Every so often a visit to what seems like a very humble place can yield a life changing experience. In this case I am talking about fried shrimp. Admittedly I am not a huge fried food lover, because it’s usually soggy, greasy and has way to much breading.
The life changing part is the feeling you get when you leave a special place knowing you will be back, soon! Recently, while traveling on location for Harvest Eating TV I visited a small rather unimpressive little place called Osteens near downtown in St. Augustine Florida.
It was around 2:30 and we did not know if they would still be open for lunch. When we arrived we saw a long bench outside under the awning of the building which is a rather squatty one story building, looks more like an dry cleaner rather then a super popular restaurant. The bench was empty except for two folks, so we walked in and were seated immediately.
Within seconds a friendly young server was there taking our drink orders, one sweet tea, one half sweet half un-sweet with extra ice and lemons, the second was for me. The table was adorned with a large Grolsch beer bottle filled with the famous local pepper sauce made from Datil peppers. I sell Datil pepper seeds to folks all over who want to experience this magical pepper.
Of course we offered the hose specialty, Osteens fried shrimp with a couple of southern style sides like sliced tomatoes and pickled beets. The tomatoes were great (local and fresh) but the beets were pretty lame. I am used to home canned pickled red beets of superior quality from my German mother in laws recipe, so very few pickled beets impress me.
In what seemed like 2 minutes out came two plats of friend shrimp, 12 per plate. WOW..they looked amazing and totally different from what I expected. I’ve seen plenty of friend shrimp baskets in my day, and most are dry, greasy and and just plain boring. These shrimp were spectacular looking, almost white in color, no grease and were standing with their very red tails pointing up.
They were carefully butterflied too. I was told that you had to either dip them in the “shrimp sauce”, a Russian dressing looking concoction, or the Datil pepper sauce. I opted for the latter.
After pouring puddle of Datil pepper sauce on my plate I dug in; my taste buds were super happy at this point. the flavor, the texture, the ever so slight crunch was perfect. The Datil pepper so with it’s tongue tingling capsicum was the perfect foil to the shrimp. I was in heaven, culinary heaven of course!
Osteens uses a cracker meal for breading, as you know saltines are nearly white which explains the color of the shrimp. They are also fried in very clean, hot oil. they stay in the oil for 20 seconds total. This yields a slight crispness, moist juicy interior and plenty of “shrimpy” flavor. Northeast Florida is a shrimp fishery that is second to none. When on the beach you will always see shrimp boats moving along with their nets out dragging the sandy bottom for fresh white and brown shrimp depending on the season.
I have always loved restaurants that were so famous they become almost an local institution. This is how one could describe Osteens. Everybody knows they are famous for their fried shrimp. They do not pretend to be something they are not, and they are also content to continue doing something they have been doing for decades, making excellent fried shrimp. No need to add on to the building, no need to change the menu to include trendy fads or to please the new generation.
They are secure in the fact that everyday for both lunch and dinner, the place will be packed with hungry diners eager for plates of fried shrimp and they are served by friendly local wait staff that have been there for many years. This is what an institution is all about, serving simple food that is consitesntly excellent year after year. This is exactly the type of place I would love to own, not a fancy white table cloth place that was always trying to keep up with the trends.
I have made some fried shrimp at home recently that I mimicked Osteens, butterflied the same way, a duplicate Datil pepper sauce, cracker meal etc.. They were darn good…but only 85% as good as Osteens.
I will be back though, next week in fact. As I write this were two days from our annual summer vacation to Florida, albeit a much earlier trip. We usually visit the northeast Florida coast in late July or August but it’s only June 5th and we leave on the 8th. I’ve already told my wife we will be catching a late lunch or early dinner at Osteens during our vacation. She looked happy..but not overwhelmed like I am. I think this time I will get fifteen shrimp on my plate, and skip the beets!