There's something immutably charming about South Florida's cheap seafood dives – restaurants seemingly trapped in time, where anyone with a few bucks can eat a small mountain of seafood served raw, fried, or even broiled with a little butter and paprika. At these raw bars and shuck shacks, you'll find the confluence of the sun, the ocean, and their bounty — and a roguish, freewheeling lifestyle that may well be the last semblance of Old Florida.
Humid salt air, sun-drenched laziness, and wasted days spent tucked underneath the lip of some booze-stained bar, peeling rock shrimp and humming jukebox tunes... these are things of rare beauty.
It seems improbable that in this age of celebrity chefs and clubby ultra lounges, a small cadre of these simple, unaffected seafood restaurants has managed to not only stay around but stay popular. Especially when you consider all the forces working in their opposition. There's overfishing, the ever-looming threat of mercury contamination, and the deadly bacteria vibrio vulnificus, just to name a few. And now, an oil spill working its way across the Gulf of Mexico has put a halt to fishing in waters stretching from Louisiana to Pensacola Bay – an area that supplies a huge portion of Florida's fresh shrimp and oysters. Restaurateurs are truly fearful of what the future will bring.
With that in mind, there's no time like the present to plunge back into Florida's timeless seafood joints and truly embrace the bounty we have. So without further ado, a small collection of South Florida's best cheap seafood dives:
The Whale's Rib
2031 NE Second St., Deerfield Beach; 954-421-8880
"My favorite menu item would have to be the Key West dolphin sandwich," our waitress, a fit older lady with gobs of energy to spare, told me. "That's the one Guy Fieri tried when he came in here."
Since being showcased last year on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, homey seafood shack the Whale's Rib has enjoyed a renaissance as Deerfield Beach's premier spot for ultrafresh seafood and cold brews. And for good reason. You can sit at the worn bar top and watch your oysters shucked right in front of you. From that seat, amid kitschy, vintage signs and framed photos of fishermen, you can look on as fresh mahi, soft-shell crab, scallops, and rock shrimp are prepared on the nearby chef's line. And you can enjoy it all in the company of people who feel a bit more down to Earth than the rest of us.
Our waitress, who said she'd been working at the Whale's Rib for more than ten years, directed me to get that Key West dolphin sandwich blackened, not fried, as it appeared on television. Since then, I've frequently dreamt of that sweet whole-wheat bun collapsing around waves of moist, tender mahi. It's enough to wake me up from a dead sleep: The creamy crunch of homemade purple cole slaw against the spicy, paprika-flecked rub, a mound of melting cheese on top burning the roof of my mouth. There are a good two dozen other sandwiches I've yet to try at the Rib, from simple cold cuts to a veggie sandwich with sprouts and "Whale Juice" (a kind of homespun honey mustard). Platters of broiled and fried seafood are trucked out with incredible expediency, as are fat, fleshy oysters shucked by the dozen and bowls of medium or large stone crab claws with spicy mustard sauce (season has just closed, sadly).
I spoke to Debbie Lauricella, who's managed the restaurant for more than 20 years, and she told me that, as of now, Gulf oysters and shrimp are still on the menu. "We're still getting [seafood from the Gulf], but that could change tomorrow," she said, fearing the oil spill's effects. "Eventually, it's going to be a problem."
Lauricella predicted that when the supply finally dries up, the restaurant – which shucks more than 50 dozen of the bivalves per day – will most likely move to East Coast or Blue Point oysters. "I like our Gulf oysters since they're bigger and less expensive," she says. "But we'll do what we have to in order to meet the demand."
4602 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point; 954-942-0740; seafood-world.com
This restaurant and fish market looks every bit of its 1976 vintage, and that's not a bad thing. Being inside the winding corridors decked floor-to-ceiling in dark wood feels like dining in the galley of an old fishing boat. The seafood is so fresh that it only furthers the image.
A display case by the front door highlights the day's catch for those dining in or taking out. To the right, glistening fillets of local hog snapper, dolphin, and grouper are set over packed ice. To the left sit oysters, stone crab, shrimp in various sizes, and prepared seafood salads available by the pound (the market supplies seafood to many other local restaurants as well).