street tour, we learned the camp’s history. George Colby, after a near-death experience, purchased 35 acres northeast of Orlando at the end of the 19th century. It eventually became the winter camp for the Lily Dale spiritualist community in Chautauqua County, New York.

Modern Spiritualism is a science, philosophy, and religion with its own nationwide association. Cassadaga, however, operates independently. Since its birth, 20 acres have added to the real estate of the “camp,” so-named because originally people stayed in tents while communing with the spirits and those in touch with them.

Homes along Stevens Street date to the same turn-of-the-century era. The tour, which involved intel about President Lincoln’s dabbling in the spirit world, ended at the Colby Memorial Temple, where we learned about the Spiritualist religion.

The highlight of that talk was hearing about how séances are performed. We were privy to look into the séance room with its “tipping table,” but were not allowed into the sanctified room. The table tips, we learn, as a positive response to yes-and-no questions. We were ready to sign up for one there and then, but alas, wrong night. And our readings awaited us.

We each had very different experiences with our readings at the hotel, except for MaryBeth and Colleen who both had Kat as a reader. She was specific in a scary way about their husbands, kids, finances, etc.

Torre, my medium (no longer there), arrived out of breath and had to catch it for 15 minutes. She told me she had been healing all day and looked worn-out by the effort. I listened to a little commercial about her upcoming Halloween witches event at the hotel. I had read that she does events at Universal Studio, so I was expecting some drama.

Her visions and communications with those “on the other side” were general. Some I could have made fit into what has been going into my life. I did not ever feel she was not authentic, although I did at one point think I should terminate.

There was a genuine goose-bump moment when she connected with a friend, but then again she was general, and I made that connection myself. She asked if there was anything or anyone I wanted to know about, but I was more or less testing what she could tell me.

For instance, she asked me my birth date. Shouldn’t she know that, I wondered?

Her takeaway message was that I was going to have a big change within a month. And the cards (she did use cards and palms) showed a new romance. I am happily married, FYI.

Karyn had a similar experience with a woman outside of the hotel, as if the mediums were just a little too tired to focus? (Kat was younger, although heavens forbid me for seeming ageist.) I don’t know. What I do know is that we had been trying for a couple of years to get back for a séance at the church, but they always filled up quickly. So we settled for one of the bi-monthly séances at the hotel with medium Mary Hayes. Here about 20 of us gathered in a room upstairs and one by one instructed Mary to ask questions of one dearly departed. Boxes of tissues were distributed throughout the room, and most of the participants became emotional. Call us cynical, but we remained dry-eyed. We, in fact, stifled giggles at times.

I’m told that the experiences outside the hotel, within the camp, are more authentic, but perhaps for the cynical there’s just no point. Heck, Arthur didn’t even show up during the night we spent in the old hotel. But even if your experience in Cassadaga doesn’t quite reach paranormal, it’s guaranteed to be well to the far side of Florida normal.

Cassadaga Hotel 386-228-2323

Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp 386-228-3171

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10 Best Family Restaurants in Vero Beach

  1. Cravings: A custom fit for families with kids of all ages, it satisfies cravings for everything from homemade ice cream and yummy bakery goods to soup from scratch, made-to-order sandwiches and salads, and vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Guests order at the counter and usually take a seat on the patio, or carry their meal across the street to beachside Humiston Park. The kiddy menu offers grilled cheese, PB&J, and other sandwiches with chips, milk or juice, and cookie or apples for  $6.95.
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    Shelves full of goodies at Cravings

    Casey’s Place: Not far off Ocean Drive on the beach, this affordable burger stand goes far beyond the usual with breakfast dishes, hot and cold deli sandwiches, salads, and kids meals. A number of sturdy tables beneath umbrellas accommodate guests, but they often fill up in the early afternoon.

  3. Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill: Grab a table overlooking the beach for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The food is good and the service friendly. Sandwiches, pasta, fried fish nuggets, seafood, and steaks please everyone in the family. Thursday is Family Fun Night from 5 to 8 p.m. with balloons, face painting, and kids meal specials.

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    Family dining with a killer view at Mulligan’s

  4. Mr. Manatee’s: Kids love the manatee wearing shades on the signs, the waterfront location, and the ring toss game outside in the waiting area. The children’s menu has games to play and $5 kids meals such as fish fingers and pasta.
  5. Mrs. Mac’s Fillin’ Station: Parents and grandparents will appreciate the nostalgic diner feel and service station memorabilia. Kids too will get a kick out of the car motif. They can choose from the “Rumble Seats” section of the menu, which lists such favorites as chicken with mac ‘n’ cheese, Fluffer-Nutter sandwich, and corn dog. The extensive menu covers everything from burgers (which come with popcorn) to salads, plus breakfast items.

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    Courtyard dining at Osceola Bistro

  6. Osceola Bistro: If you are touring downtown’s attractions and shops, plan for a nice meal at this foodie favorite. Parents and kids can all be happy in either the lush outdoor courtyard or indoors’ modern setting. The kitchen goes to great lengths to provide new American dishes with creative, homemade touches. Take for instance the house pickles, fingerling potato salad, and horseradish crème fraiche with the short rib sandwich. The kids menu considerately offers a choice of salad or vegetables instead of fries.
  7. The Lemon Tree: A bright, cheery décor makes this a happy place. Particularly popular for breakfast (served until 2:30 p.m.), it also serves lunch in the thick of island activity near Humiston Park. The pancakes are especially tasty. Soups, salads, sandwiches, chicken pot pie, quiche, and seafood appear on the lunch menu, which devotes one section of four meals for kids.
  8. Shutters: Located at the Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, Shutters overlooks the beach with all the playfulness and drama you’d expect. In addition to an all-American, family-designed menu, it welcomes kids to Saturday beachfront breakfast with Goofy et al and Monday evening pirate character (Goofy and Donald) all-you-can-eat dinner (summers only). Special family activities are part of the experience.
  9. Pizzoodle’s: When the demand for family pizza night surfaces, head to this cozy pizzeria with an extensive selection of pizza, pasta, and “subwiches.” It is one of several dining options along Royal Palm Pointe.
  10. Waldo’s Restaurant & Bar: Feeling a little like the Wild West with its rough-hewn cypress structure, this restaurant at the Driftwood Resort further appeals to families with outdoor seating overlooking the pool and beach. This is where families will want to sit, because indoors feels a bit dim and stuffy. The extensive lunch and dinner menu includes seven “Sea Bucklers” items for kids, including a quesadilla and pasta.

Sarasota Food Orgy 2015

There’s beaches. There’s circus. There’s the inimitable Ringling Estates, for god’s sake. So why is it that each time I venture to the Sarasota area, all I think and write about is the food?

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen

Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen

Because all the rest – the zip lining and treetop base-camp adventures, the tennis, the shopping, the sunset drum circle at Siesta Key – it’s all just stuff I did between eating for four days last week.

Day One: Killer Turtles and Pie in a Jar

I planned my arrival to Sarasota County just in time for lunch at Snook Haven, east of Venice in a county park on the wild Myakka River. I had heard that the funky indoor-outdoor restaurant had been rescued from closure by the same folks who operate the ever-popular Sharky’s at the Pier in Venice. And even better news, now barbecue is on cue.

How appropriate: This place is all country with its legend of Killer Turtles, left over from the filming of a Tarzan episode. It has designated motorcycle parking. And the Gulf Coast Banjo Society performs Thursday afternoons in season.

On my smoked pulled pork taco with cheddar and pico de gallo, I tried each one of the restaurant’s four barbecue sauces as I watched kayakers paddle by. The Carolina Style sauce won, but old Spicy Whiskey placed a close second.

After checking into the Resort at Longboat Key Club, I headed to Siesta Key with some new friends to distract myself at the surprisingly robust drum circle (many circus performers participate, I hear), until we made our way to the famous Siesta Key Oyster Bar (SKOB) in the village.

Packed on a Sunday evening, SKOB was hosting an energetic band and slinging raw oysters and other briny treasures. Our raw oysters were a little subpar on the chilled level. But the grouper bites with remoulade compensated and then some.

The sea scallops on my main course were perfectly cooked, but honestly the creamy crawfish tail meat risotto stole the show. You also can’t go wrong with any fish prepared key lime style, including the tacos with cilantro cream.

You can’t blame a place for trying to be novel with its key lime pie. Personally I prefer it classic when it is done right.

One of my new friends from Atlanta was surprised to hear both the waiter and I say “I love key lime pie.” I guess she didn’t, and this version in a “Mason jar” (actually a jelly jar), probably didn’t convince her.

It layered crumb crust, pie filling, whipped cream, repeat. A little difficult to get the full effect of pie. And not nearly tart enough.

Day Two: Lobster Roll and True Ceviche!

If there’s one way to work up an appetite for Sarasota, it’s TreeUmph – a radical adventure course east of Bradenton that has you hooking up your own zip lines, walking cables and other unlikely bridges between tree tops, and praying.

I rewarded myself at Dry Dock Waterfront Grill back on Longboat Key. It just so happened that the 15-day Savor Sarasota county-wide promotion had kicked in that day, so I took advantage and ordered an iced tea, lobster roll, and key lime pie for $15.

This is a yachties dry dock, so the ambiance is tasteful with two floors overlooking Sarasota Bay.

Huge chunks of lobster meat brimmed out of the sandwich’s bun. This key lime pie? Traditional and creamy. But still short on pucker.

A tennis lesson – make that an excellent tennis lesson – at Longboat Key Club helped me sweat off some calories and temper my impatience for dinner at one of my top three favorite Sarasota restaurants. Selva Grill does Peruvian, and does it right.

I had dined there a few times, but this time was on the tails of a trip to Peru a few months earlier. How would it measure up now?

My answer came in the form of the Selva Wild Ceviche. It’s totally authentic when there is Cusco corn involved. Selva, however, adds a little more fire than Peru; I like that.

The La Buena Causa potato-based tapa – Wow! Did you know there are more than 3,000 varieties of corn and 2,000 types of potatoes grown in Peru?

Selva Grill Osso Buco with Quinoa Risotto

Selva Grill Osso Buco with Quinoa Risotto

Quinoa is another staple, and Peruvian cuisine is greatly influence by Italy (and also Chinese, random as that may seem). So my entrée from the specials made perfect sense: osso buco with quinoa risotto and a red wine demi. It was a clear highlight of my latest Sarasota food orgy.

Day Three: The Cornbread of All Cornbread and Crazy Snapper

After the requisite visit to the campus of the Ringling Art Museum, a five-ring lunch was in order. No clowning around at the new Surf Shack Coastal Kitchen at shopping mecca St. Armands Circle.

Kudos for a brilliant beach bum setting downstairs. But more so for Catie’s Corn Bread. We threatened owner Steve Bishop with an elevator hostage situation in an effort to extract the recipe from him. Stay tuned, I just may get it yet. I’m not above extortion.

All I know at this point: It comes in a miniature cast iron skillet with the texture of a good carrot cake and the bite of jalapenos. Surf Shack prides itself in its creative $4 tacos (try the yellowfin tuna), but do not miss the seafood S’Mac & Cheese. At dinnertime, you can kick it up a story and enjoy a different ambience, separate menu upstairs.

An operatic shuttle driver named Richard delivered us to dinner at Portofino at the Longboat Key Club. Yes we were serenaded.

As the sun set we noshed on an excellent sequence of pear salad, spaghetti squash parmesan pomodoro, and house pizza. My Snapper Aqua Pazza (translation: crazy water) was a triumph of local snapper and Cedar Key clams. Note: Only guests of the club and resort have access to Portofino and other club restaurants.

Day Four: Farewell and One Restaurant Fired

I traveled to Bradenton Beach in hopes of trying the new restaurant at the pier, but alas it was closed. So I headed to old standby Gulf Drive Café – regrettably. I had had a less than stellar experience there about a year ago, but with a large group.

It’s a case of having outgrown its avid fanship with a major expansion. I see it all the time in the restaurant world.

Giving it the benefit of a doubt, I ordered my barometer breakfast dish, eggs benedict. This one Florentine style. Strike two. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t got to Island Creperie instead.

And with that it was farewell and back home and to the gym.

Get thee and thy palate to Sarasota by June 14 to take advantage of the special prix fixe lunch and dinner menus at more than 60 local eateries. But go any time for Sarasota delicious.