WHEN WE SPOKE TO CHEF HARI PULAPAKA — whose restaurant Cress regularly makes waves on the Florida dining circuit for its unique use of global flavors combined with regional ingredients — about why people should Travel South to eat up the offerings from the Sunshine State, he was quick to compile a list of musts for visitors and locals alike. Pulapaka suggests that no matter where you end up in Florida, there are five dishes that offer an incomparable taste of the state. He also identifies five eateries that should not be missed, a mélange of restaurants with one common theme: destination delicious.
Five Dishes that will Add
Florida flavor to Any Adventure
Immigrants from the island nation of Cuba have defined the bright and energetic flavor of their cuisine by introducing the Cubano (aka the Cuban sandwich) in South Florida and the Tampa area about a century ago. Aficionados are correct in their assessment that, when executed properly, this may be one of the greatest sandwiches in the world.
Smoked Fish Dip
Mullet is generally considered a “lesser” fish because of how populous it is in the waters surrounding Florida. With its high natural oil content, smoking mullet and then incorporating it into a dip gives an up-close and personal sense of coastal Florida—for both casual and refined occasions.
Key Lime Pie
The “official” pie of Florida as decreed by the state’s House of Representatives and Senate in 2006, Key Lime Pie is also an early example of molecular gastronomy. The lime juice cooks the egg yolks, thus not requiring baking if proportions are correct. The balance between the sweet condensed milk, distinctive acidity of the limes, and flakiness of the pie crust makes for a dessert that captures the vibrancy of Florida’s citrus and dairy industries alike.
Pink Shrimp or Rock
Shrimp ‘n’ Grits
Pink shrimp are sweet, wild-harvested shrimp that come primarily from the west coast of Florida between November and June. Rock shrimp, on the other hand, taste like lobster, are characterized by a hard shell, and have a shorter season. While shrimp ‘n’ grits may not be a uniquely Floridian dish, when these shrimp meet some creamy Bradley’s Country Store (in Tallahassee, Florida) stone-ground grits and a sauce made from ripe Florida heirloom tomatoes and Creole spices, our version can stand up to any other.
Rated a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, this delicious and sustainable crustacean is harvested between October and May. While the meat may be used as one would for any crab preparation, enjoying it simply steamed with warm clarified butter and a squeeze of fresh Florida lemon has a cult following, and rightfully so.
For Florida dining, these spots are not to be missed
Danny’s Ice Cream
This place, an unassuming hole-in-the-wall, sits in a strip mall next to a Mexican bakery. Everything is homemade, but the tacos and menudo (available on Sundays) steal the show. The lengua tacos are as addictive as they are authentic: homemade tortillas, braised beef tongue, onions, cilantro, and lime. (386)985-2800 / 4824 US-17, De Leon Springs, Florida
Maritana Grille at the Don CeSar Hotel
This sleek restaurant is in a beautiful grand dame of a hotel. There are plenty of character-filled dives in the nearby town of Pass-A-Grille, but if you are looking for a pampered affair, staying at the Don CeSar and dining at the Maritana Grille isn’t exactly slumming it. My wife and I have spent a few Christmases relishing the many wonders of this resort. Website / 3400 Gulf Boulevard, St Pete Beach, Florida
Old City Inn & Restaurant
Owners Juan Solano and Christopher Tur are consummate hosts, and Juan is also a talented, passionate chef. The menu is eclectic with a nod to contemporary takes on classics—the cioppino is an excellent Florida seafood standby. It’s also nice because the inn is pet-friendly. Website / 115 Cordova Street, St Augustine, Florida
Adding my restaurant to this list brings the obvious fear of seeming self-promotional. But my wife, Jenneffer (who is a physician by day and the sommelier/general manager by night), pointed out that since day one, over seven years ago, we have strived to provide a soul-satisfying, conscience-nourishing, and tradition-stretching experience for all our guests. The question is: have we succeeded? Well, Cress offers a globally inspired, frequently changing menu using thoughtful and often locally sourced ingredients. I daresay we have succeeded. Come see and decide for yourself.
Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill
Executive Chef and Partner Timon Balloo and staff are a fearless bunch. I met Balloo at the first official James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change in Louisville, Kentucky. I visit him every time I go to South Florida; he makes food that he wants to eat himself, and it shows in the range of creative and comforting dishes. Tip: don’t order, let him cook for you. Website / 3252 Northeast First Avenue, Miami, Florida