If you’ve read my novel, you may have figured out that it’s set in a thinly-disguised version of the Tampa Bay area, where I lived for about 22 years. During that time I came to know it well. Like the rest of Florida, it’s a strange place, by turns beautiful and maddening and surprising and occasionally actively hostile. But after all that time, and for a variety of reasons, Florida had begun to wear on me. When I packed up and lit out for the west coast seven years ago, I thought I’d never miss anything about the place once it was out of my rear view mirror.
Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out, Florida does have a few things that I can’t find or replicate easily here in San Francisco:
Yes, there are sandwiches here in San Francisco. I’ve eaten many of them. There are, however, two kinds of sandwiches Florida excelled at but California basically ignores: the Cuban, and the fried grouper sandwich.
It took me a while to warm up to the idea of the Cuban sandwich, mostly because the junior high and high schools I attended all served a weak-ass knockoff of a Cuban sandwich in their cafeterias: an unpressed, not-even-warmed hoagie roll bisected by a micrometer-thin layer of ham, mayo, mustard and pickle. There might have been a sliver of salami in there too, but I wouldn’t swear to it. These things were dry and chewy and hopelessly bland, and having moved from Michigan in the 7th grade, I assumed this is what Cubanos were supposed to taste like. So I ignored them.
Of course, once I had a proper Cuban sandwich, there was no going back. Crap on Tampa all you want (and I do, often), but they do know how to do up a Cubano there. And they are everywhere, on both sides of the bay. It was almost impossible to go wrong when ordering a Cuban sandwich, and when that did happen, it was usually because the restaurant was owned by a transplanted New Yorker (or some shlub from Orlando, where they don’t know any better) who’d never actually had one.
However, after an extensive search, I can say I have—finally—found a handful of restaurants whose Cuban sandwich game is strong. One is Cha Cha Cha, in the Upper Haight; another is Caña in Oakland, east of Lake Merritt, though theirs is slightly less authentic. There is also another place in the Mission that I have to check out again—I tried that Cubano right before going to see Flipper at the Elbo Room, where I had a decent amount to drink, but that’s another story.
What I can’t find at all, though, is a fried grouper sandwich. It’s apparently just not a thing out here. In a place with so many other incredible seafood options, you might think I could just move on to something else. If so, I can only conclude that you have never had a proper fried grouper sandwich.
I will say, however, that living in San Francisco taught me why people care about burritos. Never understood the appeal before I moved out here, but I get it now. Like they say, life is full of little trade-offs.
2. Beaches where I can swim
I’ve never really been a beach person. Sand annoys me, for one thing, and my Scotch-Polish heritage means I’m not big on sunbathing either. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two valid reasons to go to the beach at all: to play volleyball, or to swim. (Unless you have kids, in which case “letting the little buggers run wild outdoors for a couple of hours while you sit under an umbrella and try desperately to claw back some quiet time for yourself” also counts.) But sometimes, when the weather was good and my mood was just so and I had a day off that most other people didn’t have, I would sometimes take advantage of my proximity to the coastline and actually visit Fort DeSoto or St. Pete Beach, or even head all the way down to Siesta Key for an afternoon of flopping about in warm salt water until my eyes burned.
But as the great American poet Tom Kiefer once observed so prophetically, you often don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. Beach swimming is all but impossible in California, which you’d never know based on the fact that the Beach Boys never mentioned having to put on rubber wetsuits—the Pacific Ocean is cold—before hopping on a surfboard, but nevertheless, it is so. I cannot go swimming at the beach here, and as a result, swimming at the beach sounds like the most enticing thing ever.
A few years back, I visited a lovely beach in Italy and went for a short swim. It was … fine. And I know perfectly well that if I were to move back to St. Petersburg tomorrow, I’d probably stop caring about the damn beach before I even got clear of baggage claim. It’s just how I am. Still, I miss it now, and that’s the point.
Florida summers are brutal. The one-two punch of high heat and oppressive humidity makes going outside for more than a few minutes at a time exceedingly uncomfortable, unless you like the sensation of having been basted in a thin slick coating of your own perspiration at all times. (Speaking for myself, I’m not a fan.) The sun is relentless, bright enough some days to give you a headache from just looking out the window. You will often find your steering wheel is too hot to touch without gloves.
But on the other hand, there are thunderstorms.
If you’ve never experienced a Florida thunderstorm, I can tell you they’re not like thunderstorms elsewhere. Florida storms are violent. They roll up quickly, turning the sky from bright blue to deep charcoal grey in minutes. Then, after some far-off rumbling, the rain starts suddenly, raking across the landscape in waves and sheets, sometimes coming down hard enough to feel like little stones bouncing off your skin. The accompanying thunder can be loud enough to rattle your windows.
That lasts for about twenty or thirty minutes. Then, as suddenly as it began, it stops. The clouds clear, and for a little while it feels fresh and nearly tolerable outside, until the sun starts to heat up the streets and sidewalks and parking lots again and all that rain starts to evaporate.
When I was at home during a thunderstorm, I always liked to turn everything off and go sit in the Florida room, which was once an open front porch that a previous owner had windowed in. I would listen to the rain beat out a tattoo on the roof and watch the runoff sweep through the gutters in the street, carrying clumps of pine needles and palmetto leaves and cigarette butts along in its current.
We almost never get thunderstorms in San Francisco, maybe once a year or so. And when we do, they’re never like that. Outside the city, they carry with them the very real danger of igniting another wildfire, especially in the dry and windy summertime.
Is it weird that I’ve added a grocery store chain to this list? If you’re from Florida yourself, you will know that it is not weird at all. When my family first moved to Florida, my mom shopped at the Winn-Dixie, because there was one directly across the street from our dumpy apartment complex, and because it was a lot cheaper than Publix, which is an important consideration when you have two kids about to start their teen years. Like every Winn-Dixie I’ve been in since, the floors were the kind of dirty that just never comes clean, no matter how many times you mop them. Just being inside that store made me feel grubby. Publix is the anti-Winn-Dixie in basically all respects: unfailingly clean, well-lit stores; lush produce right at its peak; their legendary deli offerings of pub subs and fresh fried chicken. In fact, Publix might be the best thing about the whole dang state.
The best we can do here is Safeway. It’s fine, most of the time. But like Jules said in Pulp Fiction, it’s just not the same …
Thanks for reading.