A Cook's Gulf Coast Road Food Quest With His Dog
I'm coming home. Snacks, my canine copilot, and I ventured to Florida, and the only thing between us and the finishing line is a stretch of hundreds of miles of uneaten food. My overarching belief regarding where to eat when traveling: Cooks always know the best places to eat. I put my feelers out to those along the coast and built my agenda.
Unfortunately, the first day can be surmised with a brief list of grievances: five hours of traffic outside Tallahassee with no cell phone service, fast food chains dominating the landscape. Resigning to my fate of hungry malaise for the night, I spend the remainder of the evening watching grainy infomercials at a motel on a tract of service road in Chipley, Fl. — a town that the concierge described as “a piece of sh#t sh#thole” where “the only liquor store is fifty miles in the opposite direction.” There's a Chinese buffet in the middle of the parking lot — closed.
Leaving the memories of Chipley behind, I trek onward. Before I left New Orleans, my friend Jen tipped me off to a bar in downtown Pensacola called Hopjacks. “Go snack on their fries," she'd said. "They're Belgian cut and fried in duck fat.”
I show up the next day at 11 a.m. as they are setting up the patio. As a rule, I wear my chef coat while on a quest for road food. It's a cheap tactic, but it invites conversation from the people I actually want to talk to.
I settle in at a sidewalk table, tie up Snacks, and make my pairing — Bell's Cherry Stout and an order of the Belgian-cut duck fat fries. I soon receive two pint glasses: one brimming with dark mahogany, the other filled with a large cone of butcher paper overflowing with Belgian fries coated in cracked black pepper and coarse sea salt, and served with tarragon aioli. The wobbly table and the structural integrity of the fry-pile led to few incidents of rogue fries capsizing into the adjacent glass of cherry stout. I have to confess, I may have forced the hands of fate a few times to make this happen.
I finish my snack and find the cook sitting at the bar, an older man named Ken. I trade him a drink for a few questions about Pensacola's food scene. Cooking for over thirty years, his scarred arms and blistered hands reiterate his culinary history. “I've seen this area live and die several times," he confides. "It's finally coming back and it's on the right track to being the best I've ever seen. You should come back in a year and check everything out again.” If my snack at Hopjacks was any indication, I am tickled to see what else Pensacola has to offer.