By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
Minorcan clam chowder looks like Manhattan clam chowder, and a first taste reinforces the resemblance. But soon a glow starts at the back of the throat, and after a few mouthfuls the heat begins to build. Midway through a bowl, your tongue is on fire and your lips feel as if they might go numb. Chopped clams, shreds of tomato, bits of onion, and hunks of potato ride a slow-rolling capsicum wave that swells with sweet-tart citrus zestiness.
The heat and the pungency come from datil peppers, which, like their close botanical relative the habanero, seem to blossom in your mouth—a completely different sensation than that of fiery peppers like jalapeños or Thai hot peppers, which shock or stab.
There is no Minorcan chowder on the island of Minorca, 125 miles southeast of Barcelona, or anywhere else we know other than Florida’s northeast coast, where almost all of the world’s datil peppers are grown. The peppers arrived in the late 18th century, in the hands of Minorcans who came to work the indigo fields and finally settled in St. Augustine, and while you won’t find a restaurant there devoted exclusively to Minorcan cuisine, datil-pepper-charged food is served throughout the city.
Barnacle Bill’s Seafood House is known for lushly crusted fried shrimp, which can be ordered with powdered datil peppers added to the breading. The restaurant’s founder, Christopher Way, created the first successful line of commercial datil-pepper products—the Dat’l Do-It brand—in the 1980s, after he noticed customers were stealing the homemade sauce he put on tables. The restaurant also makes chicken wings plastered with a buttery barbecue sauce that smolders with datil power. When our waiter sees how much we are enjoying the chewy-skinned bows and drumettes, he reaches behind the ship’s-prow podium at the front of the restaurant to grab a fresh bottle of Devil Drops. “Now this is hah-OT,” he intones. Sure enough, a few datil droplets—in which the peppers are combined with lime and mango—feel hotter than Tabasco. And yet the effect is also, in a beguiling Caribbean way, both breezy and refreshing.
Chanel St. Clair, proprietor of Hot Stuff Mon, a small pepper-centric shop in the city’s historic downtown, notes that the datil’s most prolific use is not in restaurants but in homes, where it is customary to serve crackers spread with cream cheese and dolloped with locally made pepper jelly as an hors d’oeuvre, and where powdered datil pepper, marketed as Lust Dust, is many cooks’ secret spice. Among her shelves of sauces, rubs, and preserves are packets of seeds for people to grow their own. “It’s a backyard crop,” she says, pointing out that even the few commercial growers of datil peppers are small-scale and that producers of the city’s best hot sauces maintain private fields. “That can be a problem if you run out, because no one else will sell you theirs. The crops are small enough that everybody holds on to what they grow.”
“It is my savior,” offers a rotund, cologne-scented fellow—in beltless high-pocket slacks and a torso-hugging, no-iron short-sleeved shirt—sitting at the counter of Schooner’s Seafood House. We have come to sample Minorcan chowder, but the day’s special is the irresistible and undeniably regional specialty, chicken pilau. “This here pilau is good but needs a kick in the you-know-what,” he advises, throwing his tie back over one shoulder and pouring a thick coat of datil-pepper sauce on top of the old-time coastal casserole of chicken and rice.
“Excuse me,” says the waitress. “It’s perloo, not pilau!”
“Says who?” says he.
The waitress points both thumbs at her chest. “Cracker, here; born and bred. Do not question authority.”
The dish, which is usually spelled “pilau” but pronounced “per-loo” hereabouts, is a welcoming tableau for the fiery sauce, which transforms it from palliative comfort food into a meal so exhilarating that a cool piece of Key lime pie becomes a necessary conclusion.
The best Minorcan chowder in town is served at a restaurant known for fried shrimp. With about a dozen tables and a seven-stool counter, O’Steen’s Restaurant is a no-frills café: no credit cards, no tablecloths, no cocktails, wine, or beer. A sign on the wall reads: “If you have reservations, you are in the wrong place.” It is so popular that there is always a wait, even at 11:30 A.M. and 5 P.M. O’Steen’s chowder is robust, loaded with clams and radiating the datil’s fruity potency.
“Have you been here before?” the waitress asks as she sets down a plate of the restaurant’s famous shrimp. When we say no, she points out that the french fries are located underneath the shrimp and that the ramekin on the plate holds the kitchen’s special pink sauce for dipping. She then hoists a Grolsch beer bottle. “And this is the datil-pepper sauce we make. Don’t start with it alone. Mix it with the pink.” O’Steen’s datil sauce is hot and fragrant and, even when prudently blended with the pink sauce, engenders that distinctive back-of-the-throat roar that rumbles forward inexorably. The waitress suggests decorating the day’s vegetable, field peas, with a sprinkle of datil-pepper vinegar; it’s an ideal match for the fatback-flavored legumes. For everything else, O’Steen’s translucent-red datil sauce is essential. As we clear space on the plate, we pour out a big puddle of it for dipping shrimp, hush puppies, fries, corn bread, and biscuits.