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Spring Break Culinary Surprises: The Best Fort Lauderdale Food

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In 1960, the film “Where The Boys Are” opened and, as Connie Francis sung her heart out to the theme song, thousands of college co-eds followed her lead and spring break in Fort Lauderdale was born. For decades, bikinis, sun, beer and beach became the icons of Fort Lauderdale. But there’s another aspect that’s rapidly gaining attention: its cuisine. From local seafood to that famous Key lime pie, Phyllis Berger shares her top culinary experiences in Fort Lauderdale.

As I unpacked my bag I didn’t yet realize how fortuitous it was that I towed along two pair of pants with elastic waists. I naively chose not to wear one of them to my first dinner, a mistake I wouldn’t make twice. The menu at Shula’s in the Westin Beach Resort & Spa was impressive with many tempting seafood items like pistachio-crusted grouper and jumbo sea scallops served with beurre blanc, but hearing that steak was the specialty of the house, I happily decided to let loose.. I thought I was being demure by declining the 22 oz cowboy cut and ordering the New York steak but when it arrived I knew I’d be challenged to finish it.

Always up for a new culinary experience, I eyed a drink that a woman across from me had in front of her. “What’s that?” I asked. “A French Martini” was her answer. I turned to my waiter. “Bring it on!” I give a 5-star review to this gorgeous mix of Chambord, Citron vodka, and pineapple.

Food-wise, I started with a Shula signature appetizer, barbequed shrimp wrapped in bacon flavored with a tangy barbeque sauce. Stone crab claws was a special that evening so that, along with a gourmet macaroni and cheese, seemed as good a way as any to begin a meal and indulge I did. And now, the steaka perfect medium rare, needing no accompaniment, except for the sweet potato fries—just to give the plate some color, of course. I’m in Florida, so don’t blame me for finishing the meal with a large slice of fantastic key lime pie with a thick buttery graham cracker crust. I think it’s clear now why those elastic pants would come in handy over the next few days.

For a lovely view at lunchtime, try Bimini Boatyard Bar & Grill right on the waterfront. I was all set to order an iced tea with my crab cakes when the waitress said “you’ve got to try the Key lime martini.” As it was lunch, I only allowed myself a sip despite the fact that the waitress reminded me that at the Bimini Boatyard “Happy Hour starts at 7a.m.” (Did I mention that Fort Lauderdale was a really fun place?) This drink is a serious competitor to the pie version—who knew you could do so many yummy things with a lime? Frankly, the food wasn’t exceptional, but it’s worth going there for the setting and the casual, comfortable ambiance on the water.

Rocco’s Tacos has five locations in southern Florida and I happily had lunch at their Fort Lauderdale location. The waiter suggested one of the house signature dishes, the molcajetes, which is their version of a fajita. But since the place wasn’t called Rocco’s Molcajetes, it was Rocco’s Tacos after all, I chose three different tacos. My tacos were good, but the molcajete served in a lava rock bowl with homemade tortillas on the side seemed like the ticket. Speaking of lava rock bowls, do not miss the guacamole made table-side and served in those lava bowls with homemade chips. Delicious!

Sampling food aboard a yacht at the Flavors of Fort Lauderdale tasting

My visit to Fort Lauderdale was timed with the Flavors of Fort Lauderdale food festival, which allowed me to taste-test several dishes from local restaurants. Under a tent in Las Olas Marina, with the backdrop of multi-million dollar yachts, I watched chefs from various Fort Lauderdale restaurants each create a dish of their choice in front of an eager audience.

Chula’s Chef Allen Susser was the official “Ambassador of Flavor” and the consultant to this event. He emphasized that the theme of the event was “sustainability.” In other words, each chef made a huge effort to choose local ingredients and seafood that is not over-fished, working with vendors that share this philosophy.

From this experience, I recommend going to chef, Lauren De Shield’s Market 17 where I reveled in an outstanding taste sensation of a single clam in a broth of smoked butter with local oyster mushrooms and house-cured bacon. The flavor was unusual and complex; it was a little surprise party for my taste buds.

I tried a Herculean variety of tastes and found a standouts in Aruba’s Beach Café Chef Chris Nealon’s, Caribbean jerk pork over yucca mashed potatoes, and his roasted New York strip slider with a Bernaise aioli. I’d say that it’s well worth a visit to his restaurant.

I’d also recommend trying North Ocean Grille. I loved Chef Todd Lough’s corvine ceviche and his salad of melon, goat cheese, arugula and Serrano ham. After sampling the tuna Bolognese, a combination that was new and enticing to me, I suggest chef Tony Sindaco’s restaurant, Sea. I went back for secondsand then some.

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By Phyllis Berger for