These days, it's not just a question of where to find fresh produce, meat, and fish. It has to be organic. Local. Ethical. One market might have juicy, just-harvested sugar cane or a stock of lemons as large and supple as a woman's fist, but were the laborers paid a fair wage? Did the goods travel more than two-dozen miles from sprout to sale? We don't use just our senses to judge an ingredient's worth; we refer to its stat sheet. We're playing fantasy football with our food.
The local, ethical, and natural movements are all good fights. But we've stopped celebrating bounty — we don't dance around the produce aisle at Whole Foods when we find red grapes that aren't from Chile. We scrutinize them.
Food should nourish us. It should also be fun. Exhibit A: the tented produce market at the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop (3291 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; hours vary slightly day to day; visit floridaswapshop.com). On Saturday, the scene is like a Caribbean open-air market: the air rich with coconut milk, newly machete'd from its husk and carried further by the throttle of Latin dance music. No, the jicama and the nopales weren't grown on a farm in Broward or anywhere near it. But these folks — islanders, South Americans, Mexicans, and Floridians all — don't care. It's a frickin' party, people, and at its center is the Peruvian-styled El Rey de Pescado.
On a recent Saturday at El Rey, a DJ spun Latin American classics and welcomed people into the plastic seats and tables adorned with bottles of red hot sauce, peppery mayonnaise, and house-made spicy green chili purée, meant to be doused unilaterally on everything. The menu is small but fashioned around a simple, clarifying vision: huge portions of impeccably fresh seafood, prepared simply.
Red snapper ($15) and mojarra (tilapia, $12) are served whole, each scored along the fillet, lightly battered, and fried to a perfect crisp. KFC couldn't touch the skin on the mojarra — moist, crisp, and pleasantly salty. You could spend an hour searching for every last pocket of delicious meat. Hint: The belly and cheek house the silkiest, most buttery morsels.
Entire families feasted on a single order of deluxe jalea ($24). A mammoth portion of fried jumbo calamari, tilapia, and shrimp comes coated in the same slightly spicy batter, fried crisp and served with slivers of red onion and a hill of lime wedges. The fat calamari rings were as tender as the younger variety usually is, while the shrimp, head and tail on, was perfect for eating peel, head, and all, like soft-shell crab or Japanese amaebi. Work your way far enough into the pile and you may find a prize in the shape of disc-like tostones. Maybe it was their proximity to the fried fish, but El Rey's garlic-soaked tostones were fab — crunchy and chewy and perhaps the best I've ever tasted. Ceviche ($10 to $12) is also a huge hit at Rey's. It's made of any variation of the same three sea critters as the jalea and was fresh as the market air, grounded by a marriage between the tilapia's earthy undertones and the tingly, lime- and aji- enriched cocktail.
Most plates, like the whole fish, snapper fillet ($12), or steak and chicken platters ($9 if they have it), come with salad and yellow rice, airy, fragrant, and flecked with bits of cilantro and bell peppers. It's even better if you order a side of deeply rich black beans, which you'll love but probably won't need.
The seafood is so plentiful and artfully prepared that you could call it lavish despite its simplicity. Sipping beers and feasting in the din of the produce stands, you feel like a peasant king. It's a food experience you can't dissect; you just have to be thankful for it.