Dining Out: Here's Joanie's: Seafood at tiny restaurant packs big punch

Looking for a tasty meal in an unlikely place last Sunday, my nearest and dearest and I wound up at Joanie's Blue Crab Café.

Actually, we were on a short Sunday excursion to see alligators when a small voice piped up, "I'm hungry," followed by her older brother's "I've got to go." That sent us past our Big Cypress boardwalk destination in search of life's essentials.

"Let's go to Joanie's," said their mom, referring to the tiny restaurant, located a quarter-mile east of the Ochopee Post Office on U.S. 41 East, that we'd passed many times on trips to and from Miami.

Before going into mouth-watering details about the "just out of the water and into the skillet" sweet and succulent blue crabs and the fresh, almost-quivering fried grouper and catfish dinners, I must mention that I'd gladly go farther than the 19 miles past the State Road 92/U.S. 41 intersection to get food that good!

I was even willing to wait awhile for my crab dinner because Terri, who runs the place since her mother, Joanie, retired, told us the live crabs had just been delivered and needed to be cleaned.

"No problem," we said and proceeded to order a couple of starters from the day's specials printed on the blackboard.

JOANIE'S BLUE CRAB CAFE

39395 U.S. 41 E., Ochopee, 1/4 mile east of the post office

Phone: 695-2682

Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Most major credit cards accepted.

— Appetizers & side orders: $2 - $14.95

— Soups & salads: $3.95 - $10.95

— Sandwiches: $5.95 - $10.95

— Dinners: $9.95 - $14.95

— Desserts: $2.95

First, I mustn't forget to tell you about our perky and friendly waitress, Whitney, who brought us an ample serving of thick and piquant black bean soup, liberally seasoned with garlic, onion and fresh cilantro. It also can be ordered atop rice from the menu's appetizers/side orders section.

The regular menu also offers Indian flatbread and fresh peel-and-eat shrimp in half- and full-pound portions as well as several sandwich and dinner selections. Of note is the Everglades swamp dinner, an intriguing melange of gator nuggets, fritters, frog legs and Indian flatbread. All are also available as single dinners.

In addition to the usual soft drinks and beer, the menu boasts a homemade house Sangria available by the glass or carafe.

Oops! Did I mention that starting tonight, Jan. 14, Joanie's will be open until 9 p.m. each Friday and Saturday with live entertainment and music?

None too soon, Whitney brought us our fried catfish dinner, a large, thick and meaty fillet (also fresh like the crab from Terri's Everglades City supplier), which tasted sweet and pure with no swampy aftertaste — simply superb. I guess you know where I'm going for dinner next week.

Ditto for the impeccably fresh, large, open-face grouper fillet sandwich on a crusty sesame-seed bun with vibrantly red tomato slices and frilly green leaf lettuce on the side.

The side salad for our heavenly crab dinner consisted of the same verdantly delicate lettuce topped with grilled veggies and dressed simply with fragrant oil and tangy vinegar.

Ahh, the crab — six halves without a flaw, immaculately cleaned of their innards and packed with sweet and succulent lumps of pristine meat fit for the gods and properly served with a dainty wooden mallet to facilitate the extraction of claw meat from resistant shells.

This epicurean feast was accompanied by a mound of fluffy, golden rice pilaf flecked with minced, fresh garden herbs from Terri's garden out back and the aforementioned salad — 'nuff said.

Like everything else in this precious — and maybe last — vestige of Old Florida, the Key lime and peanut butter pies are homemade. We ordered a slice of each one with four forks. Each delicate and creamy morsel was sweeter than the memory of love's first kiss.

Jenine C. Ouillette is a retired features editor of the Key West Citizen and a former food writer and restaurant reviewer for other publications in the Keys and mainland Florida.

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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