A Fort Myers/Spring Training Food Blog

UPDATED 3/7/17

FORT MYERS, Fla. — You can blame Brad Schlossman, the award-winning beat writer who covers the University of North Dakota hockey team for the Grand Forks Herald, for this.

Schlossy is a devoted road-trip foodie, always seeking out good eats on Fighting Hawks away games. From Boston to Tampa to Anchorage, he knows the best places to eat on the beat.

So Brad will often blog about his meals and at the end of each hockey season, writes a blog listing the top places he dined that year. He introduced me to his love of food (and the guy weighs, like, a buck-and-a-half) in Philadelphia a few years back at the Frozen Four, when a few Herald guys and I made a postgame, early-morning trip to the Philly cheesesteak Mecca of Pat’s and Geno’s after UND lost to Minnesota on a last-second goal.

I’ve had the good fortune of many road trips and many good dining experiences in my sportswriting/radio/columnist career in Fargo-Moorhead. The success of the North Dakota State football team and UND hockey team helps, but I’ve also been very fortunate Forum Communications and KFGO radio have seen fit to send me on the road to provide coverage for whatever event was happening.

But I’ve never written about them because, well, I didn’t regularly travel as much as a beat writer like Brad and, frankly, I didn’t want to steal his idea.

Enough of that. I’m stealing.

I’ve traveled to Fort Myers and Naples along the southwest coast Florida many times for work and pleasure the last 15 years or so. Love it. My favorite warm place to visit in the U.S., although I’m not well-traveled enough to have a long list.

Problem is, I’ve always been too busy with work or other things to really try a lot of different restaurants. Believe it or not, covering spring training in a brief three- or -four-day window is actually a busy activity. When I was doing radio from 2-5 p.m. each afternoon I would get to the ballpark at 7 a.m. and not leave (except for a quick sandwich at Publix down the street from Hammond Stadium for lunch) until after 6 p.m. By the time I left the ballyard, I just wanted a couple of cold beers and something quick to eat.

This time, I’m on vacation. And so even though I’m spending a few hours at the ballpark for a couple of days, I have lots to time to relax. So my goal was to try a bunch of the restaurants other spring training regulars like LaVelle E. Neal III, Patrick Reusse and Dick Bremer have written about or suggested to me.

So I’ll get started on a rolling food/restaurant blog for the few days and add to it as I find the time. I’m only down here for a few days, so it won’t be extensive … but what the hell — I’m sitting in the pressbox at Hammond Stadium watching a Twins game and one way I relax is to write.

A couple of things: I’m not a big breakfast guy, so I won’t include any coffeehouses or cafes. I just don’t go to them down here. Lunch is more important than breakfast and dinner is the most important of all, so there’ll be more emphasis the later in the day we go.

HAMMOND STADIUM

Yes, the ballpark is a place to eat when you’re down here with all the selections of a modern big-league sports stadium. In some ways, the Twins and Lee County have turned Hammond Stadium into a mini-Target Field with an open, walkable concourse around the entire stadium and numerous patios, food stands and outdoor bars from which fans can enjoy the game. Mixed drinks, craft beers galore, food options. It’s all here.

Oh, and the prices are much like major-league venues, too.

I’m a hot dog and bratwurst guy at baseball stadiums. In fact, ballparks are almost the only place I eat hot dogs — and I almost ALWAYS get a dog when I go to a park.

So, of course, I went for a bratwurst this time.

It was terrific, of course. How do you screw up a ballpark brat? Well, actually, it can be done because I’ve experienced it. But this was a real bratwurst, grilled outside with a little bit of char on it. The Twins have the full complement of condiments from which to choose. Since putting ketchup on a brat should be illegal, I went with onion, sauerkraut and a splurb  of mustard. The perfect ballpark lunch. All for the low, low ballpark price of $6.75.

Hammond has the usual assortment of grilled, fried and “other” ballpark items. Burgers, chicken strips, nachos, popcorn. Everything. But as mentioned, it also has some of the more modern food, too.

For example, Philly cheesesteaks cooked fresh to order on an outside flat-top. I’ve had them here before and it was good. Not real Philadelphia good, but good enough.

To make fans feel like they are near the Gulf of Mexico, which they are, the Twins also offer a Florida shrimp boil. It’s also made to order as the customer waits and, even with a $14 pricetag, there were quite a few people getting it.

The barbecue option at the park comes from the Naughty Hogg stand. It’s what you’d expect with $$$ you’d expect. Didn’t see a lot of people going for this option.

Mostly, it seemed people were going for the usual hot dogs and beers. Which, when it’s 75 degrees and sunny in March and there’s a baseball game, is never a bad option.

That brings us to …

SKYLINE CHILI

This is fast food, but it has the advantage of being a fairly regionalized fast food. Skyline originated in Cincinnati and is still mostly located in Ohio and Kentucky. But there are three Florida locations, including one in Fort Myers and one in Naples. Why? Dunno. But take advantage if you get down here.

Skyline specializes in “Cincinnati-style chili,” which is tomato-based beef chili (sans beans) served over spaghetti noodles. Also, chili dogs.

I went to the Skyline located in Naples, a tiny store in a strip mall off the busy Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41). It was my first visit after wanting to make it to Skyline for years, but being unable to because they are early closers.

The basic Skyline meal is served “3-way,” “4-way” or 5-way.”

3-way is noodles, chili and cheese; 4-way is noodles, chili, cheese and raw onions or red beans; 5-way is the works — noodles, chili, cheese, onions and beans.

After asking the server what she suggested since it was my first visit, she said I had to go for the 5-way with a chili dog on the side. “The hot dogs are really small,” she said.

So I did. It was excellent. Served very quickly and casually, the 5-way was very tasty. So was the chili dog, also served with chili, onions and cheese. Yes, it’s odd eating chili over spaghetti noodles, but most people should not be offended. The chili was very mild, so I added a few dashes of red-hot sauce.

Skyline is also very affordable — I got the 5-way, chili dog and a fountain soda for about $14. You don’t leave Skyline hungry.

Next up is the …

SHRIMP SHACK

This a local joint recommended by some people my sister knows in Fort Myers. Not a chain, just a single location off the very busy Daniels Parkway on Metro Parkway. It’s just a couple of miles from the Twins stadium.

We waited about 50 minutes on a Friday night at 7 p.m., so it’s busy. That’s partially because it’s very casual and partially because it’s very reasonably priced, would be my guess after eating there. The menu is massive with all kinds of choices.

It was good, but not outstanding food. I ordered a dish called Neptune’s Delight, shrimp and scallops seasoned with Shack Seasoning and broiled on a bed of blue-crab meat stuffing.

Neptune’s Delight

The scallops were really good. Tender and very mild tasting, not overcooked and rubbery like at some chain seafood restaurants. The shrimp was so-so.

I dined with my sister and mom. My sister ordered the grilled shrimp skewers, while my mom ordered shrimp scampi. Both were good, but don’t knock your socks off.

The green beans served as a side dish were clearly out of a can, with some chopped onions added for flavor.

Shrimp scampi.
Shrimp skewers.

Two excellent things about the Shrimp Shack:

  1. Hush puppies served with every meal.
  2. Homemade cakes and pies by their in-house baker.

Each dish came with two hush puppies that were fresh out of the fryer. Crispy outside, moist inside. Good stuff.

But perhaps the highlight was the dessert tray. Homemade cakes and pies that were just outstanding, made from scratch. I ordered a slice of key lime pie, which was perhaps the best I’ve ever had. My mom ordered a slice of orange cream cake while my sister got a slice of butter pecan cake.

I’d go back to the Shrimp Shack because it’s more affordable than other seafood restaurants located closer to the Gulf of Mexico, there are so many menu choices — and those desserts. Mostly because of the desserts.

That brings us to the next seafood place in line …

COCONUT JACK’S

This is a waterfront place located about a 25-minute drive south from Fort Myers in Bonita Springs. It took us 25 minutes because traffic was pretty light. If U.S. Highway 41 or any of the other roads leading out of Fort Myers are crowded, it’ll take longer. Here’s the web site if you’re looking for directions.

Parking is somewhat of an adventure, too, because the restaurant is tucked between the water and the very busy Bonita Beach Road. It’s all valet parking and the guys running around the little parking lot moving around cars and returning cars to diners who are finished do a great job. Tip them well when you leave.

This was the best meal I’ve had thus far in southwest Florida and the atmosphere was great. We were on a deck next to the water, although it was cold enough that see-through plastic drapes were pulled down.

We started with an appetizer of coconut shrimp, which was served on a plate with raspberry Melba and mango Coulis. I don’t know what, exactly, those words mean, either, but I know they were tasty sauces in which to dip the shrimp. The shrimp were cooked to perfection, so soft and mild. Again, no overcooked rubbery stuff. I actually preferred to flavor my shrimp with the restaurant’s special Mango Bango sauce that came in bottles on the tables. It was a mildly spicy Mango pepper sauce.

Here’s the shrimp. Please, please, please don’t be turned off by the photos. It was dark in the restaurant and I had to use a flash. The food all looked wonderful and these pictures don’t do the food credit.

Coconut shrimp.

Coconut Jack’s was a little more expensive than most other meals I’ve eaten down here, but it was through-the-roof good. My entree, one of the specials of the night, was $29.95 … that’s a little higher than I normally spend on a meal because … well … because I’m cheap and don’t have a lot of money. But it was worth it.

The special was seasoned red snapper with a reduced balsamic sauce and tomato relish, served on a bed of rice. I’d never had anything like that before and it was excellent. The vegetables were clearly fresh and they were cooked just enough so they were beginning to get soft, but still had some crispness. No mushiness in the veggies. That’s good.

Red snapper with reduced balsamic sauce and tomato relish.

My sister and mom split a dish my sister had ordered a couple of times before at Coconut Jack’s — a grouper fillet stuffed with crab and lobster meat and covered with Asiago cheese and Panko bread crumbs before being broiled. It was finished with a mango buerre blanc sauce and server over Creole rice.

This was a whoa dish. Grouper was done perfectly and the stuffing was out of this world. If I was to go back to Coconut Jack’s, which I hope to someday, I would order this … even though my red snapper was great.

Portion of Coconut Jack’s menu.

This place also had an excellent selection of cakes and pies for dessert. But you have to go with the Key lime pie, which is well-known and well-deserved for being well-known. It’s served with a raspberry drizzle and a little dollop of whipped cream.

Again, this photo doesn’t do it justice.

 

Key lime pie.

Let’s get a little fancier by going to …

CAPTIVA HOUSE

Way out on Captiva Island, after driving over the beautiful causeway from the mainland of Fort Myers and across Sanibel Island, there lies the high-end Captiva House. It is about as far out on this little spit of sand and scrub as you can get.

The winding drive through the island is wonderful — and eye-opening because of all the massive, multimillion dollar homes/”cottages” — and it is worth it. While the rest of Captiva and Sanibel have the Caribbean, island vibe going on, Captiva House is a white tablecloth and piano experience with excellent food and wine.

It’s spendy, but what the hey. My sister picked up the tab.

Captiva House

One of the impressive features of this place was the huge outdoor, covered patio … but it was too chilly on this night to sit outside so we had to sit inside.

Sort-of odd feature of this restaurant: It was the only place at which I ate that brought out a basket of rolls prior to the meal. That’s sort of a standard at restaurants in the Upper Midwest, but not Florida apparently.

I ordered the citrus seafood risotto, a light stew with a dollop of creamy risotto in the middle of the bowl. The stew had chorizo, clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp in a salty, fish-stock broth. The chorizo gave it  a smoky tinge. Excellent, but I’m partial to brothy fish stews and soups.

Citrus seafood risotto

My sister got the eggplant caprese: grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella, julienned vegetables and angel hair pasta with a marinara sauce. I tried a bit. It was terrific.

Eggplant caprese

Captiva House had an extensive wine list and the server was helpful in selecting a glass. But, again, a glass of wine was spendy.

The least expensive entree was $23 and the most expensive was $39 and there was a limited selection. No burgers and beers here. It was all fine food — rack of lamb, steak, duck, spaghetti alle vongole, lobster spaghetti. But if you’re looking for something special in a very nice atmosphere, this would be one choice.

It’s a lengthy (an hour or so) drive from Fort Myers proper, the distance being less the culprit than traffic and the two-lane, slow, curving roads of Sanibel and Captiva. There is a $6 toll to leave Fort Myers and go on the island causeway. The drive over the causeway bridge and onto the islands is worth it, especially at sunset.

And now for something completely different …

FANCY’S SOUTHERN CAFE

Along the very busy and frustrating Daniels Parkway not far from the Twins’ stadium is Fancy’s Southern Cafe. It’s tucked on the back side of a strip mall, but don’t let its modest outward appearance fool you. It’s really good — and different for Fort Myers because it’s not seafood, or beach, or sports bar based.

Fancy’s Southern Cafe

Recommended to me by longtime Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Patrick Reusse, Fancy’s is good old-fashioned Southern comfort food. These are not light meals. There is fried chicken, chicken and waffles, country-fried steak, liver and onions — and this is the lunch menu. You get the idea.

There’s a pretty cool appetizer selection, too, that includes hot boiled peanuts, fried okra and frog legs. Those are things you don’t see at your usual breezy, tropical seafood restaurant.

I went to Fancy’s for lunch and started with the deviled eggs for an appetizer, just to get things off to a light, low-calorie start. Or not. The eggs were terrific, served on a plate with a drizzle of sriracha and seasoned with a dash of smoked paprika. These aren’t your grandma’s Thanksgiving Day deviled egg. The sriracha had some serious kick.

Deviled eggs at Fancy’s

After asking the server whether I should stick with the fried chicken, which is identified on the menu as the house specialty, she steered me instead toward the chicken and waffles. “That’s what everybody gets,” she said.

So, after never having chicken and waffles in the previous 50 years of my life, I had chicken and waffles for the second time in two months. The first time was at Amy Ruth’s in Harlem during a trip to New York City.

That was good, but this was better. It came with two waffles with a fried, boneless chicken breast stuffed in between and topped with what I think was fried julienned carrots. All that was covered with buttermilk syrup. The waffles were perfect and the chicken and syrup mix provided a good contrast of hot and salty with warm and sweet.

Chicken and waffles at Fancy’s

It’s definitely not something everybody would like, but the individual parts are good enough that when mixed together into one oddball meal (at least for a northerner to whom chicken and waffles was a mystery until 60 days ago) it is pretty good.

Here is perhaps the most amazing thing of the meal: I ordered sweet tea, the Southern staple. I hate sweet tea. Despise it because it is way TOO sweet to the point of being almost disgusting to my taste buds. But, when in Rome …

Another good thing about Fancy’s is that it’s very affordable. Other than the filet mignon (who orders that for lunch?) most of the entrees and sandwiches on the lunch menu were around $10.

Now, how about a taste of Minnesota in Florida at the …

 

STILLWATER GRILLE

 If you go to a Twins game, check the back of your parking ticket. On it, you will find a coupon for the Stillwater Grille on McGregor Blvd. You will also hear ads for the Stillwater during the game.

That’s because the restaurant is owned by Jeff and Julie Meyer, Minnesota transplants who bought the Stillwater Grille four years ago and are more than happy to cater to other people from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. They are longtime newspaper owners in Minnesota, including the Pelican Rapids Press.

Jeff and Julie Meyer own the Pelican Rapids, Minn., newspaper and the Stillwater Grille in Fort Myers.

The Stillwater Grille is next door to a staple of the Fort Myers seafood dining experience, the Prawnbroker. Word is, the Prawnbroker caters to a much older clientele, one that’s been coming to the Fort for years (or decades.). The Stillwater Grille has a selection of 48 beers on tap (many, many craft beers) and holds fun events like trivia nights on Mondays to draw in a younger customer base.

I visited on a Monday afternoon, so it was pretty slow – before the Twins postgame rush and trivia night crowd showed up. The Grille is on a busy intersection of Cypress Lakes Drive and McGregor. It’s a nice place, big with a nice bar inside and a huge outdoor patio covered by palm trees. Very cozy.

Since I had plans to eat at Skip One Seafoods later, and my main goal of stopping at the Stillwater was to visit Jeff and Julie, I only ordered a beer and an appetizer. The dinner menu, though, was huge – steaks, chicken, fish, salads, sandwiches, wraps, appetizers. Pretty much everything you’d want and, frankly, much more Upper Midwest than many restaurants in Fort Myers/Naples. You feel like you could be in Fargo or St. Cloud or Duluth or Maple Grove – but it’s 80 degrees and sunny outside in March.

The owners said the Minnesota walleye they have shipped in fresh is their most popular entrée. It comes either pan-seared or deep fried. Burgers and wraps are also popular. Prices are very Upper Midwest, too.

I ordered the spicy crab rolls, the app item Jerry said was most popular. It was a very good – fresh, crispy, not oily. The spicy mayo drizzled on top was excellent.

Spicy crab rolls at the Stillwater Grille.

The Stillwater Grille had a very nice, friendly atmosphere and good food. And if you like craft beers, literally by the dozen, this is the place to go. Jeff and Julie said their restaurant is a popular destination for Twins fans after home games in Fort Myers and the discount coupon on the back of the parking ticket means a lot of Minnesota sports fans make their way to the Stillwater.

Which brings us to the final restaurant at which I ate on my trip to Fort Myers this year …

SKIP ONE SEAFOODS

If you want a taste of what I imagine “old Florida” to have been like – before the big-money, gated housing developments and fancy golf course after fancy golf course, Skip One Seafoods just off U.S. Highway 41 south of Fort Myers is the place to go.

It’s housed in an old, unimpressive building with very little parking. There is a tiny lobby and so people waiting for a table are standing around outside or sitting on a couple of benches. Inside, it’s crowded, loud, old-school and decidedly not modern. Tables are crammed here and there. Up front is an old display case like in a classic butcher shop, with all kinds of fresh seafood on ice. In other words, it’s awesome.

I showed up around 6 p.m. by myself and was told the wait was going to be about an hour, so I decided to do take-out. I ordered the Skip combo platter with a grouper filet, shrimp and scallops. It came with two sides and I chose French fries and cole slaw. You can have the combo either grilled, fried or blackened – no mixing and matching – and since I planned on sharing with my mom and sister I got it grilled.

The photo, as usual, doesn’t do the food justice, particularly since it was take-home in a Styrofoam container with the fries tossed in with the seafood. But it was very, very good. The scallops were fresh and properly cooked, not tough or rubbery. The grouper was tender and mild, just fantastic. And the shrimp was tasty and properly cooked, too, tender and delicious.

The place just had a real nice, laid-back vibe. It was very, very, very casual and prices were affordable. In other words, the perfect little dive (and I mean that as a compliment) to go and experience some really good food in an atmosphere of old Florida. The menu had all kinds of varieties of fish. This is somewhere that I’ll return when I have more time and a better plan so I can sit in the restaurant and enjoy some different things on the menu. As it was, the take-home was good enough.

TWO RESTAURANTS I DIDN’T GET TO THAT WERE ON MY LIST:

NINO’S IN FORT MYERS

MICHELBOB’S IN NAPLES

NEXT TIME …..