Dining + Wining

Eat Like a SWFL Local at These Gourmet Strip Mall Restaurants

Restaurateurs don’t need a five-star hotel or a multimillion-dollar renovation to succeed here. They just need a strip mall.

BY September 1, 2023
Best strip mall dining
A strip-mall dining gem, Harold’s in Fort Myers might not look like much from the outside—just a red-tiled roof and blacked-out windows. But inside, locals know you find some of the best food in town. (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

Ours is an area that follows its own clock, sways to its own rhythms, dances to the beat of its own drumfish. Especially when it comes to food. What works for chefs and restaurants in Miami or New York, where exquisitely high-end restaurants abound, rarely works for chefs and restaurants on our side of the coast.

In this area, where rents have risen faster than anywhere else in the U.S., function often trumps form. Some of our most talented and creative chefs—from Andy Hyde at Hyde N Chic Restaurant in Naples to Bob Boye at Liberty and Harold Balink’s namesake Harold’s in Fort Myers—have learned that we Southwest Floridians care far more about what’s on the plate than what’s on the walls. These chefs have given up their big fancy restaurants in favor of simpler, more agile spots; places where great food and warm service shine. Restaurateurs don’t need a five-star hotel or a multimillion-dollar renovation to succeed here. They just need a strip mall.

At Namba in Naples, you can enjoy steaming bowls of ramen in chef Koko’s—aka chef Pitak Hermkhunthod’s—17-hour broth. You can chase them with velvety bites of hand-cut sushi, togarashi-dusted karaage and house-made gyoza stuffed with Wagyu beef and served atop a paste of truffles. Full? Take a walk around the plaza and digest. You could stop at the nail salon next door for a pedicure, swing into Publix, or hit Cesibon for some of the area’s best gelato.   

Heading north a few strip malls, there is Petar’s Restaurant, a pearl of a place I recommend constantly to anyone in or near Bonita Springs. Chef-owner Petar Al Kurdi left the glossy confines of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, to open this eponymous spot in what looks like an old Quiznos in the Center of Bonita Springs. Petar’s dining room is tight, and so too is Petar’s cuisine. Expect dishes like a cool, seasonal gazpacho to start, then scratch-made pasta served atop a silken puree of butternut squash, or perhaps a risotto so luxuriously rich it makes you rethink the dish entirely. Save room for the crêpes, (handmade of course), then soused in a crème Anglaise that will have you plotting your return. 

At El Gaucho Inca’s second strip-mall location in Estero—the original is in Fort Myers—Rocio Navarrete and her chef-husband Mariano Maldonado offer the flavors of their native countries on colorful plates and in bracing cocktails. Rocio, who hails from Peru, is the Inca in this equation, while her Argentinean spouse is the gaucho (or, cowboy). Together, they add up to something deliciously refined; a tasty and elegant surprise that belies its strip-mall exterior.

Gloria Cabral-Jordan radiates joy. I first encountered the chef and her infectious energy in the late 2000s. Her passion for food and community has always felt boundless. Gloria’s force of will led her out of her native Cuba to culinary school in Europe, and then to Fort Myers, where she opened La Trattoria Cafe Napoli in 2005. Earlier this year, Gloria grew her strip-mall empire with Jordan’s Wine Bar and Cellar, also in Fort Myers. Her original restaurant, simply called Gloria’s by locals, shares a pink-trimmed plaza with a tobacco shop and a Jersey Mike’s. The menu hints at the chef’s history, melding tropical and Mediterranean flavors to create something deliciously unique.

Across the Caloosahatchee River in Cape Coral, Gusto Cucina Italiana sits past a handful of McDonald’s and a Taco Bell or three. In a town rich in Italian food, owners Vincenzo and Raquel Cangialosi manage to keep this place fresh, soulful and heartily delicious. It’s not that Gusto’s menu is especially unique. It’s not that this generic strip mall is especially fancy. It’s that Vincenzo and his team craft every dish to their exacting standards. It’s that Raquel works the door, pouring flutes of prosecco for those waiting in line (there’s almost always a line). It’s that, forget Olive Garden, when you’re at Gusto, you’re a Cangialosi.

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