Today is the first day of June. Which means, of course, that summer has been here for about six months.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But because our weather more or less feels like summer year-round, we have to make an extra effort to ensure that June, July and August feel a little more special.
And by special, I mean eating and drinking great summer food.
If I had to make a list of my favorite local summer food experiences — and I do, because I have a deadline to meet and I want to get to the beach — these would be on my sandy bucket to-do list:
♦ Pick a smoked mullet fillet clean. Ted Peters Smoked Fish in South Pasadena has been smoking locally caught mullet since the 1950s. You could smoke the fish yourself, but the result wouldn’t be the same. The smoke masters at Ted Peters know what they’re doing. You’ll be tempted to order one of their delicious hamburgers or a cup of their Manhattan clam chowder. Stay with the mullet. It takes some work to fork your way through the oily, delicate fish, but the reward will be so worth it. Wash it down with a jaw-clenchingly cold root beer for good measure. Or a draft beer with ice on the outside of the mug. Yeah, beer works, too. Beer is an excellent choice. Go with my close, personal friend Mr. Beer.
♦ Grill some oysters. The briny, delicate bivalves are excellent chilled, shucked and slurped from the half-shell. With maybe a little bit of lemon. And a dash of horseradish. I won’t try to change your mind. But you can eat chilled oysters anytime. Grilled oysters are a summer bonanza of great flavor. Cox Seafood in Tampa sells Chesapeake Bay oysters when Apalachicola varieties aren’t in stock. Cook them on the open half-shell with a topping of minced garlic, some Parmigiano-Reggiano and a squirt of citrus, and you’re good to go. Roast them on one of those rickety, ankle-high drugstore hibachi grills without burning your legs and you’ll earn my undying respect.
♦ Eat breakfast by the beach. Since 1938, the Seahorse Restaurant has perched on the east end of Eighth Avenue in Pass-a-Grille, just across the seawall that overlooks the choppy channel leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Seahorse serves a breakfast that will heal almost any ill, especially if you’re a food writer hungover from a night of too many pitchers of Busch at nearby Shadracks. Maybe pecan pancakes aren’t your thing. I get that. Instead, go for the Baby Ray Sandwich, a divine stack of fried egg, ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce on whole wheat toast. Smart, hungry people line up early before the crowds get there.
♦ Make some tacos disappear. I’ve visited Anna Maria Island almost every summer since I was a miniature person. The routine: Drive down in excruciatingly slow traffic; spend half the day looking for parking and the rest of it lying on the sand; torture my skin; go home happily in pain. Notice I did not say, “Eat something.” I’m pleased to report that AMI’s restaurants have improved dramatically in recent years, especially since Poppo’s Taqueria showed up to make hungry people happy. I dare you to sit on one of the weird chairs on their front porch and eat an incredibly crispy carnitas quesadilla with a side of pico de gallo and some salsa verde and then tell me you are a sad soul lost in the wilderness. It’s not possible.
♦ Eat dessert while watching a sunset. The Candy Kitchen in Madeira Beach churns incredibly smooth and rich ice cream. As if that wasn’t enough, they make wonderful varieties of fudge. As if that still wasn’t enough, you can find all sorts of obscure candy. (Twin Bing, anyone? How about some candy cigarettes?) Take you treats about seven blocks north and you can watch one of Madeira’s patented orange sherbet sunsets with the sugar sand between your toes. It’s a great way to end a summer day.
Or a winter day, for that matter. Or fall or spring. We have that luxury here in paradise.
Welcome to Yummertime.