GO-TO FLAVOR The sublime soursop (aka guanabana)
On a recent road trip down the coastal corridor to Key West, I was reminded that one of the best ways to explore the "culture" of a different region is through its food. If this means ignoring every chain restaurant advertised on the interstate, so be it. You can almost always find someone at a service station or a welcome center who will give you a good local food tip.
And if you're flying down to sunny Florida in the next month or two, my advice would be the same: make part of your trip a culinary adventure. Don't be like the folks I encountered in my favorite ice cream shop in Key West — Flamingo Crossing — who didn't even taste the tropical flavors that have made the reputation of this place for more than 20 years. Faced with the marvelous possibilities of Key lime, banana, pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, mango, guava, mamey, and soursop ice creams (not sorbets), they chose mint chocolate chip!!!
Okay, mamey and soursop may not be familiar to Northerners, but most of us have tasted passion fruit, mango, and guava in beverages. Mamey has a blander flavor, akin to a sweet potato, but it makes a lovely ice cream. Soursop (or guanabana), however, is my new go-to flavor. It starts with overtones of grapefruit and finishes with something akin to apricot. Incredibly refreshing.
And don't miss the chance to enjoy these tropical fruits in pastries or bread, such as at Cole's Peace Bakery or Henrietta's in Key West, or in sauces accompanying the wonderful seafood dishes throughout Florida. At the landmark on-the-water spot in Key West, Louie's Backyard, I had a terrific mango and jicama salad with my jerk-grilled shrimp. Key West pinks, that is, which always remind me what shrimp really tastes like.
We also had Key West pinks at the Hogfish Bar & Grill, a rustic spot with picnic tables indoor and out, next to the harbor on Stock Island and a short walk from the last remaining shrimp fleet. At Hogfish, we had peel 'n' eat shrimp, plus another few butterflied and blackened, along with our very own hogfish fillets. Hogfish is a reef fish, diver-caught and not always available, even at its eponymous eatery. A real treat, it has a deep, scallopy flavor.
At the nearby Shrimp Shack and Fish Market (next to Fishbusterz Fisheries, where I watched workers packing bags of local spiny lobsters — another Florida must), I relearned that, in addition to yellowtail and red, there are dog and mutton snappers; there are several kinds of grouper; and that royal red shrimp, caught in deep offshore waters, are even sweeter than Key West pinks. We also discovered the Shrimp Shack's own smoked shrimp, pinks smoked with Old Bay seasonings — delish!
As for the ubiquitous grouper, one of our best experiences was at Cortez Kitchen, a spot almost as down-home as the Hogfish, just outside Bradenton. Their grouper comes from the nearby Gulf of Mexico and is filleted inhouse for Buffalo grouper, BBQ grouper, and grouper reuben sandwiches, but I'd advise a straight grilled or blackened fillet. Cortez also has local specialties of stuffed blue crab and stone crab claws (fishermen pull off just one claw and throw the crabs back to regenerate it).