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Florida’s Gulf Coast, or where the oysters are

Boss Oyster in Apalachicola overlooks the river; Mike Rowan, below left, and Brian Headley shuck oysters at the 41-year-old Hunt’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant in Panama City. Boss Oyster in Apalachicola overlooks the river; Mike Rowan, below left, and Brian Headley shuck oysters at the 41-year-old Hunt’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant in Panama City. (Photos By Necee Regis for The Boston Globe)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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APALACHICOLA — The Gulf Coast of Florida is renowned for its tasty bivalves and succulent crustaceans. After years of procrastination, I recently packed my van and set off in search of small shanties and independently-owned restaurants serving fresh, affordable seafood and shucked-to-order oysters.

My oyster-eating, fried-shrimp-sampling, grouper-gobbling, and gumbo-tasting tour stretched from Apalachicola to Perdido. Road trip stats: one week, 175 miles, 15 establishments. Consumed: 117 oysters — raw, baked, and char-broiled — plus fish tacos, shrimp poboys, grilled grouper, shrimp, and five varieties of gumbo.

One unexpected treat about oysters on the half shell in the panhandle: Order six and you often get seven. Order a dozen and there might be 13 or more on your tray. This was explained to me as Southern hospitality. Another tradition, eating them on saltines, was harder for me to swallow. However you like your oysters, here’s a guide for your own road trip.

Boss Oysters Apalachicola is celebrated for its oysters, which are generally plumper and saltier than most Gulf oysters. At Boss Oysters, overlooking the Apalachicola River, each table is equipped with a roll of paper towels, plastic squirt bottles filled with cocktail sauce, ketchup, and tartar sauce, and four varieties of hot sauce. Raw oysters are served on a bed of ice, and can be dressed with toppings such as citrus and ginger salsa or seaweed and wasabi fish roe. There are a dozen baked oyster choices, as well as chowder, gumbo, oyster stew, peel-and-eat shrimp, and fish served grilled, broiled, or fried. Sweet corn fritters are crispy bites of goodness. 123 Water St., 850-653-9364, www.apalachicolariverinn.com/boss.html)

Dusty’s Oyster Bar “Hi, my name is Trouble,’’ said the woman sitting next to me at Dusty’s in Panama City, the place where everyone in this beachside community gathers. It’s the kind of sand-in-your-shoes place where graffiti-covered dollar bills are taped to the ceiling and walls, TVs are tuned to sports, and the oysters, shrimp, and seafood can be baked, fried, grilled, broiled, or boiled. If you like your oysters raw, they can shuck them fast. Behind the bar on any given day is one of the three top-ranked Florida state shuckers as well as the 2010 national oyster-shucking champ, Mike Martin. “It’s a little Southern honkey-tonk,’’ said the congenial hostess Carolee Harper. 16450 Front Beach Road, 850-233-0035

Hunt’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant “Shut up and shuck,’’ reads the sign in Hunt’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant. This 41-year old, family-owned establishment specializes in wild caught Apalachicola oysters that are trucked in daily in 60-pound sacks. Sit at a table or the bar and eat them raw, steamed, or baked. There’s also Cajun steamed shrimp, fried shrimp, fresh seafood sandwiches or dinners, and sides of fries, beans, fried okra, and hush puppies. Located in a bright yellow building in the historic district of Panama City, Hunt’s has a national reputation and local devotees. “Most people have been coming here since they were kids,’’ said Robert Daffin, Florida’s current oyster shucking champion. “Ninety-percent of our customers come in with their kids and their grandparents. They’ll wait two hours to get in here.’’ 150 Beck Ave., 850-763-9645, www.huntsoysterbar.com

Hurricane Oyster Bar and Grill It’s worth the detour off the main drag, Route 98, to find Hurricane Oyster Bar in Grayton Beach. No ordinary oyster bar, Hurricane steps things up a notch with chef-inspired offerings such as tangy and slightly spicy fish tacos served with homemade garlic red pepper sauce and tangy pico de gallo. Other menu offerings include grilled lobster tacos, grilled crab claws, crab cake poboys, coconut shrimp, peel-and-eat shrimp, pan-seared fresh fish, gumbo, salads, sandwiches, and, oh yes, oysters. Wash it all down with one of 13 beers on tap, or choose from an extensive wine list. 37 Logan Lane, 850-231-0787

Acme Oyster House Acme has five locations, but don’t call it a chain. Founded in 1910, it specializes in traditional New Orleans food such as seafood gumbo, jambalaya, oyster Rockefeller soup, grilled marinated shrimp, and fried oyster, catfish, shrimp, and crawfish tail poboys. This is the only location outside of Louisiana, and it isn’t easy to find. The Village of Baytowne Wharf is a gated community; you must stop for a visitors pass. Don’t let this deter you from tasting the best buttery and garlicky oysters charbroiled on an open flame — topped with Romano cheese — outside of NoLa. 140 Fisherman’s Cove, Sandestin, 850-622-0200, www.acmeoyster.com

High Tide Restaurant and Oyster Bar Thirty years is a long time in the restaurant biz, so you know they’re doing something right at High Tide Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Fort Walton Beach. A roadside lounge with an old-fashioned ambience, High Tide is renowned for its shucked-to-order oysters. “In the summer, we go through 175 to 200 boxes a day,’’ said manager-bartender-shucker Graham Skrivanie. “People are offended if we run out, as if we didn’t serve anything else!’’ But they do: gumbo, chowder, fried or char-grilled fish, soft shell crabs, farm-raised catfish, scallops, and all manner of shrimp. The grilled grouper sandwich is so good that it reportedly has a fan club. 1203 Miracle Strip Parkway, 850-244-2624

The Boathouse The Boathouse calls itself “Destin’s Best Kept Secret.’’ This tiny establishment is packed to its dollar-bill-covered rafters most nights of the week with crowds flocking there for live music, pitchers of beer, frozen drinks, award-winning crab and shrimp gumbo, and Apalachicola oysters shucked to order. The menu also offers crab claws, all manner of shrimp, crab cakes, fried oysters, and grilled mahi-mahi or yellow fin tuna steaks served with corn on the cob, coleslaw, and hushpuppies. It’s quieter in the afternoon. 288-B Harbor Blvd., 850-837-3645, www.boathouseoysterbar.com

Marina Oyster Barn A no-frills restaurant with a dozen tables and booths overlooking Pensacola’s Bayou Texar, the Marina opened in 1968 as a boathouse and bait shop. The following year the Rooks family began serving raw oysters, boiled shrimp, gumbo, chowder, and fried mullet. The menu has expanded to include catfish, grouper, flounder, scallops, and shrimp, available fried, broiled, or grilled. For baked oysters, try the sampler platter: Oysters Rockefeller, Texar Crabsters, Texar Shrimpsters, and Supreme Steamed with blended gooey cheeses. If you like them raw, local East Bay oysters are big, plump, and slightly salty. “Our East Bay local oysters, in my mind, are the best,’’ said the young man shucking my order. 505 Bayou Blvd., 850-433-0511, www.marinaoysterbarn.com

Brian’s PoBoys The island of Perdido Key offers plenty of places to enjoy the seafood that defines the region. For a sublime shrimp po’boy served with creamy tartar sauce on crunchy bread, drive beneath the Theo Barrs Bridge, on the mainland side of the span leading to the island, and look for Brian’s next to Nix Brothers Seafood. A glorified roadside stand with picnic tables, this Pensacola establishment is open for lunch every day except Sunday. Brian’s serves other types of po’boys, such as fish, oyster, chicken, and sausage, plus seafood dinners with fries and homemade slaw. Top it off with a slice of key lime pie (the only dessert on the menu) and sweet tea. 13470 Perdido Key Drive, 850-492-1234

Flora-Bama Lounge Flora-Bama on Perdido Key is a classic roadhouse bar, complete with live music on three stages, and an oyster bar that serves them raw or Cajun-steamed, as well as peel-and-eat shrimp, and all things fried, including pickles. The slightly spicy gumbo, thick with okra and tomatoes, is laced with tiny shrimp. Located on the beach, a spit away from the Alabama border, it’s where beach bums and bankers mingle. Save yourself a Northerner’s embarrassment and pronounce it like the locals: Flora-Bama rhymes with the neighboring state, and not our president. 17401 Perdido Key Drive, 850-492-3048, www.florabama.com

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.