The Cove at Port Canaveral: Local Flavor

Just when I thought I knew every location in Florida to find fresh seafood and the flavor of the local culture, someone tells me I should try the Cove at Port Canaveral.

Blackened grouper sandwich a la Rusty's

Blackened grouper sandwich a la Rusty’s

I was stunned: I could not believe that I had missed this spot for not just one waterside seafood house, but an entire school of them! As the name reveals, this cluster of restaurants lines the waterfront at Cape Canaveral’s cruise ship port on Florida’s Space Coast. Fishing charters and other tour boats depart from the docks; seafood markets and restaurants sell what commercial fishermen bring in that-day fresh.

So Many Restaurants, Only One Lunch

It’s a little tricky to find; the web site doesn’t give any clear directions, but by using my iPhone’s GPS for one of the restaurants on Glen Cheek Drive, I found my way to Terminal B and seafood row. About a dozen places to have lunch confounded my decision making.

I typically look for the shackiest looking seafood shack when I’m in the salty mood. Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill looked a little too gimmicky. Milliken’s Reef, a little too stylish; but now I see a tiki bar and sand beach out back on its web site, so perhaps I was too quick to judge on that one.

An Italian place, a Mexican spot didn’t suit my mood. I settled on Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar. It had the right casual character and a number of cars parked outside already at 11:30 a.m. Smack on the water, it offers outdoor seating and a bar that looks like it gets vivacious at night with live entertainment.

Real at Rusty’s

I took a table with a view of cruise ships and fishing boats. The regulars come in for the $8.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which looked and smelled like a good deal – chicken wings, a mahi dish, pork, and various side dishes – but I ordered off the menu.

Like any Southern-style seafood house worth its weight in fish, Rusty’s sells raw and steamed oysters, mussels, and clams. There are the requisite fried seafood baskets, plus seafood pasta dishes, grilled crab cakes, seafood platters fried or steamed, crab legs, and sandwiches.

The fish sandwich du jour featured grouper, so that quickly made up my mind. I ordered mine blackened, which was only slightly spicy. From the dill pickle spear and cole slaw to the moist, perfectly done filet atop its bun – everything shouted “excellence.”

The tartar sauce tasted homemade, with some sour cream in there. The slaw had a pinkish tint suggesting  the addition of a tomato product that gave it a flavor boost. The fries were lightly coated before meeting the deep fryer, providing them an extra crunch. It all came in a plastic red basket – an icon of seafood shacks everywhere.

Rusty’s touts its Colee’s key lime pie from a Key West company and white chocolate cheesecake, both profoundly tempting. I couldn’t make it work, but that’s okay. I will be visiting the Cove at Port Canaveral again soon –never mind it’s almost six hours from my house.

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Lee County: Best grouper sandwiches

Grouper sandwich a la Lazy Flamingo.

Grouper sandwich a la Lazy Flamingo.

With grouper fishing season just reopened as of April 1, the time is right to get it fresh at local restaurants. The iconic grouper sandwich is to Southwest Florida what hot dogs are to Coney Island. Nearly every local menu lists one, and each restaurant claims to make the best.

“Best” may be in the mouth of the beholder. It depends upon if you go for the classic grouper sandwich — breaded and deep-fried to a golden brown then smeared with creamy tartar sauce – or something creative and lighter. With the onset of health consciousness, many restaurants offer the delicacy grilled, blackened, or broiled between a bun.

It starts with one of the world’s meatiest, sweetest-tasting fish — a saltwater catch in the sea bass family that swims deep waters. The most common, red grouper, can grow to a beefy 32 inches and 25 pounds.

So grab your appetite and let’s get started. Here, in no particular order, are 10 grouper sandwiches that I recommend wrapping your palate around.

  1. Lazy Flamingo, Bokeelia (239-283-5959) You’ll find Lazy Flamingo restaurants throughout the county, but I like Bokeelia’s best the best for its view of marina and boats. Seafood always tastes better seaside. Its fried grouper sandwich is textbook classic with the exception of its overachieving caper tartar sauce. Lazy Flamingo adds the healthy touch of a whole wheat bun. Healthier still? Order the mesquite-grilled version and opt for Caesar salad instead of fries.
  2. Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon, Sanibel Island (239-472-8138) Another salty marina view, another noteworthy tartar sauce: Dill sparks the mayo and sour cream, cornmeal forms the coating, and Swiss cheese tops it all off. You can also order the fish broiled, mesquite-grilled, or blackened.
  3. University Grill, Fort Myers (239-437-4377) Some restaurants add serious crunch to their fried sandwiches by rolling the grouper in cornflakes. The one they serve here could fairly break an ear drum.
  4. Rumrunner’s, Cape Coral (239-542-0200) Here’s another one that talks back at you when you bite it, with an outspoken crunch that counterpoints its chewy, soft Kaiser roll.
  5. Mucky Duck (239-472-3434) and Green Flash (239-472-3337), Captiva Island. Same owner, same recipe, different water views. The secret here to the cornflake-crusted grouper sandwich? Tartar sauce blended with house-made mayo.
  6. Coconut Jack’s Bonita Beach (239-676-7777) Crowd-pleasing Coconut Jack’s also coats its fried grouper with cornflakes, but gives diners options including beer-battered, blackened, and grilled. Diners often order the grilled version with the special homemade BBQ sauce; otherwise the sandwiches come with house remoulade on a brioche bun.
  7. Pincher’s Crab Shack (239-415-8973) Its Great Grouper Sandwich too gives you a choice of preparation: broiled, blackened, or lightly breaded. With several locations, its most properly fish-eating venue resides bayside at Fort Myers Beach.
  8. Fresh Catch, Fort Myers Beach (239-463-2600) A seafood market on premises is a good sign that the grouper is super-fresh – the most important part of any
    Sanibel Grill

    Sanibel Grill

    recipe. Here they grill the filet and serve it on a rustic roll.

  9. Sanibel Grill, Sanibel Island (239-472-4453) Cousin to University Grill, it too adds cornflake crunch to the grouper. Try it in the Grouper Reuben grilled with Swiss cheese and slaw.
  10. South Beach Bar & Grille, Boca Grande (941-964-0765) Its Ultimate Grouper Sandwich is the ultimate in gourmet – pan-seared and served with garlic butter glaze, oven-roasted tomatoes, and complex homemade tartar. It’s enough to make me lose my prejudice for classic fried grouper .  So, if forced, I would deem it my favorite to date. However, I’m nowhere near finished researching the topic.

Punta Gorda: 2 New Restaurants

Trabue & Opus elevate the town’s reputation

Punta Gorda, Florida, dining capital? Suspend your disbelief and backburner your cynicism until you’ve pulled up a chair.

Time was when it meant Karl Ehmer’s German restaurant, early bird dinners, and Fishermen’s Village. That all has changed.

Bouillabaisse at Opus

Since Hurricane Charley in 2004, the small, historic town’s dining scene has been slowly reviving and evolving. In the last three days I sampled two newcomers that just may take PG to the edge of cutting. Read more of this post