What Can the South Florida Food Scene Learn From New Orleans?
My recent trip to New Orleans was largely predicated on two things: 1) that I had never before been to the Crescent City, and it was high time I got there, and 2) it's known as one of the best food cities in the country. Sure, you could argue that New York, Chicago, and San Francisco each have more cutting-edge dining scenes. But food in New Orleans is not just a hobby, nor is it something to do on a Friday night. It genuinely seems to be a way of life -- a pursuit of happiness predicated upon ingestion. There's also the fact that Louisiana is home to arguably America's most native and homegrown cuisines, Creole and Cajun cooking, each of which grew from the accidental intermingling of cultures, like diamonds formed by pressure and time. The influence of French, British, African, Caribbean, and southern-American cooking styles literally define the term melting pot.
Of course, there are a multitude of other reasons that New Orleans has become the dining mecca that it is today. Tourism is obviously a huge boon for the food and hospitality industry in the city, which, in 2007, had nearly reached pre-Katrina levels according to New Orleans Online. And while the bad economy has led to high job losses all across America, New Orleans has suffered far less than the rest of the country, according to a January report in the Times-Picayune. The reason: The post-Katrina rebuilding process has "insulated" the local economy -- at least for the short term. Of course, New Orleans' position along the Mississippi and proximity to the fresh seafood of the Gulf of Mexico has also afforded its chefs the finest available ingredients with which to play.
All these things got me wondering, however. Doesn't the South Florida food scene share a lot of common traits with New Orleans?
Think about it: Florida is also a bit of a melting pot of cuisines. Although we can't hold a candle to a city as old as NOLA in terms of history, South Florida has for a long time been a destination for immigrants from all over South America and the Caribbean who've brought with them their distinct ways with food and planted them all across the southern sprawl. We've even got a name for our own form of "fusion" -- Floribbean -- though it's a school with far less reaching impact (the term is said to have originated in the 1960s thanks to the airline industry in an effort to sell Florida/Caribbean ticket packages). Furthermore, Florida also has unparalleled access to the waters of the Gulf, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic, providing us with the some of the freshest seafood in the country. In theory, at least.
Oddly, what struck me as a particularly wide divide between here and NOLA is the ubiquity of fresh seafood in New Orleans. Daily caught fish, oysters, shrimp, mussels, and clams were available everywhere, from the divey-est of bars to the finest of restaurants. Average, neighborhood shops, like Cake Cafe, a breakfast- and lunch-only bakery that we visited almost every morning in the Marigny district, served local shrimp and grits, oyster sandwiches with Creole mustard and greens, and crawfish and andouille omelets. It prided itself on using only the freshest seafood available. The place boasted on its walls where its seafood came from, like a badge of honor. Can you say the same for South Florida's neighborhood eateries? Walk into your average South Florida restaurant and ask them where they get their shrimp. Do you think your waiter could tell you without having to ask someone? Even then, would you put money down that the shrimp had come from Florida, or Thailand?
|Gulf-caught black crispy fried drum fish with leeks, mushrooms, and crawfish from the Bourbon House in New Orleans.|
If you've got the coin, places like 3030 Ocean or Sunfish Grill will serve you fresh Florida seafood and tell you exactly where it came from and when. But what about the places we eat every day, not just those establishments that are special-occasion destinations for the majority of South Floridians who don't manage investment funds?
I was on the phone the other day with Kilmo Pacillo, owner/operator of Alligator Alley, a working-class bar and restaurant I've brought up in each of my previous New Orleans recaps. Kilmo talked for nearly 20 minutes about po-boys in NOLA -- his favorite places to get them, what he likes on them, and why he chose to construct his the way he does, with cole-slaw and remoulade. His biggest problem, he professed, is that he can't stuff his po-boys with the quality and quantity of seafood that he'd like to. "If I was in New Orleans, I could overfill my po-boy with oysters. Here, I'd have to charge too much to the customer to do that."
I have to admit, that statement confounded me. It's not as if we're in Kansas or some other landlocked state. Florida has a vibrant oyster industry of its own, and although Apalachicola is a seven-hour drive, surely some of those shellfish -- which the New York Times reported were among the best quality in the world (albeit in 2002) -- make it down this way. The article quotes Andre Bienvenu, executive chef at Joe's Stone Crab, who simply told the Times, "They're good," regarding the Apa oysters. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Joe's now serves Louisiana pasteurized oysters for $12.95 a half-dozen.
Southport, the quintessential Fort Lauderdale raw bar, sells what a waitress told me are "gulf oysters," for $9.99 a dozen. In addition, they serve Florida pink shrimp and local-caught mahi-mahi. I asked around the bar where in the Gulf their oysters came from, and no one seemed to know. Yes, they're fresh oysters but nowhere near as large, fleshy, and clean as those from Apalachicola -- or Louisiana, for that matter. Southport's seafood couldn't even swim in the same waters with the stuff found at almost any Bourbon Street frozen-drink factory. Still, it's arguably the best raw bar in Fort Lauderdale in terms of both freshness and affordability. Where's the disconnect?
Perhaps the best examples of affordable restaurants serving locally caught seafood come from ethnic places. Marumi Sushi in Plantation serves line-caught trigger fish, hog snapper, red snapper, lionfish, and grouper as well as spiny lobster and rock shrimp. The waitresses there can tell you without the least bit of uncertainty exactly when the fisherman had delivered his offerings at their door. And none of the above fish, despite being prepared and presented with skill and grace, cost more than $1.20 an ounce; the rock shrimp are just $7 for a huge portion. (Marumi's oysters, however, come from Washington state.) El Rey de Pescado, inside the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, is a cheap, homey Peruvian-style fried fish joint that serves farmed tilapia but local shrimp and red snapper. For less than $25, you could feed four people with their jalea, a mountain of fried shrimp, huge rings of calamari, and tilapia. I'd hate to think what even a half of that amount of fresh seafood would cost in an American restaurant -- if you could even find it.
I think the main thing we as Floridians could learn from NOLA has less to do with style of cuisine as much as appreciation of local ingredients. Obviously, the supply of fresh local seafood is there in South Florida, and there are plenty of places offering it. But far too many restaurants are not offering local options, either because the prices aren't right or because they, or the consumer, doesn't know the difference. Maybe it comes down to pride? -- commitment to our local resources and foodways that inform what we buy and where we buy it. Maybe if more people asked if the scampi they're about to eat contains local pink or rock shrimp instead of tiger shrimp, average restaurants would start noticing and feature those options on their menu?
The similarities between NOLA and SoFla are huge. But until the average consumer develops an unflinching demand to know where our food is from and when it got there, we won't develop the sort of lasting food culture that city has enjoyed. It's about quality and pride. If that changes, with time, South Florida could be looked at as one of the great food destinations of America too.