Friday, August 5, 2011

Boats, Bikinis and Beer!

Down the Hatch
4884 Front St.
Ponce Inlet, FL

“No shoes, no shirt, no problem.”

It’s the classic laid back beach bar cliché.

But come on. How many places would you really roll up to in nothing but your board shorts?

Well, I’m here to tell you, feel free at Down the Hatch in Ponce Inlet, Florida.

From heavily tattooed long-hairs to blondes in bikini tops to boaters pulling right up to the dock, you’ll feel right at home at this quintessential Florida fish camp, no matter what you are wearing.

Unless you’re wearing a suit, that is. Fortunately, Suit757 left the suit at home on this hot sunny beach day.

Ponce Inlet, named after Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who first sailed into this notch on the east-central Florida coast 498 years ago, has been home to pirates, smugglers and rebels ever since. And hungry sun-lovers savvy enough to know that the best conch fritters, onion rings and fish sandwiches are always tucked away in the mangroves far from the tourist throngs.

For decades now, folks have driven to the end of the two lane blacktop, under the centuries-old canopy of live oaks and palmettos to enjoy the coldest beer and freshest seafood at Down the Hatch.

There are two types of people who move to Florida.

Those who sit inside in the air conditioning with the blinds drawn from Presidents’ Day to Halloween. And those who know that hot summer days in Florida are the reason God invented cold pitchers of beer and water-front sea breezes.

Guess which type is more fun to hang out with?

The outdoor deck at Down the Hatch was full of fun-loving folks wiling away this lazy summer afternoon, listening to the band and drinking beer and frozen margaritas while the shrimp boats motored by on the Intercoastal.

But what sets Down the Hatch apart from the scattering of other rustic fish camps dotting the Florida coast is the quality of the food.

My conch fritters were fried to perfection. Crisp on the outside, doughy soft on the inside with tender bits of conch, onion and pepper, they were made even better with a quick dip in the tangy accompanying remoulade sauce.

But if you are only going to experience a bare-foot laid-back Florida fish camp meal once in your life, make it a fish sandwich.

At Down the Hatch. You don’t even have to ask if it is fresh.

And that makes all the difference.

My blackened mahi sandwich came drizzled in butter and Old Bay, cooked to a perfect flakiness on a big squooshy fresh bun with lettuce and tomato. A little slather of tarter sauce on the toasted bun and I was in fish sandwich heaven.

As good as my classic Florida fish sandwich was, it couldn’t compare to the highlight of the meal.

No. Not the pitcher of Miller Lite.

Although, I like the way you think!

I’m talking onion rings of the Gods.

Of course, for nearly ten bucks, these rings BETTTER be spectacular.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Thick and juicy with an exquisite textured crunchy, seasoned batter and honey mustard dipping sauce, these onion rings belong in the fish camp side dish Hall of Fame.

But come on. Nearly ten big ones for a side item?

And that’s really the only knock on Down the Hatch. Everything on the menu, from the beer to the onion rings to the conch fritters to the sandwiches is at least a few dollars more than at any of the other gravel-parking-lot fish camps scattered up and down the two lane road into Ponce Inlet.

Of course the folks at Down the Hatch would argue that there is a very good reason for their fish camp premium. Down the Hatch is better than the competition.

And you know what?

As I catch the afternoon breeze off the Intercoastal, top off my plastic cup of ice cold beer and watch a boat full of bikini-clad happy customers clamor up the dock for a prime waterfront table, I can’t help but agree.

No shirt. No shoes. And definitely, no problem.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.

Down the Hatch Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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