Savor the Sunshine State: What to Eat in Florida

Dine like a local in sunny Florida with these iconic eats, including spiny lobster, Key lime pie and gator tails.

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Photo By: Rodrigo Moreno

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: ansonmiao

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: Candace West

Photo By: South Moon Photography

Photo By: Grouper and Chips www.grouperand

Feast Away in Florida

There’s more to Florida than sea and citrus. With 1,350 miles of coastline, multiple climate zones and a diverse population, the Sunshine State is a mecca for lovers of seafood, southern fare and island specialties. And yes, key lime pie and stone crabs (during season) are never hard to find. From Old Florida classics to new international influences, here’s where to eat, drink and take in the ocean breeze while visiting.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Ceviche

Ceviche may hail from Peru, but it's been embraced by fish-loving Floridians. After all, chilled, citrusy seafood is exceedingly appealing when it's 90 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Cvi-che 105 is Miami’s original upscale cevicheria. With cool, minimalist decor and a high-end cocktail menu offering a wide selection of pisco-centric drinks, the posh seafood destination is a local favorite. The menu includes a dozen ceviche variations with different mixes of fish and sauces, including the award-winning Ganador Mixto, a combination of green-shell mussels, clams, shrimp and fish in an orange-chile sauce accented with vegetables and a touch of cream.

Go to: CVI.CHE 105

Stone Crabs

Maine has lobster. Florida has stone crabs, rock-solid rose-hued claws that nearly require an axe to break through their exoskeletal shell. The hearty lobster-like hunks are meat are worth the effort, but it feels more indulgent to let someone else do the hard work. For that, there’s no better place than Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach. The restaurant has sold its namesake dish since 1913, well before Miami Beach was incorporated as a city. After more than a century, the seasonal, no-reservations restaurant is busier than ever, and guests can expect a lengthy wait. However, for those looking to grab a claw and run, there’s a convenient take-away shop tucked on the side of the building.

Go to: Joe's Stone Crab

Cuban Sandwich

Spanish for "flowers" or something to do with flowers, Florida has a long, deep relationship with the Latin world. Few foods symbolize the manifold history better than the Cuban sandwich, created in 1915 at Columbia Restaurant, Florida's oldest eatery. Originally called a mixto, the sandwich blends influences from Tampa's heterogeneous population: Genoa salami from Italy, Spanish ham, mojo-marinated pork, Swiss cheese, German pickles and mustard, nestled in fluffy Cuban bread. The latter is still purchased from the 96-year-old La Segunda Central Bakery, which has supplied bread since shortly after the sandwich was invented.

Go to: Columbia Restaurant

Fritas

The frita, essentially a Cuban take on a hamburger, has been a Miami staple since the 1950’s, arriving on the shores of South Florida with the mass of immigrants fleeing the Cuban Revolution. The classic variation features a beef patty seasoned with cumin, paprika and pepper, topped with fried potato sticks (papas fritas), sandwiched between slices of flaky Cuban bread. Since 1976, el Rey de las Fritas has served some of the best in town. While the shops — now four, plus a roaming food truck — offer numerous variations (one comes with fried plantains on top), traditionalists stick to the Original Frita Cubana. This one blends ground beef and chorizo into a patty with a “secret formula” of spices, topped with raw onion and julienned fries.

Go to: El Ray De Las Fritas

Oranges

Florida's official state fruit is the orange. The state beverage is orange juice. The flower: orange blossom. Sample two of the three (and possibly some orange blossom honey) at Robert is Here. The Florida City fruit stand started with six-year-old Robert selling cucumbers on a corner of his father's farm in 1959. Robert isn't so little these days and neither is the shop. These days, it's a huge open-air shop specializing in tropical fruit like lychees, dragonfruit and guanabana, along with a wide variety of oranges and other citrus. During citrus season, pick up navel, red navel, temple and valencia oranges or order one of the stand's acclaimed fruit-filled milkshakes.

Go to: Robert is Here

Mojito

For many, the mojito is synonymous with Miami Beach. Nearly every outdoor cafe along Lincoln Road or Ocean Drive, offers the Havana-born beverage by the glass or pitcher. For a banner version of the fizzy rum cocktail, head for the Delano South Beach. The upscale art deco hotel, designed by Philippe Starck, serves fantastic drinks right next to its elegant, palm- and cabana-lined pool. Like the stylish, minimal design of the grounds, the poolside mojitos are simply sublime, a mix of fresh lime, white rum, mint and simple syrup, topped with club soda. They' re the ideal refresher after a day in the sun.

Go to: The Delano South Beach

White Ale

Once upon a time, the Sunshine State was a rough and tumble place, a southern version of the Wild West. The predominantly Scot-Irish colonial-era pioneers, known as Cracker Cowboys of Florida (derived from the crack of the whip used to herd cattle) molded the territory into the nation’s oldest cattle-raising state. Cigar City’s warm-weather appropriate Florida Cracker white ale is dedicated to those settlers. This Belgian-style beer, made in Tampa, is infused with orange peel and coriander, giving it a bright, citrusy flavor that pays homage to the official state fruit, the orange. It has become a staple of pool parties and beachside barbecues across the state.

Go to: Cigar City Brewing

Cafecito

Portland and Brooklyn may be the poster cities of the third-wave coffee scene, but Miamians have long paid allegiance to caffeine, thanks to the cafe Cubano. The stimulating beverage should be within five minutes of any point in the Magic City. One of the best places to enjoy Cuban coffee is Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop in Midtown. From a small service window, the staff here pulls the perfect cafecito — powerful doses of super-sweet coffee — served in espresso cups. Those who can’t handle the rocket-fuel power of the straight-up sugary brew can order a cortadito (essentially the Latin version of an Italian macchiato) or a cafe con leche with hot, steamed milk.

Go to: Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop

Conch Fritters

Most of Florida's residents transplant from someplace else. The foods they bring along often become Sunshine State mainstays. Conch fritters, originally from the Bahamas, are a prime example. Try them at Key Largo Conch House. Set in an old bungalow facing the sea, the restaurant offers a perfect island atmosphere and impeccable fried rounds of freshly caught seafood. Diced conch, celery and carrots are mixed with lime juice, a hint of curry and Key West Southernmost Wheat Beer, then deep-fried and served with a creamy, spiced dipping sauce.

Go to: Key Largo Conch House

Gator Tail

For the ultimate “tastes like chicken” Florida moment, try some alligator. Gator Grill is housed in a nondescript bungalow down past the end of the turnpike in Homestead. It’s off the beaten tourist path, but the reptilian-inspired cafe is a worthy detour on a drive to Everglades National Park or the Keys. What it lacks in accessibility, it makes up for with unique Sunshine State specialties including grilled gator tail, cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated in special mix of Cajun-style ingredients. The little morsels are flavorful and succulent, even better with the housemade cilantro cream and chipotle sauces that accompany the dish.

Go to: Gator Grill

Colombian Hot Dogs

New York and Chicago are known for their hot dogs. Miami, however, has the Perro Caliente, Colombia’s answer to the globally beloved street food. Find it at Mao Colombian Fast Food, where customers come for boiled dogs nestled in soft buns and piled high with Colombia’s favorite condiments, including crushed potato chips, pineapple sauce, mustard, ketchup and pink sauce (a ketchup-mayo hybrid). While those are the usual toppings for these kinds of franks, Mao lets guests customize toppings from a lengthy selection of options (think: sausage, bacon, lettuce).

Go to: Mao Colombian Fast Food

Mango Salsa

Throughout the summer months, Floridians' biggest concern is keeping cool, but their second-biggest might be figuring out ways to use up all the excess mangoes that bomb the streets. Like many chefs and home cooks, Jimmy Hula's incorporates the sweet fruit into a savory condiment, mango salsa. That sweet and tart tropical mix is the ideal topping for fish tacos, a Floridian accent for the Southern California snack. The Central Florida chainlet offers sustainable whitefish that's grilled, blackened or fried, tucked into grilled flour tortillas and topped with varying combinations of toppings. Six signature tacos are on the menu, half of which come with the shop's original mango-pineapple salsa.

Go to: Jimmy Hula's

Gulf Oysters

The McNeil family started selling seafood-centric fare in Port St. Joe, near Panama City, at a former trading post in 1929. Though its name has changed, the space has always been a store and restaurant. In 1985, it became Indian Pass Raw Bar to represent the concept's evolution. The place is such a stalwart that locals generally refer to it as simply Raw Bar, one of the best places to enjoy oysters from the Gulf. The team sources hyper-locally, pulling their selection from beds every morning in the nearby Apalachicola Bay. Large, plump and slightly salty with a sweet finish, the oysters are highly coveted by chefs around the country and thought to be among the best oysters on the planet. The only way to get a fresher taste of them is to shuck one yourself, straight from the bay.

Go to: Indian Pass Raw Bar

Guava-and-Cheese Pastelitos

Connoting excessive enthusiasm or an absolute obsession, the word mania indicates a level of madness that is generally not considered a positive, unless it comes to food. Little Havana’s Pastelmania offers a crazy array of Cuban pasteles (pastries) prepared by baked-good fanatics. Flavors include sweet and savory, with options such as coconut, pineapple, meat, crab and even pizza, which is filled with mozzarella and ham. For a pastelito that is the ultimate taste of Miami, go for the guava-and-cheese version. The gigantic pastry is stuffed so full of its sweet, tropical filling that the cream-cheesy fruit mixture oozes out upon first flaky bite.

Go to: Pastelmania

Jerk

Florida offers plenty of tastes of the Caribbean, but jerk sits at the top of the expat food pyramid. JamRock Cuisine in Kendall is not your average Jamaican restaurant — it actually specializes in Chinese-Jamaican dishes, developed by the Chinese immigrants who started arriving on the island nation’s shores in the 1800’s. Even with the diverse options (all of which are worth sampling), the jerk pork is a perennial mouth-searing hit. Picnic ham is marinated in jerk seasoning and sauce, roasted in the oven, then sliced and served with an extra side of the potentially tear-inducing sauce. It also comes white rice or the more traditional peas and rice. Use either to temper the fierce heat.

Go to: JamRock Cuisine

Barbecue

Florida may not have the barbecue culture of the Carolinas or Tennessee; however, it still has a long history of slow-cooked meat. Unlike other regions, where the style of barbecue is practically mandated, Florida’s barbecue joints each have unique styles and techniques that are all their own. Since 1957, Jenkins Quality Barbecue has scorched palates with its unique hot mustard sauce, slathered across chickens, ribs and sliced or chopped pork that is smoked with oak in open brick pits. Everything here is also served with some sort of bread. Slabs of ribs and half-chickens are placed atop slices of white bread, pork is nestled inside seeded buns. That starchy component cools the tongue from the near-numbing heat of the vibrant yellow sauce.

Go to: Jenkins Quality Barbecue

Spiny Lobster

Locals pull out their diving gear in droves when spiny lobster season comes around (August through March). Those who prefer to leave the harvest to the experts head to Cods and Capers for the freshest catch around. Former commercial lobster diver Stephen Gyland founded the shop in 1984, and he still has very close relationships with local fishermen. At this market and cafe, customers can pick-up whole lobster or tails to cook at home, or eat at the onsite cafe. On Wednesday nights, the market offers crustacean-focused meal deals at lower-than-usual price points for what it calls Florida Lobster Fest. Gyland’s goal for the special is to draw attention to the local industry. Though whole lobsters are only available during the season, tails are served year-round.

Go to: Cod & Capers Seafood

Mamey Shake

For more than two decades, el Palacios de Los Jugos has served exemplary Cuban dishes and fantastic fresh juices served in laid-back digs. Translated to Juice Palace, this little shop lives up to its name with a regal selection of fruits that are hard to find in much of the United States. Sample rare delicacies like guava, papaya, rambutan, passionfruit and sugarcane. The Miami specialty, however, is mamey, a tropical fruit with a citrusy, slightly tart flavor somewhat similar to raspberry. It’s served in juice form as well in a Cuban-style milkshake, Batido de Mamey, a sweet, frothy, tangy and not overly sugary refreshment.

Go to: El Palacios de Los Jugos

Rock Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits may be a low-country dish; however, it's been adopted throughout the crustacean-loving south. In Florida, the seafood staple most often highlights local rock shrimp, a deep-sea variety with a rock-hard outer shell from waters off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. James Beard Foundation Award-nominated husband-and-wife team James and Julie Petrakis offer their own twist on the dish at their critically acclaimed restaurant, The Ravenous Pig. Sometimes their rendition has Florida rock shrimp, other times, it's locally caught royal red Canaveral shrimp, another deep-sea variety from nearby waters. To craft the dish, the duo sautés shrimp with tomatoes and corn, topped with red pepper flakes and chives, then sets the lot atop Anson Mill grits, highlighted with heavily spiced green-tomato chutney and savory chorizo oil.

Go to: The Ravenous Pig

Smoked Fish Dip

After 25 years in wholesale seafood distribution, the folks behind Safe Harbor Seafood decided to turn Safe Harbor into a new and more customer-facing business venture, a fish house and seafood emporium. The Mayport market opened its doors in 2013, quickly becoming a local favorite for its fresh-from-the-water seafood. Fish is delivered to the restaurant’s dock by fishermen throughout the day. Guests can pick from the fresh catches to cook at home, or grab a table or let the knowledgeable Safe Harbor staff do the work. Everything is well-prepared, but the fish dip is a solid hit. Mullet or kingfish is smoked in-house, then combined with a blend of yellow onion, chicken stock, smoky hot sauce and garlic, served with a side of crackers.

Go to: Safe Harbor Seafood Market & Restaurant

Blackened Mahi-Mahi

It’s a safe bet that every seafood shack from Tallahassee to Key West offers blackened mahi mahi on the menu. Locally referred to as dolphin — not like Flipper — mahi is a mild, flaky fish that is most often covered with Cajun spices, then seared on a sizzling skillet. Dixie Crossroads in Titusville doesn’t follow the restaurant-industry masses. The Southern-inspired seafood joint cooks its blackened mahi its own way, ensuring the delicate fillets retain their light, flaky texture. Instead of browning the fish, it is broiled or grilled, then sprinkled with blackening seasoning mix, enabling guests to experience the actual flavor and light texture of Florida’s most-popular fish.

Go to: Dixie Crossroads

Roti

With a large population of Caribbean emigrants, Florida has adopted its own unique culinary canon that includes and adapts dishes from across the islands. Conch has become an obvious mainstay. Oxtail stew is another staple, and curry shows up on fine-dining and cheap-and-cheerful menus alike. For more than two decades, Joy’s Roti Delight in Lauderhill has churned out East-meets-West Indian-style fare for spice-loving South Floridians and Caribbean expats. This is the place to get buttery roti, essentially the Trinidadian version of a wrap. Heavily spiced vegetable stews or meats like curry goat, curry conch and chicken stew are rolled up in crepe-thin Indian flatbreads called paratha. Pick a roti, grab a Carib beer and enjoy the booming island music while you wait. A visit here is a like a trip to the islands, no passport necessary.

Go to: Joy’s Roti Delight

Florida Seafood Stew

Winter is a funny season in Florida. While northern gardeners are preparing for frost, Floridian farmers are planting tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce and more. That winter bounty has long been combined with seafood in a classic dish that hails from northern part of the state. Comparable to cioppino or Manhattan chowder, Florida seafood stew highlights fresh vegetables and seafood in a dairy-free broth. When Chef Lindsay Autry was preparing to open The Regional, she dug deep into Florida’s culinary history, discovering the roots of the local soup. Her take on the dish stays true to the original with fresh tomatoes, celery and pureed carrots, slowly simmered with Florida shrimp, cobia and Sebastian Inlet clams.

Go to: The Regional Kitchen + Public House

Porter

Porter, the dark, malty beer long beloved in English pubs, is not the first beverage that springs to mind in association with the Sunshine State. When it comes to local craft brew, however, Floridians do not discriminate. Funky Buddha’s special-release Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, winner of the World Beer Cup 2016 Gold Medal in the specialty beer category, has become a source of pride for Florida’s craft-beer geeks. Nearly black in color with hearty notes of maple syrup, coffee, cream and salty bacon, this thick brew has a loyal cultlike following. Fans from near and far flock to the Oakland Park tasting room and production facility every January for the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter Festival.

Go to: Funky Buddha Brewery

Key Lime Pie

Florida’s most famous export besides oranges may be Key Lime Pie. Named after the small, tart, aromatic limes commonly associated with the Florida Keys, the meringue-topped pie combines the tangy lime juice with sweetened condensed milk and egg yolk, all poured into a graham cracker crust. Variations appear on virtually every menu south of the Georgia border, but not all key lime pies are created equal. (Rule: Never trust a bright green filling!) The version found at Ma’s Fish Camp in Islamorada is prepared according to traditional Conch guidelines, well-balanced honeyed, citrusy base, piled high with sweet meringue.

Go to: Ma's Fish Camp

Fried Grouper Sandwich

The English have fish and chips. Floridians have fried grouper sandwiches. For 23 years, Grouper and Chips has churned out some of the Gulf Coast’s best fried grouper. Every morning, the restaurant gets its haul straight from local fishermen. The fillets are breaded and fried in canola oil, tucked into a bun and served with fries and coleslaw in the ever-popular grouper sandwich basket. For those looking to avoid oil, seafood selections (including shrimp, crab cakes and a catch of the day) can forego the fryer in favor of blackened, sauteed or broiled preparations.

Go to: Grouper and Chips

Black Bean Soup

Adapted from their grandmother's recipe, the owners of Columbia Restaurant serve up an authentic bowl of Cuban black bean soup — Frijoles Negros — that has become well-known amongst Floridians looking for an authentic Cuban meal. The rustic, completely vegetarian soup is made with beans, green peppers, onions and a variety of seasonings, served on a bed of rice and topped with raw Spanish onions.

Go to: Columbia Restaurant

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