SMART MOUTH

Oysters on the Menu, Gators Out Back

Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak, a proud slice of Cracker life.
Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak, a proud slice of Cracker life. (By Susan Harb)

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

In towns across central Florida, the Main Street dry goods store now houses an antiques mall, the old Spanish-style church is an art gallery, the train depot a museum. It's the same story in many small communities as authenticity is replaced by upscale charm.

But not so for a handful of fish camp restaurants hidden away down two-lane country roads, past cow pastures and orange groves, well off the average tourist's GPS.

Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak, at the end of a dirt road 12 miles northeast of Lake Wales, is such a place. On a recent road trip with my nephew, after asking directions at three gas stations and calling the restaurant twice, we pulled into the sand parking lot. The low, modest restaurant is wooden and surrounded by aging trailers and campers and moss-draped trees, creating a dense woods even though more than 500 trees were lost in the hurricanes of 2004.

You can spit off the deck and hit Lake Pierce, a 4,000-acre swimming hole for bass, catfish, crappie and alligators. Bald eagles soar above the water and nest in the tall pines.

The place drips with backwater charm. The barmaid wore a cowboy hat and had little platinum pigtails sticking out from under the brim, a starburst tattoo on her collarbone where a necklace pendant would hang, tight cutoff jean skirt, black cowboy boots, tattooed legs and a lacy blue garter belt above her left knee.

It was Halloween night, but Lisa was not in costume. She just has a great sense of style. In fact, all of Cherry Pocket looks exactly like a 40-year-old Old Florida fish camp should look -- rough, weathered and proudly Cracker, which is not a racial term in the South, merely an appellation of pride in all things true, like mom, old-style country music and catfish.

Hundreds of dollar bills -- signed by patrons -- encircle the bar like a fringe banner. "Honey," a friendly fellow told me (using the same term of endearment as Lisa did when she took our order) as he made his way outside for a smoke, "you and me could buy a boat and retire to the gulf with all that money."

Old license plates ring the dining room. The oyster-shucking station is tucked in a corner. The floor is concrete. Illuminated beer signs add appropriate ambiance.

On the outside deck, above the water's edge, a wooden cabin cruiser sits marooned, its cabin a well-stocked second bar for weekend crowds and outdoor pickin' by the locals.

Stuffed trophy fish, naughty T-shirts, a photo from a local boy serving in Iraq, men at the bar in camouflage caps, friendly banter between patrons and staff, fresh shucked oysters, local catfish, country music and femme fatale Lisa all come together in rustic harmony. Karaoke performers take to the floor on Friday and Saturday nights.

"You can't believe it. Some are so good they could be on the Opry," Lisa said.

The menu is largely fried or blackened, and gator nuggets and blackened grouper are house specialties. Both went down easily with a long-neck brew. Fresh crisp coleslaw on the fish taco, made with fried basa, a white fish, gave the soft wrapped tortilla appetizer a nice crunch. The oysters, from Apalachicola, of course, were plump and well chilled. The owner, Elsie Eten, makes all the desserts personally and slices them in wedges big enough for a lumberjack's eye and appetite. Favorites are carrot cake, peanut butter pie and chocolate torte.

We couldn't pass 'em up. Dueling forks dived into the nearly five-inch-high carrot cake with a towering crown of cream-cheese icing, delivering an explosion of nutty spiciness in every shovelful.

Too stuffed for the chocolate torte, it was enjoyed at breakfast the next day. Under a bright moon reflecting off the calm water, we ended the night on the deck, listening to frogs and hoping to hear the amorous snort of a gator courtin' in the peppergrass.

-- Susan Harb

The restaurant at Cherry Pocket (3100 Canal Rd., Lake Wales, 863-439-2031, http://www.cherrypocket.com) is open daily at 11 a.m., dinner served nightly starting at 4 p.m. Grouper dinner, $14.99; grouper sandwich, $7.99; gator nuggets, $8.99; bucket of oysters, $18.99, desserts, $3.99-$4.99. Cabin rentals ($59.95 a night, two-night minimum) are available.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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