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Oct 1, 2008 01:36 PM

Florida's Signature dish

What is it and where can I get the best of the best.

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  1. Florida doesn't really have a signature dish. Heck, it doesn't even have an identifiable cuisine to call its own. Some would say it's cracker cuisine, but that could mean anything from gator tail to swamp cabbage. In the '80s, a group of chefs in South Florida started a cooking trend called Floribbean (or New World Cuisine), which used the cooking style and dishes of the islands but with a local (Florida) twist of available ingredients. Norman Van Aken was one of those chefs and he still serves his signature dishes at Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando. Another chef, Mark Militello, had several highly regarded restaurants in South Florida, but the last remaining location closed recently.


    6 Replies
    1. re: Scott Joseph

      I have to disagree. Florida has 2 dishes that come to mind - one, very simply, is stone crabs. The other would be a Key Lime Pie.

      1. re: mikek

        Absolutely correct, Mikek. Fortunately, stones will be in season this month. Scott, let's not forget Chef Allen Susser who is one of the best.

        Chef Allen's
        19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura, FL 33180

        1. re: Alfred G

          What about Blue Crab and Bay Scallops?

          1. re: mikek

            I would also say spiny lobsters. Where else except Florida can you get spiny lobsters in the continental USA?

          2. re: Scott Joseph

            As far as I can tell, the signature dish of the Gulf Coast is smoked fish (preferably mullet) spread. I had never seen it offered before (or in such profusion ) I moved to St. Petersburg. It is the perfect food for this area... especially in the dog days of summer where all you want to eat is an icy cold glass of white wine, some flavorful smoked mullet spread and good crackers (with a little bit of jalapeno or hot sauce.) Nothing could be better, especially if you enjoy it by a waterfront view.

          3. The original comment has been removed
            1. The original comment has been removed
              1. Please discuss where these signature dishes can be found. General discussion of Florida specialties is off topic here. Thanks, everyone.

                1. There is no dearth of choices in this state. Florida is so multicultural that you could pick a few. There are at least three or five different floridas. we also share food traditions with Georgia/Alabama, and Louisiana, so that's a lot of ground we cover.

                  how about OJ? for the very best go to the Citrus Exchange on US 19 just south of the Sunshine Skyway.

                  Smoked Mullet: Ted Peter's in St. Pete is the king of smoked fish in the bay area.

                  Key Lime Pie: the best specimens are usually not found in restaurants.

                  Minorcan clam chowder: I saw this at O'Steen's in St. Augustine--- it was quite good.

                  Cuban sandwich: It was always more popular in Florida than in Cuba. These days, you're lucky to find bread in Cuba at all. I still recommend the Museum Cafe in Homosassa for a great sandwich, and the Columbia is in the process of reinventing theirs. I will update here when it debuts in the next month or two. Cuban bread itself cannot be found in Cuba. Florida's bread retained the elongated shape, which came about in Cuba during the shortages in the Spanish-American war. Tampa's best bread outclasses Miami's, because it is baked directly in a hearth, not on a pan. La Segunda Central is the best IMO, Alessi's in Faedo's also do an admirable job. The Cuban bread at Publix keeps getting worse. For more info on La Segunda, check out a 3 part film I made for USF's oral history program:


                  Stone crabs: an excellent choice, an obscure dish made prominent by the tourism industry. The season happily coincides with tourist season. Besides Joe's Strone Crab, the Columbia in Sarasota helped to popularize the dish during the 1980s. Who ate stone crabs in the 1940s?

                  Grouper sandwich: another dish aimed squarely at tourists. The Hurricane on St. Pete Beach arguably popularized it in the late 1970s, and the Frenchy's folks in Clearwater jumped on the bandwagon.

                  Swamp Cabbage: just a varoiety of hearts of palm, not nearly as exotic as it sounds. The cabbage palm is protected, so you're not likely to find it in restaurants.

                  Devil crab croqouettes: a variation on Spanish/Cuban croquettes, mainly found around Tampa and Key West. My fave is Brocato's in Tampa.

                  Gator: this can also be found in Louisiana. Most gator nuggets are tough and greasy. The best gator sausage I've had was at the Cajun Cafe in Pinellas.

                  also plenty of great raw ingredienmts from our fair state: ruskin tomatoes, zellwood corn, gulf shrimp, and so on. If the food here seems in disarray, it has everything to do with our confusing history and mixed up demographics. Tourism hasn't helped, either--- most tourists in the past didn't want to eat exotic food.

                  25 Replies
                  1. re: andy huse

                    Andy, you're consistently good and, I think, have hit them all. I recommend the stone crabs at the Columbia, both for not being overcooked (about the only way you can ruin them) and for the interesting dipping sauces they serve along with them. (Alas, I've never been to Joe's Stonecrab, a terrible flaw in my chowhoundish experience.) I'd put the popularity of stone crabs back a little further. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, spent an entire chapter describing a stone crab, melted butter, toast points, and pink (!!--Bond thought it was a little girlish) champagne meal on Miami Beach in 1959's "Goldfinger."

                    1. re: andy huse

                      *Besides Joe's Strone Crab, the Columbia in Sarasota helped to popularize the dish during the 1980s. Who ate stone crabs in the 1940s?*

                      Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach has been serving stone crabs since the 1920's and supposedly it was a local institution even before that time. The restaurant's (and the stone crabs') success is not by any means exclusively the product of the tourism industry, and it is generally as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

                      1. re: Frodnesor

                        Regretfully had property in Sarasota for too long, Columbia on St Armands was, imho, brutal. Used to drive to Tampa for chopped salad fix, and to other Spanish:Portugeuse:Cuban places all over Tampa most right near airport on Kennedy Ave. Would not eat a free meal at the SRQ Columbia

                        1. re: Frodnesor

                          I stand corrected, and should have known better. My point was that stone crabs were popularized througth the Florida tourist experience. A good article discussed this "Selling the Storied Stone Crab."

                          1. re: andy huse

                            Dolphin sandwich? Smoked kingfish dip? Stuffed pompano? Fried snook? These are things you don't see outside of Florida. Maybe even South Florida.

                            1. re: flavrmeistr

                              Could not agree more. Just about any restaurant that is unique to S Florida has these items available. Two that come to mind, though they are chain (egads!), are Flannigan's and Quarterdeck (used to be Flannigan's Quarterdeck until they went out on their own). I know they have smoked fish dip and dolphin sandwich. I don't think they have snook - in fact, I don't often see snook. I think because you can't keep but 2 if you catch them, right?

                              1. re: amyvc

                                Snook are gamefish and therefore not legally available commercially. But in certain bars that cater to commercial fishermen (if they know you), you can get it as the catch of the day. In other words, if that's what someone brings in, that's what you get but you won't hear it mentioned by name. There is no better-eating fish than snook. Flannigan's is a local chain started by a family of fishermen (Big Daddy, aka Flanman). All their fish is caught fresh in local waters. Dolphin and yellow-fin tuna are their usual, along with the smoked kingfish dip. Smoked fish dip was invented by the Summerlin clan in Ft.Pierce or Sally Peters in Rio (FL), depending on who you believe. The Pinder clan in Riviera Beach also lays a claim.

                            2. re: Frodnesor

                              The best Stone Crabs are those purchase at your local (reputable) fishmonger and eaten at home with your fingers and the juice running down your arms and a little lime and mustard sauce

                            3. re: andy huse

                              How about grunts and grits? Fried mullet? Conch chowder? Conch fritters?

                              1. re: flavrmeistr

                                all great suggestions, though you could find pompano in New Orleans for many years. The Columbia still does their's in the parchment. The conch selections are definitely a must, though I'm not sure where to find the best. Seems to me that smoked mullet is more representative than a fried one.

                                It is funny, everyone begins with the assumption that we have no distinctive food or culture, and our list seems to be longer than that of most states.

                                1. re: andy huse

                                  Fried mullet (red mullet) seems prevalent on the west coast for food. Folks on the east coast usually use silver or finger mullet for live bait. We don't have red mullet as a rule.

                                  1. re: flavrmeistr

                                    I'll probably get pounced for this, but I personally don't consider Fla. silver mullet to be an edible option when you have such high quality options like pompano, grouper, snapper, etc. I grew up in Ft Lauderdale fishing as a kid and mullet was only to be used as bait or given away to the less fortunates. It is only served smoked because of the high oil content, same as kingfish. There's a reason why you can buy mullet in the grocery store for $3/lb., because it is at the bottom of the edibility chain.

                                    Red mullet is a different family of fish all together.

                                    1. re: freakerdude

                                      Silver (finger) mullet is excellent live bait, especially for snook. As you say, they aren't really fit to eat.

                                  2. re: andy huse

                                    The best conch comes from the Bahamas. There used to be plenty of conch in the waters off Palm Beach and Broward, but they've been largely fished out. There is still a large Bahamian community in Riviera Beach and Lake Park. There used to be several little joints specializing in conch and souse along Dixie Highway, but they were cleared out when the port project got underway. Sisters In The Pot are still in business, the undisputed queens of all things conch. Their conch stew, fresh conch salad and conch fritters are superb. They will also sell whole fresh conch from the Bahamas.

                                    1. re: flavrmeistr

                                      With very limited exceptions (which do not include Florida's coast), domestic harvesting of conch is prohibited ->
                                      While it may have a history, I'd be hard pressed to say that something that is no longer domestically fished should qualify as Florida's "signature dish".

                                      1. re: Frodnesor

                                        I disagree. Conch may not be commercially fished in local waters (although it's only about 45 miles from Riviera Beach to West End Bahamas, where it IS fished), but it's widely available in South Florida restaurants and fish markets. I've never seen conch, fresh or otherwise, served in any other state than Florida. Sisters in the Pot, I discovered last week, also has a new store in Port St. Lucie.

                                        1. re: flavrmeistr

                                          *I've never seen conch, fresh or otherwise, served in any other state than Florida.*

                                          Then you haven't traveled enough. Just looking at the chowhound universe, there are over a dozen threads on each of the Manhattan, Bay Area and LA boards that mention conch dishes, for instance.

                                          I will give you that it is much more widely available in South Florida than elsewhere in the country (and I'm definitely not saying the conch fritters would be the first thing I'd order in a NY restaurant), but it seems a bit odd to me to designate as a state's "signature dish" an item that has to be imported from another country (no matter how close it is).

                                          1. re: Frodnesor

                                            I travel more than I care to nowadays, but I still haven't seen conch on the menu except on the southeast Florida coast and the islands of the Caribbean. I'm not saying it doesn't exist anywhere else, because conch is found in tropical waters around the world. I personally don't think there is a "signature dish" of Florida, but there are more than a few dishes that you see almost nowhere else. I believe conch fits in that category. As with anything, there are bound to be some rare exceptions. Probably some displaced Bahamians at the root of it. As Andy Huse noted, the list keeps growing.

                                      2. re: flavrmeistr

                                        Where exactly is this Sisters In The Pot place at?

                                        1. re: freakerdude

                                          Used to be on Broadway near 45th street, but I think they've gone underground as a catering company. You can catch them at the West Palm Beach Green market every Saturday morning. Follow your nose. The conch fritters, chowder and cracked conch all rock.

                                          1. re: flavrmeistr

                                            seriously? I thought their conch fritters sucked and were unbelievably overpriced. I had them at the Greenmarket one weekend and swore I'd never get taken again.

                                        2. re: flavrmeistr

                                          It's not that they are fished out, but that it is unlawful to harvest queen conch pretty much everywhere in Florida. And no where on a commercial level. Consequently, diners literally don't know conch salad, cracked conch, conch ceviche, conch fritters, or conch broiled with garlic.
                                          Near to me in the Village of Cortez, between Sarasota and Bradenton, Star Fish sells 5 pound boxes of frozen conch, for about $45. It's from Turks & Caicos. You have to know what you are doing, even when it's fresh fresh. Frozen is more challenging, still.

                                          1. re: Veggo

                                            Heh. Years ago, I brought a live conch home from the beach for my girlfriend's fish tank. Within a week, it had eaten every other creature in the tank. Needless to say, it didn't win me any points. Those suckers are voracious.

                                    2. re: andy huse

                                      Andy nails it as usual with a slight Tampa Bay skew but all are Fla favorites.