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Three cheers to an authentic South Florida raw bar experience
Melissa Jones

To qualify as an authentic raw bar, a restaurant must meet certain criteria. D├ęcor should be limited, ambiance rugged, and furnishings as worn as a mother of four, even if they're relatively young in years. It has to offer a water view, be it only a manmade lake or a rain puddle, and it should preferably be at least as accessible by boat as it is by car. It must have about 20 different kinds of beer -- both domestic and imported and available by the can, bottle, glass, and pitcher -- but only one or two vintages of wine. And it has to offer seafood, even if it's cooked rather than raw, as well as a host of other crowd pleasers that appeal to the landlubber (who will certainly arrive at the establishment by automobile).

Southport Raw Bar, a genuine dive, takes these credentials and water-skis with 'em. Located just off 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale on Cordova Road, the 27-year-old eatery has carpeting that looks as if it's been trod by squishy Docksiders for, well, 27 years. The floor slopes continuously downward as you move from the bar to the dining room to an annex where the pinball machines and video games are located, and the boards creak like the old abandoned bridge in a thriller. (You know, the one that threatens to collapse just as the protagonist reaches the middle.) The restaurant is updated so rarely that the key-lime-green paper menus -- which work equally well as place mats -- still say "New!! Patio Seating!" even though the owner, Carmine Ferrante, installed the waterside tables three years ago.

The outdoor seating is a great place to share a pitcher of Murphy's Stout when the weather is warm. When a cold front blows in, as it did this past week, head for a table just inside the patio windows for a view, if not a sniff, of the water. From there you can watch the marine goings-on and envy the customers who come by Intracoastal (boat dockage, free for patrons, seems more plentiful than the parking spaces in the lot).

As for the menu, don't expect logic at the Southport. Instead of beginning with appetizers along the lines of steamed clams or smoked-fish dip, the bill of fare kicks off with a list of sandwiches, which range from American cheese to corned beef to fried clams on a bun. We chose a chili dog from this category, a thick frankfurter smothered in rather tepid but still flavorful chili. Chopped white onions and shredded cheddar cheese, which didn't melt because of the temperature of the chili, completed the sandwich. This particular meal may be a heartburn special, but it was a darned good dog, and the restaurant even makes a nod to current tastes by offering to serve any of its sandwiches as a wrap.

The next category commences with burgers and concludes with grilled ham-and-cheese. Here we gleaned an appetizer, three mini-burgers topped with cheese and served with French fries. Though this could make a light meal (or a full meal for a child), the burgers, square as White Castle's and served with pickles and onions, were ideal as a beefy, juicy nosh.

So, yeah, we're still in a raw bar, but the third menu classification is "Hoagies." The submarine sandwiches include catfish fillet, roast pork on garlic bread, and hot cheese with mushrooms. The best of the lot is easily the Philly cheese steak, a soft roll filled with grilled, thin-sliced, almost shredded steak, dripping just a little appropriate grease. Fried onions, peppers, and melted American cheese, oozing out of the interior, provided flavorful contrasts.

But don't expect to discover the chicken Parmesan hoagie in the "Hoagie" section of the menu. That's because the chicken Parmesan, a fried fillet topped with tangy marinara and mozzarella, is grouped with "Chicken & Wings." Under this heading you'll also find blackened chicken and Buffalo-style chicken wings, the latter of which weren't as spicy as we would have liked. We were also a bit peeved that these babies had obviously sat under the heat lamp for some time before being served -- the accompanying celery sticks were limp as a corseted Victorian in August and the blue cheese dressing was warm and sour.

We revived ourselves with succulent clams, which finally showed up on the second page of the menu. Clams and oysters can be ordered raw or steamed. We chose steamed; despite my fondness for raw bars, I almost always order my shellfish cooked. Like jumping out of airplanes, raw clams and oysters aren't always dangerous, but they can be. In addition clams must be ordered by size -- small, medium, or large. "The smallest are the sweetest," our server confided, and she was correct. Lightly steamed but still properly hot when they arrived at the table, the clams were toothsome little nuggets. The tasty stuffed clams, in contrast, were huge specimens, their ultra-large shells packed with baked bread crumbs and chopped clams, green with minced parsley and tangy from a little lemon.

My favorite item in raw bars is invariably the fried seafood plate, sometimes called the Fisherman's Platter or some such cutesy term. This dinner, freshly prepared, not greasy, garnished with wedges of lemon, was perhaps the best bargain of the night: for $6.95 a wealth of deep-fried scallops, clam strips, and shrimp scattered over a healthy order of French fries. The scallops were mild and sweet, and the shrimp, though small, had been butterflied before being battered. Only the clam strips were disappointing. They were rubbery as doorstops and needed to be dunked in commercial-tasting tartar or cocktail sauce to have any flavor.

Although Southport serves almost all its seafood either raw or deep-fried, you'll find broiled or blackened dolphin at the bottom of the menu, which is also where you'll locate smoked-fish dip (a good starter to share), baked oysters, and conch salad. The caesar salad was good -- a healthy portion of chopped romaine lettuce tossed with garlicky dressing and bits of anchovy fillets. But if you really want more than a single-course meal, you'll need to scan the list of "Side Orders," where conch fritters and mozzarella sticks are tucked among the coleslaw, corn-on-the-cob, and garlic-bread options.

As for endings, there's only one possibility offered -- the key lime pie, stuck (where else?) in the list of side dishes between breaded mushrooms and extra blue cheese dressing. Frankly the portions here are big enough that you can forgo dessert, or simply drink your sweets in the form of Hardcore Cider or Honey Brown ale. Southport Raw Bar is definitely better at delivering multiple rounds than multiple courses. But it's a great spot for those of us with high expectations of low places.

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Southport Raw Bar

1536 Cordova Road
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304

954-525-2526

www.southportrawbar.com


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