I found myself in Pensacola, FL over the weekend to attend a friend’s destination wedding — not exactly the idyllic BlinkPacking experience… but I digress. I scoured the interweb machines for a great deal on a room to no avail: rock-bottom pricing for a flea-infested box at the Econo Lodge came to $108 with tax. Thank you, no.
You could imagine my exuberance at finding an AirBnB guest house about a mile from the aforementioned flea bag. For $60 a night (plus a negligible booking fee — hey, the site has to make money somehow) I landed a spotless room with private bathroom in a designer home with its own private section of bay-front beach. The friendly owners set out bagels and coffee in the morning, which I savored perched on the whitewashed deck overlooking the water. Divine. And they invited me to use the house’s common spaces for relaxing and its gourmet kitchen for cooking, if I so desired. They even cleared out a shelf in the fridge for my use.
The instant I detect the smallest inkling of salt in the air is the moment I begin craving heaping plates of steamed, garlicky seafood. So thanks to AirBnB and my gracious hosts, when it came time to indulge, I thought I would further trim the alread-svelte weekend budget and whip up a homemade dinner.
“Oh, Joe Patti’s, no question,” my eager host answered my query without hesitation. “It is not the closest, but it is the best.”
I am used to seafood markets looking like, well, markets. You know the ones: quaint shacks with a few white refrigerated tubs filled with the morning’s catch and a handful of shelves scantily stocked with essentials like Tabasco and Old Bay Seasoning. And don’t forget the obligatory unenthused teen in the white apron behind the register gazing longingly at their friends whizzing down the street in topless Jeep Wranglers.
When I arrived in the lot of Joe Patti’s, I felt instead like I had arrived at an amalgamation that was one part cargo boatyard and one part salted Walmart. I entered through the double glass doors and gazed bewildered at what I instantly realized was the seafood mecca of the Florida panhandle. Saws buzzed away at fish heads, patron numbers blurted from tinny loudspeakers every few seconds, and throngs of people holding white, iced sacks of lobsters, flounders, and prawns maneuvered their way through the mayhem toward the registers.
“Take a number,” groused a man in his seventies with a mesh cap and tobacco-stained plaid shirt, seated on an unpainted wooden stool, his gnarled index finger pointed in the general direction of a wall-mounted red dispenser. Two thoughts simultaneously entered my mind: “I wonder if this is Joe Patti in the flesh?” and “Sure am glad this crusty character won’t be man-handling my soon-to-be supper.”
The workers moved swiftly, and before long my number belched over the loudspeaker. A youngish lady with auburn hair stood on her tiptoes and looked around. I waved my hand.
“How about grouper?” was her response to my ambling of, “I have no idea what I want… can you recommend something locally caught?”
Sold. I clutched my iced, white baggie and meandered toward the registers, making a couple of stops along the way to sample house-made crab dip atop baguette wedges and Joe’s famous garlic spread aboard plain potato chips. I forewent purchasing the extra treats, instead tucking only a humble baguette into my basket for mopping up the juices soon to be left on my plate.
So thank you, Joe Patti’s, for the grandest, most succulent hunk of fish I have ever packed into my gills. Thank you, kind Pensacola locals, for the grand stay in your elegant home, the fish market recommendation, and the use of your kitchen. And thank you, AirBnB, for bringing a unique, affordable, and fun concept to the travel market that scratches me right where I itch.
And finally, I leave you with my simple recipe that works as well with most types of fish as it will with Grouper:
Simple Pan-fried Grouper