Like many of the most exciting cuisines, Florida’s is an eclectic mix of different national flavors: settler fare, Southern staples, Caribbean and Spanish influences via Cuba, and, since the 1900’s or so, Jewish cooking as well. Cherry-picking the best from each culture has resulted in a gastronomy that’s not only diverse but surprisingly versatile.
At the same time, the ingredients available locally define Floridians’ eating habits. Seafood often takes pride of place, as do tropical and semi-tropical fruit. As the state suffers no real winter, produce of all kinds tends to be fresh year-round, with pink shrimp and stone crab claws often taking mere hours to get from the dock to the dining table. Compared to many other U.S. states, this is perhaps the defining feature of an authentic Floridan meal.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Take an unripe tomato, season, coat with cornflour and pan-fry. What could be simpler, yet more characteristically Southern?
There’s a kind of myth that a restaurant should be judged mostly on the quality of its entrees and that starters don’t really matter. This is really not the way to look at things: preparing a good (cooked) starter is a chef’s best opportunity to show off his skill in creating a dish with concentrated yet balanced flavor and outstanding presentation. Also, many apparently complex dishes can be made by just following the recipe, but making something simple great is the mark of a truly good kitchen. Finally, something that basically consists of a single ingredient leaves absolutely no room for substandard produce to be used.
Where to find it:
Among stiff competition, we’ll mention the Izaak Walton Lodge and its attached restaurant the Riverside Inn for its beautiful river view and ambiance. It can be found near Yankeetown a few miles off US 19.
Key Lime Pie
Key limes aren’t used only in the keys, but are prized throughout the state for their tarter, more floral flavor. Although many variations exist, the classic key lime pie requires only a crust, lime juice, condensed milk, eggs and sugar. The acidic lime juice reacts with the condensed milk and egg yolks to produce the creamy, slightly yellowish filling without having to be baked, while the egg whites are whipped into a fluffy meringue topping.
Where to find it:
Although you will rarely encounter a disappointing key lime pie anywhere near the Florida coast, The Gathering Table in Chiefland offers a good product both for takeout or to enjoy in a very comfortable environment. Foodies will particularly appreciate this restaurant’s reputation for using the freshest produce, while a piquant dessert with coffee is the perfect way to end a steak dinner. Of course, you can only really taste the grinds with espresso makers output.
Different regions have widely divergent ideas on what a “chowder” really is. Should it contain cream, tomato, chili or perhaps all of the above?
Well, nothing is more futile than getting into an argument with purists, but if you find yourself in Gainesville and like your clam chowder creamy with a bit of a kick – and especially if you insist on the freshest ingredients – Levy County doesn’t disappoint.
Where to find it:
Tony’s Seafood Restaurant in Cedar Key is probably the most famous restaurant in the county, and attracts visitors even from out of state with it’s award-winning clam chowder. In fact, they sell it in cans for tourists to take home. The best part is that they manage to do this without losing the restaurant’s understated, local identity.