I don't like surprises. In fact, I despise them. I can't stand not knowing something that other people know; whatever the secret is, I have a pathological need to be informed. I read the ends of mysteries before the beginnings. I got an ultrasound to determine the sex of my baby as soon as I possibly could. (I can't understand those folks who cool their heels for nine months in ignorant bliss.) And don't even think about throwing me a surprise party; I will find out about it ahead of time, as my mother, who tried to keep my wedding shower a secret, will attest.
So it was with trepidation that I agreed to let the waiter at the Shuck-N-Dive Cajun Sports Café in Fort Lauderdale bring my party the "Cajun combo platter," a chef's-choice selection, for dinner one recent evening. He wouldn't tell us what was on it. All he would say was that, at $16.95, it was well worth the price.
He was right. The platter comprised a juicy, grilled pork chop, which had been butterflied and stuffed with crumbled andouille sausage. The spicy sausage and mild pork were a terrific Cajun combo, both flavorwise and texturally. A generous scoop of peppery mashed potatoes, at once creamy and home-style lumpy, was served on the side. A handful of hushpuppies, a smattering of fried okra, and a cup of thick red beans and rice were all welcome, expertly prepared additions. The whole entrée was -- dare I say it? -- a lovely surprise.
But then, this entire restaurant, located on North Ocean Boulevard, is definitely an unanticipated shocker. A former convenience store, the eatery is still haunted by the ghosts of snack-food décor: sharp angles and floor-to-ceiling display windows that used to showcase racks of candy and chips. It's not hard to imagine Homer Simpson sucking down a Big Gulp here.
Not many potential patrons would suspect the comfort found in the small row of roomy booths. Few would guess that the neon-lit joint houses a bar made from the same kind of dark, weathered wood you'd find in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Almost no one would assume that this 50-seat sports bar, which shows every Louisiana State University Tigers and New Orleans Saints football game during the season, serves up some of the best Cajun and Creole food in the area. Or that the place is owned and run by a 32-year-old chef who goes by the single name of Staz -- "kind of like Bozo," he says -- who comes out of the kitchen every 15 minutes or so to feed off his diners' enjoyment.
I certainly had no clue. I was tipped off by a reader who's such a Staz fan that she advised me to check out the items that aren't listed on the menu -- that is, the specials posted on the blackboard. She was correct. Staz fried us up some of the best green tomatoes I've had in recent memory. The tender tomatoes, offered as an appetizer, were coated in a light, golden crumb batter and topped with a fresh herb pesto and a few drizzles of ranchlike dressing. Staz created a similar kind of magic with an oysters starter, which offered shellfish that were fresh and steaming under a savory blanket of bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and bacon.
Staz, who's been in the restaurant business since he started washing dishes at the age of 13, has run restaurants from Telluride to Dallas. But it was his "love for the city" of New Orleans that inspired him to create his "own little slice of heaven" here in South Florida. In fact, he's been to New Orleans more than 50 times -- for six Mardi Gras celebrations, three Super Bowls, and an assortment of jazz, blues, and what-have-you festivals. And he's determined to make Shuck-N-Dive an authentic experience for everyone involved, which is why he opened the place this past February, Mardi Gras month. It's also why he goes to the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport twice a week to pick up andouille sausage, tasso ham, and farm-raised catfish flown in from Louisiana and Mississippi.
You can verify the veracity of his fare by ordering a sausage po'boy straight off the somewhat limited menu. The sandwich comes with a thick slice of zesty sausage centered between crusty French bread. The po'boy is partnered with a choice of French fries or tater tots, both of which are fried to a perfect crisp in good, clean oil. Other sandwiches include blackened chicken and a muffuletta, but we couldn't ignore the promise of a buffalo burger. Because ground buffalo meat contains less fat than beef, it can result in a dry or gamy burger. But Staz knows his humpbacks, and he produced a thick, juicy disk so tasty -- and hefty -- he should rename the thing the buffburger.
Staz can go upscale, too, with a "mahi Mardi Gras" main course, though he keeps the prices (on all his items) downright decent. During crawfish season (wintertime), the mahi mahi is dressed with fresh crawfish, but during the summer Staz uses a frozen version of the delicacy, known to folks in New Orleans as "mud bugs" because crawfish bury themselves in mud during the hot months. No matter. Staz's crawfish were as succulent as rock shrimp and blended well with the dish's primary fish, which was actually blackened redfish. (Staz had just received his portion of redfish for the following day, and he thought, pretty astutely, we'd like something super fresh.) Like the grilled pork chop, this main course came with so many accouterments -- including deep-fried hushpuppies and okra -- it was impossible to finish the whole thing.
The restaurant offers only one dessert, and you might as well give in and eat it, if only because the waiter will call you a sissy if you claim you're too full. The homemade bread pudding was a superior specimen, soft but not mushy, the sweet retaining its integrity under a dousing of warm vanilla sauce. No one's too stuffed for a bite of this.
We were disappointed by a couple of items: The jambalaya, a mixture of mostly rice and tomatoes, was awfully bland; and a Gulf shrimp appetizer, a half-pound of shrimp served cold and in the shell and laden with pickling spices, was a little flaky from overcooking. But for the most part, the Shuck-N-Dive Cajun Sports Café is a swampy oasis in the middle of sandy Fort Lauderdale beach. Surprise.
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