With great surfing conditions year-round and miles of white sand, New Smyrna Beach is a magnet for board riders and sun seekers. But the hip surf town on Florida’s northeastern coast also has a vibrant arts scene, deep historic roots, and a sophisticated approach to food and wine.
The sustainability ethos is strong in NSB — in addition to its Atlantic coastline, the town shares waterfront with the Indian River and Ponce de Leon inlet, a biosphere that supports thousands of species of birds, fish and mammals, including dolphins and manatees. Freshness and sustainability are also the buzzwords of the contemporary Florida food scene and with its easy access to coastal fisheries and inland farms, NSB is a great place for chefs –and diners – to be.
A walking food tour with Eat NSB is a smart way to get a feel for the local culinary scene. Founder Kelly Laub moved to NSB a few years ago and was amazed by the quality and variety of the town’s restaurants and culinary artisans. Eat NSB was founded out of a passion to share her enthusiasm for the chefs and entrepreneurs giving a new expression to American coastal cuisine.
In effect, NSB has two downtowns – the beachside community centred on Flagler Ave and the historic inland district along Canal Street. The restaurant scene in both zones is thriving – nearly every place I walked by was busy. And according to local tourism rep Courtnee Brokaw, there’s room for even more restaurant development in NSB since the retro charm of the once-sleepy seaside town has been discovered by travellers looking for something other than a typical Florida beach resort.
Surfing the current poke wave, local chef Henry Salgado opened Ricky’s Canteen in 2018. It’s a funky industrial space with low- and high-top tables and bold graphics on the walls. The menu features poke bowls and street food inspired by Salgado’s global travels. The 40 Miles Out poke bowl, featuring fat cubes of ahi tuna on top of edamame, cucumber, carrot and avocado, doused in a zesty sauce, was a winner. A Cuban Banh Mi Hanoi-meets-Havana mashup involving pressed ham, pate, pork belly, pickled vegetables, queso fresco and a miso remoulade was rich, oozy and delicious. These dishes, and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with honey, crushed peanuts and togarashi seasoning, demonstrated why Salgado is a two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist.
A completely different scene awaited at Riverpark Terrace Restaurant, housed in a renovated bungalow and garden whimsically decorated with strings of Edison bulbs, inlaid ceramic surfaces, and a corrugated fence punctured with hibiscus cutouts. The food samples — a ceviche shooter of local shrimp with a pineapple salsa spiked with fresh herbs and Florida citrus, and a taco filled with braised duck, blueberry sauce and a crisp slaw – offered a tantalizing taste of the seasonally driven menu.
One spoonful of the panang curry, redolent with coconut milk and fresh herbs, told me that our next stop, Thai Mango, was the real thing. The owner and all the chefs in the kitchen are native Thai. The food is authentic, albeit with an option to tone up (or down) the spiciness level. Fried rice with chicken and shrimp, eggs, vegetables and fresh pineapple was deliciously un-greasy. Pad-Kee-Mow — flat rice noodles stir fried with basil, chicken tomatoes, bell peppers and Thai chilies – delivered a ton of flavour along with a spicy kick.
The Galley is a tasting room for premium olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and a gourmet pantry stocked with kitchen accessories and gifts with a local theme. When it comes to olive oil, freshness is paramount and all the oils here are labelled with place of origin and date of harvest. I tasted some lovely oils, grassy and bitter with healthy polyphenols, and a specialty of the house – a brownie made with blood-orange infused olive oil, served a la mode.
We wound up at the popular CorkScrew Bar and Grill in time to catch the tail end of Happy Hour, with a full house of Friday-night revellers celebrating the start of the weekend with five-dollar margaritas.
The following day I headed for the beach — and after failing miserably to stand up on a surfboard, had my best meal in NSB.
Chef David Moscoso is leading the movement toward serving sustainable seafood in NSB. His Third Wave Cafe is a James Beard Smart Catch Leader, meaning its chefs are trained to serve seafood that’s been farmed or fished in environmentally responsible ways. And his ethos tastes great on the plate. Every dish I tried here was excellent — blistered shishito peppers with chorizo; Canaveral Coast shrimp cooked Spanish style with lots of garlic and olive oil, and fabulous bread to sop it up with. The catch of the day was sheepshead, a type of bream that likes to hang out around jetty pilings. It’s an ugly looking critter with an impressive set of dentures but its flesh is firm and sweet. Moscoso served it with a Tuscan lemon cream sauce and Bomba rice, with heirloom tomatoes, yellow bell peppers and spinach adding colour to the plate. If you’re in NSB, Third Wave Cafe is not to be missed.
The European history of New Smyrna Beach goes back to 1768 when the British attempted unsuccessfully to establish an indigo plantation on the marshy coast. A later attempt (by a pair of New York businessmen) to establish a sugar plantation and mill was thwarted after only five years when it was burned to the ground by a group of disgruntled Seminole Indians.
Paying homage to that legacy is Sugar Works Distillery, a high-tech garage operation by former software executive Thomas McPeek, his buddy Mike Gardner and beverage director/mixologist Ian Carey. The first legal distillery in New Smyrna Beach for 250 years, Sugar Works is producing handcrafted moonshine, bourbon and rums. The standout is a spiced rum – made using the historic method of roasting whole spices and grinding them before infusing and barrel aging. This classy tipple — super smooth, with intriguing flavours that invite the palate to try and tease out the nine-note recipe – was a fitting toast to a sweet seaside town that’s made the journey from mosquito-infested coast to modern-day dining mecca.