For a good portion of my life trips to the Gulf Coast were dreaded. Any time I would think about it thoughts of ultra touristy areas filled with high-rise condos, go-kart and mini golf, and worst of all the horrible chain seafood restaurants.
Why anyone would go down to a beautiful area of the world and only eat Joe’s Crab Shack and Fudpuckers still blows my mind.
Occasionally we would hear find a small restaurant by recommendation of a local and get a minor reprieve from all the bland food offerings. But those always seemed few and far between, so for yeas I refused to go to the Gulf Coast area. Until this year when two separate trips brought me to the Destin area.
It was on the first of these that we discovered a seemingly hidden oasis of good food and culture in series of towns mostly known by the road that connects them which is 30-A.
30-A really is the Gulf’s best secret. For the rare visitor like myself you hardly hear about it, but for frequent Gulf goers it is well known. Post a picture from 30-A and you quickly get messages back from dozens of people who love the area.
And mostly they love the food.
While I have not got to explore nearly as much as I want in the two trips down, here are some of my favorites to check out:
This is a nice casual – upscale restaurant located in Sea Grove . Perfect for a date night out. The menu has the expected seafood dishes, but also unexpectedly amazing looking wood fire pizzas. We went with an oven roasted snapper, and a wood grilled grouper. Both were very fresh and flavorful. The restaurant brings in locally caught fish daily, and you can taste the difference. A side of truffle mac and cheese was a great selection. Out of the stops we made here Cafe Thirty A was easily the best all around.
Bud and Alley have carved out a strong offering in Seaside with a restaurant, rooftop bar, taco bar, and pizza joint. We decided to hit up the restaurant after the rooftop bar was packed and got lucky with a quiet table outside. Like most places in this area, they source local seafood heavily. No way to beat the taste of a shrimp that was swimming around the gulf a few hours ago.
We started off with a crab claw appetizer that was fantastic. Full of flavor and slightly crushed so it was easy to get the meat. I am a sucker for a good crab cake, so when the server came saying crab cakes where their specialty I went right in. It however was the biggest disappointment of the night. Came across as mostly filler. I believe they shred their crab meat finely, but it came across like eating a crab flavored mayo sandwich. My wife however went with a head on shrimp dish that was one of the best shrimp dishes I have encountered.
Let me get this out of the way, I love food trucks. So when we drove up and saw a line of 6-7 Airstreams serving food in Seaside I knew this was the place for me.
We started off at a grilled cheese spot called Melt Down on 30-A. We went with a classic grilled cheese (for the short one) and a brown bag ham and gouda. Both were great, grilled with thick toast so you get a solid crisp on the outside while still soft and chewy on the inside. The cheese on both melted down perfect to where it was melted but not running out the sides. The ham and gouda had a good flavor with the ham. Overall a great grilled cheese.
Another food truck, this one serving up asian style street food. Song is a relatively new truck, just opening in June. Seems like they are doing well for themselves so far. Here we went with a noodle bowl, using udon noodles, and gulf shrimp. Very solid dish, noodles were chilled before being prepared giving them an authentic texture. Shrimp, like most in the area, was fresh and tasty. While waiting we saw a number of other good looking dishes come out like a curry bowl and some Korean bbq tacos that I really want to get back and try.
Bonus – Sexton’s Seafood Market
Not really a restaurant, and not on 30-A, but if you are in the area check out Sexton’s in Destin. I like to cook with local foods when I get a chance while traveling. Sextons is awesome. Fresh fish brought in by local fishers every morning (seriously, get up there about 6 or 7 a.m. and you will see boats lined up dropping off fish). Good variety of fish and shrimp. We have bought shrimp and grouper a couple of times and it is excellent. If you have never cooked with fresh fish and shrimp before give it a try next time you are down in this area.