You passed this way before. A quarter century ago the first time, between spasms of gainful employment, you hit the jackpot: six or seven carefree weeks of summer to kill and just enough cash to spend it drifting around the South in an arthritic Toyota hatchback. And though your makeshift itinerary snaked through the Southeast—Birmingham, Alabama; the Keys; New Orleans—you kept circling back to the Florida Panhandle and Lower Alabama, mesmerized by blinding white sand and warm green-blue waves, brooding oaks and moonlit bayous. There was something about the place: little ambition in sight, but a sort of devil-may-care swagger; a sultry, moss-draped funk; life in no great hurry. Shrimp boats rusted at the dock. Pelicans perched idly on pilings.
Now you’re back, searching for platters of no-frills seafood and traces of Gulf Coast soul on a meander of seaside highway between Tallahassee and Mobile. Not the Gulf of towering time-shares lined up like garish dominoes, but the other Gulf: the one with wind-carved dunes, spray-painted plywood signs advertising fresh shrimp for sale, metal-roofed oyster shacks where the regulars have permanent deepwater tans and the oysters come with saltines and the waitress just might call you Honey. That coast isn’t clearly marked on maps, but when you see it, you’ll know.
The quest begins with a Hot Mess. That’s what they call it at Mineral Springs, the seafood shack in Panacea, Florida, where you pull off Highway 98 before you even catch a glimpse of salt water. Shredded chunks of smoked yellowfin tuna, cobia, and salmon, laced with candied jalapeño and served up to go by a ponytailed guy named Junior in a faded Gators cap. It’s a fine launch to a gluttonous back-roads ramble. You get back in the car and aim south, with one hand on the wheel, the other scooping up the dip with off-brand dollar-store crackers, and the Gulf of Mexico just beyond the horizon.
photo: Cedric Angeles
Arriving over the bay bridge into Apalachicola, it feels like you’re onto something. Here is an old oystering town that has, near as you can tell, remained an old oystering town (albeit one with no shortage of gift shops). Drivers pause in the middle of the street to converse, and no one seems to howl. You check in for a night at Riverwood Suites, a small inn with an Apalach pedigree. It opened a couple of years ago in an exquisitely rusted corrugated-metal two-story that was built in 1908 to house oyster workers sent down from Baltimore. The room is flooded with daylight and spacious enough to waltz in, with white wooden shutters and a slab of cypress for a bathroom countertop.
You walk two blocks for a half dozen oysters and a beer at the aptly named Hole in the Wall, on Avenue D, and inevitably another half dozen and another beer. Rows of college ball caps hang on the wall—a slight departure from many Gulf seafood joints, which are papered with autographed dollar bills. Wisps of Spanish moss dangle from the ceiling. The three servers fetch bottles of beer from a Depression-era green icebox near the door. “Whatcha drinkin’, love?” a hustling, no-nonsense woman named Barbara calls out when a regular crosses the threshold. Duane, the gray-bearded shucker behind the counter, delivers each dozen with lemon, horseradish, hot sauce, and serious know-how. “You can tell which way the wind’s blowin’, eatin’ an oyster,” he tells you. “Out of the east, they’ll be fat and fresh-tasting over here. Out of the west, they’ll be salty.” For a moment, you consider becoming an oysterman.
You’re tempted to linger permanently in Apalach—some have—but the road is calling. The next day, after lunch at Tamara’s (Tabasco fried flounder, crawfish mac and cheese) and an IPA at Oyster City Brewing Company, you detour west toward Cape San Blas, a fishhook-shaped, dead-end sand spit. After a while, clusters of pastel beach houses on stilts abruptly give way to thickets of slash pine and palmetto and lofty dunes: Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park. You leave castaway footprints on miles of empty strand.
Back to the mainland, headed northwest on stretches of lonesome two-lane, tall pines painting mottled shadows across the pavement. Signposts along Florida’s Forgotten Coast: Simmons Bayou, Port Saint Joe, the turnoff to Wewahitchka. Over an arching bridge to Highland View (no highlands in sight). Saint Joe Beach, Beacon Hill (an actual glimpse of hill—more of a dune, really). The time zone springs backward around Mexico Beach, just in time for supper at Killer Seafood, a blue-awninged landmark across the street from the shore, where the fish tacos come overstuffed in waxed-paper-lined baskets, and the hot sauce, tartar sauce, and key lime pie are all made in-house. Two of the owners grew up in Kentucky and washed ashore here thirteen years ago, improbably, by way of Los Angeles. “Nobody really had a clue what we were doing,” says Kim Halverson, who in her previous life worked in the promotion department of Capitol Records for almost two decades. “I stood here and cried for two years.” Now, she allows as the sun sinks and tables fill, “it’s an amazing place to be—the simplicity of it.” Her brother and co-owner, Kevin Crouse, smiles and shrugs behind the counter. “I ended up meeting my wife here. Bought my first house. So…I’m home.”
The next day, you stumble onto other discoveries, other outposts of funk and deliciousness, without much trying. Just off Highway 30A, roughly thirty miles of shoreline road west of Panama City, lunch happens at the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, where the red-bulb-lit decor suggests a bordello having a garage sale. You order a bowl of smoked tuna dip that one fellow diner swears she dreams about. Then it’s on to gumbo and crabs at Nick’s Seafood in Freeport, where turkeys wobble across the grass on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and a stuffed boar’s head leers at customers from over the bar.
photo: Cedric Angeles
You’d like to dawdle longer—nestle into the sand, leave no byway unexplored and no shrimp unpeeled—but you press on, conceding a few precious hours for digestion. At dusk, you cross another bay into Mobile. Night falls, and at Wintzell’s Oyster House down on Dauphin Street, the beer is cold, the oysters are plump, loud conversation and laughter echo off the rafters, and all seems right with the world.
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