I came to O’Steen’s on an expedition to find St. Augustine’s best Minorcan chowder; and sure enough, this is where it is. Similar in appearance to Manhattan clam chowder, it radiates the fruity potency of the locally-grown datil pepper which, like its botanical cousin the habanero, delivers heat in a slow-rolling but inexorable wave of exhilaration.
The chowder punch turned out to be only a prelude to the main attraction here: fried shrimp. Florida’s north coast claims to be the birthplace of the shrimping industry; and while the shrimp around here aren’t the biggest, and their nature varies from season to season and depending on what exact variety you are eating, these are shrimp to remember. Available in orders of 9, 12, 18, or 24, they are each butterflied to resemble the lines inside the circle of a peace symbol. Sheathed in a crunchy veil, their pink flesh packs snap and nutty luxury.
The shrimp are served atop a pile of French fries and they are accompanied by a ramekin of the kitchen’s special pink sauce for dipping. To give the sauce an extra charge, O’Steen’s datil pepper sauce is set out on tables and at the counter in Grolsch beer bottles. While my waitress suggested I mix it with the pink sauce, I loved the unadulterated hot sauce so much that I poured a puddle of it on the plate and used it as a dip for everything I could find: the shrimp, of course, plus the French fries as well as hushpuppies, corn bread, and biscuits.
O’Steen’s is a small cafe with a sign on the wall that warns, “If you have reservations, you are in the wrong place.” It takes no credit cards, has no tablecloths, and serves no liquor. It is so immensely popular that there always is a wait, even at 11:30am and 5pm. An antiques mall on the other side of the parking lot invites O’Steen’s customers to shop until their place becomes available, a small sign outside its door promising, “Hear names on the speaker inside … Enjoy the shrimp.”
The northeast coast of Florida is one of the country’s great shrimping regions, and it’s said to be the birthplace of the commercial shrimping industry. The variety of shrimp pulled from the sea varies with the time of year, and we won’t pretend to understand all the differences between them. What we found during our March trip through the region were shrimp that were uniformly soft and dry, with fugitive flavor. Not among our favorites, though they are much loved by others. The best we found were served at O’Steen’s in St. Augustine.
A squat box of a building, O’Steen’s doesn’t appear promising at first glance, but there are a couple of clues that something special is going on inside. First of all, there’s the sign, a shrimp dressed in hat and cane. Anthropomorphized food outside a restaurant is reason to be hopeful for good food within. Secondly, virtually any time of day that O’Steen’s is open you’ll see people gathered outside, some sitting on benches, waiting for their turn at a table (leave your name at the window). What makes their wait worthwhile is the expertly fried O’Steen’s shrimp. The frying, and breading, is done with a lighter hand at O’Steen’s than at most other local eateries, resulting in shrimp that, while paler of crust, have better texture. They are served with that ubiquitous local dip that resembles Russian dressing made with Dat’l Do It hot sauce. These shrimp don’t need the sauce.
We also found our favorite version of the local red Minorcan clam chowder, along with some fine Southern-styled side dishes, including rice with a sweet and chunky tomato gravy and good hush pups. Lots of other good homestyle cooking is available besides the shrimp, and some say the fried chicken is a winner. All priced to attract a local clientele.