Editor's note: We've got a new restaurant critic here at New Times. John Linn has been something of a protégé to Gail Shepherd over the years. Now Shepherd's moving over to become a staff writer for us, and Linn's stepping into the role of restaurant critic. As he gets his taste buds ready for the transition, we're serving up a leftover, a December 2007 column Shepherd wrote on one of our favorite local spots.
I just got back from Brooklyn, where street gluttons wait patiently in line a hundred minutes or more to crowd into a dinky storefront parlor for the pizza at Di Fara. The old guy behind the counter, Dom DeMarco, is spry and focused; his Neapolitan hand is the only one to touch these pizzas, made one at a time at a fairly leisurely pace, while his footsore customers gaze upon him with reverence. DeMarco saturates his crusts with extra virgin olive oil, scatters hunks of buffalo mozzarella and a snowfall of Grana Padano or Reggiano, snips leaves of fresh basil or oregano, and dispenses them around the steaming pie like a magician waving an herb-scented wand. About an hour or so into our wait, as we inched ever closer to the prize, the friend who'd invited me wanted to know if we South Floridians had anything comparable. Places people lined up for? Native foods worth a two-hour wait? Some little old lady with a roadside tamale stand, maybe?
I thought about it. I could have answered honestly, "The Cheesecake Factory," but my foodie creds with this guy would have been ruined forever. We SoFla types do have our stubbornly held legacies — barbecued gator, sugar-and-margarine-on-Wonderbread sandwiches, the orange/shredded-coconut salad we rightly call ambrosia. We have controversies over who makes an authentic key lime pie or where to find the best deal on stone crabs just as fierce as any New York pizza wars. But one of the only places I could think of where customers lined up for hours, and where the result was in fact worth the wait, was Canyon Southwest Café.
Canyon, conveniently situated next to the Sunrise movie theater in Fort Lauderdale, doesn't take reservations — they know better. At midweek, the bar behind the front door is packed with people swilling Canyon's signature pink prickly pear margaritas, made with the cactus fruit marinated in blue agave tequila, which gives the drink the kind of blush you could only hope to raise in your beloved's cheek. Those delicious margaritas, served frozen, straight up, or on ice, even at $9.50 each, go a long way to softening the impact of an hour's wait for a table. What with the eye candy, considerable from this perspective, and the conversation enjoyed with your fellow tequila swillers, you might even say your time spent is pretty painless. "Part of the experience," as my Brooklynite friends would say of Di Fara's.
Still, we can hardly call Southwestern-style cooking our own, unless we redraw the North American map with very generous boundaries. Florida does share elements of this hybrid cuisine. A group of Texas chefs may have "reinvented" New Southwest cooking in the '80s, but in truth, both ingredients and cooking techniques derive from the oldest regional cuisine in the Americas: the words guacamole, tomato, and chili have Aztec origins. The Southwestern cooking we know today mixes and matches cultural foodways of Mexico, Spain, Native America, and the open range, painting from a palette of primary colors: yellow corn; red tomatoes; green peppers, tomatillos, and avocados; chilies, squashes, and beans in a dozen different hues.
These vegetables and fruits flourish in our southern tropical climate: In this sense, the flavors dished up at Canyon are both local and familiar. We recognize the crunch of the corn tortilla, the tang of cilantro-laced salsa, the soothing heft of yucca, the dusting of ground chilies. The menu's skewered and grilled bison may look exotic, but these big guys were once natives too, a favorite food of our 14,000-year-old Florida Indian cousins. Pork, like Canyon's chili-rubbed chop served with tequila-papaya salsa, arrived here early via the Spaniards. As for snails (Canyon serves escargots with tawny port sauce and a red chili tamale), we have more than 100 native marine and freshwater species; Florida snowbirds, along with our local snail kite, have been digging this whorled gastropod from its shell since the end of the last ice age.
Chef-owner Chris Wilber, who's been cooking at this location since the mid-'90s, was one of the first restaurateurs here to recognize that spicy-hot foods and humid-hot climates are a natural match. Mexicans turn up the heat in their tacos because the burn induces a good sweat, a sort of internal air conditioner. They recognize too that a corn or flour tortilla works like a swab to soak up the capsaicin oils in chilies that leave your mouth all but seared. (Note: Never drink water trying to cool a chili-inflamed tongue — it'll only compound your misery.) If Southwestern cuisine isn't precisely indigenous to Florida, it sure feels and smells and tastes like it should be.