I just got back from Brooklyn, where street gluttons wait patiently in line 100 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's the best deal on stone crabs just as fierce as any New York pizza wars. But the only place I could think of where customers lined up for hours, and where the end result was in fact worth the wait, was Canyon Southwest Café.
Canyon, conveniently situated next to the Sunrise movie theater in Lauderdale, doesn't take reservations — they know better. At mid-week the bar behind their 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 avocadoes; 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 on via the Spaniards. As for snails (Canyon serves escargot with tawny port sauce and a red chili tamale), we have over 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 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.
Wilber pushes it further in our direction by tilting his menu ever-so-slightly toward seafood, from snapper and grouper to shrimp and oysters. There's a fantastic appetizer of shrimp tapas ($15), a flatbread topped with grilled Florida shrimp, tomatillo drizzle, a scattering of creamy-sharp Spanish manchego cheese, and roasted chili peppers. If you snag a seat at the bar while you're waiting for a booth, you can order snacks like this one to whet your appetite, or the equally exquisite blue-corn-crusted oysters, fried and served in their shells ($16), beautifully crunchy on the outside and puddinglike within. A little pool of cilantro cream puddles underneath them, and the whole deal is accompanied by a whispery light green salad tossed with roasted corn and chili vinaigrette. Both the tapas and oysters are a lesson in texture and color — vivid on eye and tongue, with a buttery umami that fills your entire mouth with happiness: real party food. A party is exactly what you're here for. I spotted no one during my last two visits who wasn't having what looked like the time of their lives.