When I’d cover the topic of hurricanes in the course on Natural Disasters that I taught for many years at my former university, I’d sometimes joke that these storms seemed to have an uncanny knack, an amazing ability to aim for highly vulnerable mobile home parks. Well, not unlike a Category 5 hurricane, I recently cut a swath across Florida’s midsection from the Gulf to the Atlantic, and while mobile home parks remained safe and untouched, every highly rated restaurant on tripadvisor.com was directly in my path. Hurricane Matt, the first unofficial storm of the 2021 Hurricane Season, left his mark on the Sunshine State. Let’s retrace the path of this culinary storm.
Rusty Bellies, Tarpon Springs
My first stop as I “blew in from the Gulf” was a popular seafood restaurant called Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs, located in the northern part of the Tampa/St. Pete Metro area. As I was finishing a beautiful sunset hike along the beach at nearby Honeymoon Island, I thankfully accessed the Rusty Bellies’ online waitlist and got my name in. It was a Saturday night, and I learned that there were 80 parties ahead of me on the waitlist and the estimated time till I would be seated was an hour and 45 minutes. But by the time I’d finished my walk, watched sunset, driven to the restaurant, and found parking, I was seated not long after checking in with the hostess. The restaurant serves a complimentary appetizer of hushpuppies, delivered to the table in a brown paper bag, and they were some of the most delicious examples of these staples of southern cuisine. Tarpon Springs has a large Greek community, and so for a first course I ordered a small Greek salad that was enormous and as good as some of the salads I’ve had in Athens and Santorini. My main course was a ½ pound bucket of steamed Gulf shrimp, and a delicious side dish called corn casserole. Though I was completely stuffed after all that delicious food, I had to get a slice of key lime pie to go, and enjoyed that several hours later back at my hotel.
Nauti Time, Homosassa Springs
A small, unassuming place known for chicken wings and shrimp tacos is located a bit farther up the Gulf Coast and is called Nauti Time. I wanted a quick lunch and decided on the shrimp tacos. The friendly owner directed me to have a seat out on the shady veranda and brought my order out when it was ready. I have to say that the combination of those oh-so-fresh Gulf shrimp and the tangy-spicy sauce she uses in the tacos made for a very tasty lunch.
Moving inland, Hurricane Matt’s next stop was a Venezuelan restaurant called Q’Kenan. As I did some online research for the best places to eat in the sprawling metro area, this place was not only rated in the top 10 out of hundreds of competitors, but was less than a mile from my hotel. Located in a small strip mall, it does not look like anything special from the outside, but as soon as I stepped inside, I received a warm welcome from the staff and before I’d even seen the menu, I was already glad I’d come here. My waiter’s name was Ferenc, which is of Hungarian origin, even though he immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela three years ago; evidently his dad is of eastern European ancestry. Ferenc patiently and painstakingly explained the many different Venezuelan specialties on the menu to me, and choosing what to order was not easy, as everything sounded great. I started with a large, flavorful, crunchy empanada stuffed with shredded beef. I was tempted to cancel my entrée and order three more of these, but I’m glad I refrained from doing so. I had an arepa, a folded corn cake that resembled a tortilla, but is much thicker, almost like a pancake. It was stuffed with chicken, beef and pork, cheese, pico de gallo, and a tangy Venezuelan “tartar sauce”. The flavors and textures were wonderful, and I had an order of sweet plantains on the side. Ferenc shared with me the troubles happening in his home country and warmed my heart with his declaration of love for the United States and how happy he is to be here. It was so sweet I almost didn’t need dessert, but never fear, I ordered a refreshing flan and left feeling so grateful that I’d found this amazing little restaurant.
Breakfast Station, Crystal River and Keke’s Breakfast Cafe, Orlando
Always on the lookout for a good breakfast, two great finds, each part of local Florida chain franchises, found themselves squarely in my path and came through with delicious, fresh breakfast items. Lunches are served too, but I love my breakfasts, even if I am eating them at 1:00 PM.
Ok, so eating was NOT the only thing I did. I took time to swim with the manatees at Crystal Springs, marveled at the crystal clear blue green waters of Silver Springs, felt like I’d gone back into Florida’s past as I walked the quiet streets of the tiny town of Micanopy. But seeing the sights works up an appetite, and soon I’d gained enough strength to push further to the southeast toward the Florida Keys and the Fort Lauderdale and Miami metro areas. In my path were a number of noteworthy south Florida eateries.
Islamorada Shrimp Shack, Islamorada, Florida Keys
Located on Plantation Key, just a hop, skip and a causeway or two beyond Key Largo is the Islamorada Shrimp Shack, which has been featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Just the drive out there is worth the effort, with gorgeous views of the almost blinding aqua waters that surround the Florida Keys. I had a wonderful light dinner of conch salad, which was served in a huge goblet and was marinated in citrus juices, tomatoes, onions and peppers, and then had an order of their famous shrimp fritters. Dessert, of course was key lime pie, and it was all fantastic.
After strolling Miami’s South Beach with a couple of friends to admire the stylish art deco architecture, we stopped at one of the many shaded establishments along the beachfront for an afternoon beverage. We left suffering a powerful case of sticker shock after ordering a total of three tasty mojitos and getting a bill for $78, making that the most expensive alcoholic beverage I have ever consumed. Yikes! We then headed inland to a famous Cuban restaurant and bakery with the French name, Versailles. I decided to order a sampler plate, and while everything was delicious and the portions were enormous, the standout dish for me was the Ropa Vieja, shredded beef with garlic, onions, peppers and tomato. Versailles also has a huge bakery where one can bring home luscious desserts or traditional breakfast pastries to have the following morning.
Shuck N’ Dive, Fort Lauderdale
Located in a run of the mill shopping plaza, Shuck N’ Dive is a great place to sample southern dishes with a Cajun flair. I stuffed myself here on a mammoth order of fried green tomatoes, and continued with fried shrimp, hush puppies, and a side of mac and cheese. Not the healthiest meal I have ever had, but one of the most deliciously memorable. Fueled by countless carbohydrates, Hurricane Matt again gained strength and followed Highway A1A, with the Daytona Beach area squarely in his eye.
Third Wave Café, New Smyrna Beach
When I reached Florida’s Atlantic Coast, I descended like a raging storm surge upon the Third Wave Café, despite the fact that it is located a few blocks back from the beach! This restaurant has an open air patio, with an entire wall of bamboo on one side, and trees growing through the roof. The beautiful tropical décor is matched by delicious and artistically presented food. I ate dinner here twice and both times was blown away by the quality of the food and friendliness of the service. Both times I had one of their fresh fish specials, redfish and red snapper. Both were organized atop a mountain of garlic mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables, and beautiful salads and the ultimate comfort food dessert of ice cream and a warm chocolate chip cookie were the perfect accompaniments. This is a place to go out of your way for if you find yourself within 50 miles of New Smyrna Beach.
Norwell’s, New Smyrna Beach
Another popular New Smyrna restaurant is Norwell’s, a bustling two story place with an open-air “treehouse” on the second floor. I had a noteworthy lunch here of seafood pot pie, with a delicious stew of seafood hiding beneath a phyllo dough crust which was quickly inhaled with the ferocity of a Category 5 hurricane.
Donnie’s Donuts, New Smyrna Beach and Ormond Beach
If you need a decadent treat to hold you till dinner at the aforementioned New Smyrna restaurants, visit Donnie’s Donuts. These may be some of the best donuts I have ever tasted. The simpler versions of cinnamon sugar, blueberry. or chocolate are good enough, but Donnie’s creates dessert-like monstrosities by building upon these basics and serving strawberry shortcake, death by chocolate, peanut butter cheesecake, and apple pie. And they serve a great cup on coffee too!
While in the area, a must-see sight is to drive the Ormond Scenic Loop, alovely byway that will take you through shady tunnels of oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Be sure to visit the 500 year old Fairchild Oak in Bulow Creek State Park, and marvel at the way this magnificent tree has sent out roots and runner and sprouted a dozen other trees. Then head back to the coast for a walk on the reddish sands of Ormond Beach or a swim along the golden shores between Ormond and Flagler Beach.
And with that, its hungers at least temporarily abated, Hurricane Matt slipped quietly northward, leaving the state’s natural resources of seafood, fruit, and pancake batter seriously depleted, but hopefully bolstering the local economy at the same time. Rumor has it that in the days that followed, hurricane warnings were issued for pancake houses and seafood restaurants along the South Carolina Coast from Charleston to Myrtle Beach, but that is a story for another blog.