Hold the Diet, Cue the Grits
Finding great Southern cooking is a challenge here, but we tell you where to go for your shrimp and grits, fried buttermilk chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese and more.
Shrimp and grits from Mereday's Fine Dining.
Photography by Vanessa Rogers
Florida is south of the Mason-Dixon line, but there’s a good portion of it that certainly isn’t in “The South.” Sure, Tallahassee and Jacksonville have more than a hint of drawl, but Miami is the capital of South America, Palm Beach is Manhattan’s southernmost enclave, and here in Southwest Florida it’s a lot more Rust Belt than Dixie.
This has been especially true with food. For years, finding a decent biscuit or glass of sweet tea has been harder than deciphering a Dan Rather metaphor.
But things are changing. A handful of Southern-inspired restaurants have popped up, and now many restaurants have, if not full on Southern soul, at least a hint of its flavor.
Gulfshore Life sent me out in search of the best of the South by Southwest Florida chefs. Here’s what I found.
Shrimp and grits
Mereday’s Fine Dining is home to Naples’ best shrimp and grits. The grits are such creamy deliciousness, while the shrimp and gravy just explode with flavor. Chef Charles Mereday is from Dudley, N.C., and is a graduate of Charleston’s Johnson & Wales. If you love Low Country cuisine, do not miss this dish. Chef Mereday’s understanding of Southern flavors earns him top marks for best Southern-inspired dish in Southwest Florida.
Mereday’s Fine Dining, 1500 Fifth Ave. S. at Naples Bay Resort, Naples. 732-0784, meredaysnaples.com
Before I tasted it myself, I once watched two upstanding Naples housewives nearly get in a fistfight over the last piece of Wynn’s fried chicken. After trying it, I understood why. This chicken is so succulent on the inside and crispy on the outside—the only other place on this planet that could rival it is Price’s ChickenCoop in Charlotte, N.C. The genius of Wynn’s fried chicken is such that it’s a challenge to make it to the car without devouring it. It’s also the perfect shortcut for chicken and waffles.
Wynn’s Market, 141 U.S. 41 N., Naples. 261-7157, wynnsonline.com
In the South, barbecue is a noun, not something you do in a backyard. While it’s incredibly hard to find good barbecue in Naples, no one does it better than the Brown Bag Barbecue joint. Order the pulled barbecue pork, but don’t dare leave without the onion loaf. Cash only. Takeout only.
Brown Bag Barbecue, 4748 Golden Gate Parkway, Naples. 455-4366
Fried grit poppers
There is so much South to choose from at Fancy’s Southern Café in Fort Myers—from fried green tomatoes to the pimento cheeseburger and chicken and waffles with sweet potato hay to even dessert (they feature housemade banana pudding every day). But the most fun to eat are the fried grit poppers. Served in one of the area’s loveliest restaurants with a side of most excellent housemade ranch dressing, they are the quintessential Southern sharing appetizer.
Fancy’s Southern Café, 8890 Salrose Lane, Fort Myers. 561-2988, fancyssoutherncafe.com
Just be cause the Southern salad from Crave in Fort Myers is healthful doesn't mean it lacks great flavor.
Corn on the cob
PoBoys Shrimp Shack owner and Chef Shawn Teeters has mastered the best corn on the cob in town. Juicy, savory and sweet all at the same time, his corn has ruined countless diets and caused more second helpings than any other side dish in Naples.
PoBoys Shrimp Shack, 10823 U.S. 41 N., Naples. 605-1205, poboysshrimpshack.com
Cracklin’ Jacks tips its hat to the cuisine of the Everglades, but one dish has a Creole bent that visitors to Naples love to boast about on social media. It’s the Bayou platter, prepared with gator tail, frog legs and catfish. That might seem adventurous eating to some, but really it’s just plain good.
Cracklin’ Jacks, 9080 Collier Blvd., Naples. 774-6000, cracklinjacks.com
Mac ‘n’ Cheese
In the South, we don’t say, “She almost fainted.” We say, “She just about fell out.” When I saw the words “mac bar” on the menu at the newest Ford’sGarage in Miromar Outlets, I just about fell out. Mac ‘n’ cheese is one of the four basic food groups in the South, and Ford’s features four—cheddar, pulled pork, Cajun and lobster.
Ford’s Garage, 1719 Cape Coral Parkway E., Cape Coral; 10801 Corkscrew Road, Suite 519, Estero; 1422 Dean St., Fort Myers. fordsgaragefl.com
Taco and Tequila's Southern taco flight includes fried chicken, pulled pork and fried oysters.
Tacos, Southern style
Tacos & Tequila’s Southern taco flight of three tacos are so cute it’s tempting not to eat them. But that would be a mistake, since the T & T signature taco is made with classic Southern fried chicken soaked in buttermilk and house pickled jalapenos; the backyard taco has pulled slow-cooked pork shoulder, Makers Mark bourbon barbecue sauce and cornmeal fried pickles; and the oyster taco is prepared Low Country-style with fried oysters, fennel, red onion coleslaw and pepper jelly aioli.
Tacos & Tequila, 4834 Davis Blvd., Naples. 732-8226, tacosandtequilanaples.com
Not all Southern-inspired cuisine is unhealthy. In fact, at Crave in Fort Myers, the Southern spinach salad includes several healthful ingredients. Fresh spinach is paired with grilled peaches, spiced pecans and onion strings.
Crave, 12901 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers. 466-4663, cravemenu.com
Fried buttermilk chicken
Bar food is sacred in the South. In Naples sports mecca Bokampers, the newest reason to put some South in your mouth is a righteous Southern fried buttermilk chicken dish. Even the sawmill gravy is made to order and smothered over mashed red potatoes and the chicken. The chicken dish is the Southern star here, but the ribs are good, too—fall-off-the-bone tender, and the sauce is also outstanding.
Bokampers, 8990 Fontana Del Sol Way, Naples. 431-7611, bokampersnaples.com
Kelly Merritt is an author and culinary travel writer for a dozen major daily newspapers and national magazines. She divides her time between Naples and her home state of North Carolina.