The biggest problem with a good idea is that it is never original. After the ignominy of Saveur publishing MagoGuide’s New Orleans old school restaurant reviews out from underneath us, Lucullus and company sought the solace of Cape San Blas on the Sunshine State’s stretch of the Redneck Riviera only to be pummeled anew, this time by John O’Connor in the New York Times (see Digging for Feasts Across the Florida Panhandle, March 27, 2013). Optio and I were truly feeling wasted away in BOHICAville as March Madness unfolded with an unending streak of defeats for all of our alma maters and almost maters.
To add insult to injury, I was also deprived of MagoGuide’s go-to high dudgeon comeback that I employed so ruthlessly against the definitive culinary erotica platform, due to the facts that Mr. O’Connor writes well, and far more importantly, has very similar tastes in food and restaurants to Team Mago. Fortunately, he did not have the time to focus on Cape San Blas and vicinity, so I decided to compete by drilling down into two establishments and to bring MagoGuide’s A-game combination of local knowledge and penchant for gustatory excess to bear in a counterinsurgency against the Nation’s Newspaper.
Indian Pass Raw Bar
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Rostra rating: 4
We rolled into the Indian Pass Raw Bar just before noon on a Wednesday. Mr. O’Connor supplies the basics in his review, but this centenarian dive bar cum oyster shack is really more a state of mind than an eatery. To begin with, the local customers and staff are an overlapping set. The shuckers shuck for awhile and then wonder around in front of the bar for a restorative dozen and a brewski or twoski, while folks who had been swapping lies and watching television on the stools wander off to check whether an empty keg has a replacement in the back or if that particular draft beer needs to be cancelled for the day. Meanwhile, other staff mans the register, takes orders, and wanders about the tables sometimes doting on out-of-towners and sometimes ignoring them.
The beer situation is lots of fun. There are about four brews on tap, but usually one is played out or undergoing a keg switch. Two of the brews are mass market and two are a bit more artisanal, although I saw no genuine micro brews while I was there. You can fill a plastic glass or a plastic pitcher on your own (although they will help you if you, like me, prove incompetent and produce glasses of foam and whimper long enough). Or you can go to the wall o’beer fridge at the back of the establishment, which has numerous brands in bottles and cans next to a well-polished opener. If the kegs are misbehaving or your tastes run to stronger than what is pouring (the Bud Light and Rolling Rock taps never seem to be empty), the bottle option is to be preferred. When you pay the check, you just tell them how many beers you drank.
On our three visits we found rumors of the demise or at least severe shortage of Apalachicola Bay oysters to be overblown—contrary to certain “all the news that is fit to print” national media outlets. Shuckers informed us that the oysters we were consuming were extremely local, coming from within five miles of our table, and that because of this they were a bit muddier than normal and somewhat more difficult to shuck and prepare. The veteran staff handled this issue with such aplomb that we did not experience a single instance of excessive grittiness in the many dozens we porked down during multiple meals.
Mr. O’Connor likes his oysters raw, but informs readers that they also come steamed or baked. What he does not tell you, however, is that the steamed oysters are in many respects better than the raw ones, being juicier and providing an extended flavor profile due to their warmth. The baked ones, on the other hand, verge on culinary war crimes, because they arrive dried out by the oven and the cheap Parmesan mounded on them to excess destroys what is left of their flavor. The locals do not ever seem to order the baked oysters.
The boiled shrimp needs to be called out as a great example of a simple dish done well that is often done quite badly. The boil needs to be fresh so that the spice and the heat come through, and it takes a very deft hand not to overcook the wonderful wild gulf shrimp on offer at Indian Pass Raw Bar. Fulvia, who both loves peel and eat shrimp and is rarely satisfied with the way they are prepared in restaurants absolutely loved them, eating close to her body weight in the things at each degustation.
Mr. O’Connor fesses up to downing four beers on his drive-by, which may explain why he did not sample the very serviceable gumbo that they dish out, nor the fact that often, yet unpredictably, the owner barbeques pork shoulders right out front and puts pulled pork sandwiches on the menu. It is good, if not very good, ‘que and with the six packs of various Louisiana and Texas hot sauce at every table as well as a squeeze bottle of sweet tomato-based bbq sauce deployed with your order, you can get it as hot and saucy as you like. There is also a short order menu of burgers, dogs, and sandwiches that we did not try. No fries, but very serviceable garlic bread, which comes with any oyster or shrimp order.
Mago tip: Go for lunch and go early. Mr. O’Connor assembled his review in the deep offseason of mid-winter, but most MagoGuide readers will be in the Panhandle during Spring Break, early summer, or early fall when there are a lot of people renting the local beach houses and desperate for oysters and beer. We found that the Indian Pass Raw Bar opens for business some time between 11:30 AM and noon and that it is best to be there early. Once opened, the crowds and the wait build throughout the afternoon and into the evening right up to closing time. If you do not mind a two hour plus wait, show up around 6:30 PM when there is usually one or more musicians pumping out decent country and western for the hordes of scantily clad college kids. You can get a beer any time during your wait, but it is a good idea to keep some kind of tally because you will be nice and squiffy by the time you settle up. Once seated, they are very European about turning tables (or not as the case definitely is). You can keep ordering food all night if you want or hang and have six or seven nightcap brews if you want. The staff does not mind and may well join yo
Boss Oyster Restaurant
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Rostra rating: 3
Mr. O’Connor asserts that there are “at least five top-shelf oyster joints” in Apalachicola, which he locates 18 miles east of Indian Pass, but locals will tell you that the town lies between Wewahitchka and Sopchoppy. In any event, for some reason the <em>Times</em> did not give their correspondent the time, money, or perhaps word count to review more than one of the joints on the shelf. And since he did not name the others (kinda strange), MagoGuide cannot know if Boss Oyster is one of them. But given all of the awards that this place has won from local media, one has to presume that its place on that shelf is well secured.
Team Mago made two pilgrimages to Boss Oyster, primarily because the Indian Pass Raw Bar was just too crowded and we were just too hungry to wait. The two establishments should not be confused. Boss is a restaurant disguised as seafood dive while Indian Pass is the real deal. Boss offers dozens of different ways to junk up oysters and some of them are quite good, but it just is not the same experience. There is a greater variety of seafood and associated preparations on offer at Boss. One glaring omission is the lack of draft beer. How can you serve great oysters without anything on tap? And he selection of bottled beers is not nearly as extensive as Indian Pass.
The raw Ostera Crassotera Virgin (this appellation courtesy of the Boss Oyster menu, I’ll have you know) are great, but many of the baked versions are a bit dried out and over larded with non-oyster ingredients and combinations that have been solicited by the establishment from customers hailing from as far away as Australia. We tried the Oyster Rockerfella (sauteed spinach, onion, garlic, and parmesan cheese), but after a week in New Orleans, they seemed like weak imitations. Likewise the Oyster Jalepeno (sic.) made with Monterey jack cheese and chopped jalapenos had way too much cheese and not nearly enough jalapenos. But the steamed oysters with Thai chili lime sauce were superb, very flavorful with a nice kick of heat at the end.
The fried oysters were good, at least the ones on the top of the basket were, but the lower strata were soggy by the time one reached them (which wasn’t all that long).
The fried shrimp were much better than the oysters, fine specimens of this ubiquitous, if not usually well executed, Redneck Riviera preparation. The fried grouper sandwich was quite good as were the accompanying fries, but the hush puppies were mediocre at best. Boss Oyster also does a very decent grilled shrimp brochette. In sum, there were way too many oyster preparations that masked if not destroyed the underlying goodness of what you were there to eat, and the fryolater dude was inconsistent and often just inattentive to what he was doing.
Mago Tip: Check out the other four top-shelf oyster joints in Apalachicola before you try Boss Oyster (Mr. O’Connor had good things to say about Up the Creek Raw Bar), and when you do hit Boss, try to do so on a nice day or evening when you can sit outside on their dock fronting the Apalachicola River where you can watch fishing, charter, and sail boats go by. But most of all, go to the Indian Pass Raw Bar early and often if you want a real Redneck Riviera Experience.
MagoGuide plans to return to the Cape San Blas area for New Year’s 2014 and if we do we will review the rest of the top shelf in Apalachicola and stake a claim to semi-permanent table ownership at the Indian Pass Raw Bar.
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