September 17, 2014

Fishy is Good at Florida's Fish Camps

Fish camp cooking is suddenly chic.

Chris Sherman | 9/1/2011

J.B.'s Fish Camp
New Smyrna Beach

J.B.'s Fish Camp
Clams, local crab and rock shrimp, Florida oysters, chowder and gumbo

The official word among seafood gourmets on how to find a first-class fish market is to trust your nose. If it smells fishy, don't go.

That admonition may go for the antiseptic folks who like fish that doesn't taste like fish, but when it comes to fish restaurants, I say phooey. True Floridians use our noses in the reverse.

We seek out special fishy smells, the salt spray and the dank black water where gators lurk, the smell of grease from a burned out diesel on an old shrimp boat or at least from a deep fat fryer. You don't have to see boats come in or hear the rigging clank on rusty gear, but it helps. These are signals older than A1A or U.S. 19 that catfish, shrimp and mullet, maybe some of that fancy grouper and snapper, are nearby and fresh.

Fish camps are in high fashion again with smart chefs and restaurateurs. They are mining the Deep South for old comforts and guilty pleasures that can be served casually with a side of funky irony. And the veteran practitioners of their fine art of frying show new pride as modern foodies discover their charms.

Fish camp cooking is so chic that conventioneers will find Sunset Sam's Fish Camp in the middle of the massive lobby of the Gaylord Palms resort in Orlando. Artsy Sarasota has Owen's.

New or old, the key to a fish camp or a dockside market is that the fish and the crowd are local — including the alligators.

Palm Valley Fish Camp
Ponte Vedra Beach

Palm Valley Fish Camp
Palm Valley Fish Camp

Two years ago, Jacksonville star chef Ben Groshell of Marker 32 put his newest burst of energy into a little place in Ponte Vedra Beach called Palm Valley Fish Camp. Food can be as uptown as a salmon BLT or grilled octopus and white beans or as simple as collards, Old Bay fries and Mayport shrimp and grits.

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Rusty Bellies
Tarpon Springs

Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs has its own boats at the end of the Greek sponge docks, and a fryer that makes shrimp and onion straws as light as tempura and hush puppies as sweet as spoon bread. Heap on the cocktail sauce and tartar, line up the coleslaw and fries, and we're good to go.

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Owen's Fish Camp
Sarasota

You can dig into a shrimp basket or catfish and collards after the latest art film in Sarasota's Burns Court at Owen's Fish Camp.

Owen's was started last year by sophisticated uptowners at Caragiulos, a beloved Italian bistro, and is rather high-camp fish camp. The fried green tomatoes get goat cheese, the corn has jalapeno butter, soft-shell crab BLT gets basil mayo. Still, many of the ingredients are not so fancy — old favorites include Vidalia onions, pimento cheese and succotash.

On the side you can get a "jar" of boiled peanuts or fried dill pickles. Desserts are pure country. They include a "big ole slice o' watermelon," but there's no room for urbane sarcasm on a plate of fried blackberry pie and ice cream.

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Stinky's Fish Camp
Santa Rosa Beach

One of the first revisionist fish camps is Stinky's Fish Camp (and darn good wine bar) started a few years ago in the New Urbanist fishing grounds of Santa Rosa Beach. Cuban, New Orleans and Southern fried come together with a whole lot of oysters, maybe boiled in Champagne.

Other Fish Camps
» Black Hammock Fish Camp, Oviedo (Seminole County)
» Clark's Fish Camp, Jacksonville
» Garcia's, Miami
» Keys Fisheries Market, Marathon
» Ted Peters Smoked Fish, South Pasadena
» Stan's Idle Hour, Goodland (Collier County)
» Star Fish Company Market, Cortez (Manatee County)
» Whitey's Fish Camp& RV Park, Orange Park

Tags: Dining & Travel

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