Reel Florida: A look at fishing villages
For Florida diners, good fishing luck is finding a real fishing village. They are rare, but they do exist.
While much of Florida's east coast is encrusted with resorts, condos and marinas for pleasure craft, commercial boats also work the waters.
Long before astronauts, rocket ships and surfers arrived, Canaveral was a fishing town, and there's still a strong sea breeze and a whiff of fish if you head to the port. Beyond Spanish mackerel, mullet and grouper, this is shrimp country — Canaveral white shrimp, royal reds, brownies and especially rock shrimp, the local pride.
Rock shrimp have always been on the ledges here but were hard to open until Rodney Thompson and family came up with a simple hand-powered opener 40 years ago that put the lobster-like rock shrimps on menus across the country and especially here.
Try them at Thompson's Wild ocean Seafood Market in the port or Dixie Crossroads in Titusville. For still more fresh-from-the-boats shrimp and fish, head over to Seafood Atlantic restaurant and market on the waterfront.
South of Canaveral, fish markets and restaurants pop up regularly along U.S. 1 from Melbourne to Grant to Sebastian and Rockledge.
While Islamorada Fish Co. Is now the namesake of Bass Pro restaurants in many states, Keys Fisheries Market & Marina in Marathon remains old school — market, marina and open-air dining on crab, Florida lobster and more — conch, of course, and housemade "konchwurst."
On a fringe of Manatee coast, the seasonal crowds pack what is said to be the last fishing village on the Gulf Coast. At the tiny Star Fish Co. In Cortez, seafood lovers order local mullet, shrimp or crab cakes with fries and hush puppies spilling over a paper basket.
Unlike the picturesque imitations put on by chain restaurants and theme parks, Cortez is busy with sea-worn boats, forklifts and trucks feeding local and wholesale customers — and endless shorebirds.
The town holds a half-dozen more restaurants, like Annie's Bait & Tackle, Cortez Kitchen, the massively remodeled Seafood Shack, and the new Tide Tables on the other side of the massive A.P. Bell Fish Co. Nearby, chef Derek Barnes of Sarasota moved Derek's to new Bradenton digs two miles from Cortez, and Sarasota pros Mark Caragiulo and Tom Leonard are redoing Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant on the historic north end of Longboat Key. This is one stretch of fishing coast that's growing, not shrinking.
There's a good catch in coves and docks all around our coast. Ignore the salmon and out-of-state oysters, and you may luck into middleneck clams, hog fish, gag grouper, wahoo and cobia. Pack a cooler. It's the best fish you can buy.
Meanwhile, you can find enclaves of old-fashioned fishing and eating both north and south of Cortez.
Citrus County is a center for crabbers — those who go in search of both blue crabs and stone crab claws. Charlie's Fish House in Crystal River serves fresh local stone crab, oysters and finfish at your table and in the market, with Southern accents of grits and fried okra available on the side.
Under the bridge to Fort Myers Beach, you can eat and drink on the dock among working boats.
Dixie Fish Co. Has a market with shrimp, grouper, oysters and scallops, grilled, fried or coconut-crusted and in sliders, tacos and seafood boils.
Tucked away on the leeward side of Marco Island on the edge of the Everglades is tiny Goodland Kitchen and Market. The Kirk Fish Co.'s market stocks fresh red, brown and pink shrimp and stone crabs. Waterfront restaurants range from the 1869 Old Marco Lodge, the first Collier homestead, to rustic but rocking Stan's Idle Hour.
The shoreline winding from Panacea through Carabelle and Eastpoint to Apalachicola is prime fishing for oysters. Make that "tonging" for the fisher folk here, who are among the few in the U.S. who work the oyster bars by hand with long tongs — scissor-like rakes. Despite the crisis during the oil spills, reports indicate that supplies are back up this year.
Apalachicola is well-stocked with places to slurp them raw, souped up in stews or stuffed in carpetbagger steaks. Few have as many options as Boss Oyster, including oysters topped with olives and feta — or scallops and bacon.
At the other end of the Panhandle, Joe Patti's has been the first name in commercial fishing for 75 years, with several generations running their own boats, selling to seafood restaurants and building vessels for fishing fleets and the marine industry.
Today, Patti's seafood is a full market of local and imported products to take home, order online, have steamed to go or sliced artfully at its own sushi bar and cafe. Captain Joey Patti's Seafood Restaurant nearby has the full range of fried local mullet, baskets of calamari, grouper, hush puppies, baked beans and cheese grits.