The 101 best dishes in SWFL … per Jean Le Boeuf

Published by Karen Schaeffer on

It seemed like a simple question: What’s the best thing I’ve eaten in Southwest Florida?

101 answers later… not so simple.

This list is based as much on deliciousness as it is on how recently I’ve been to any given restaurant. That means it leans more to Lee County than Collier, because that’s where I eat most of my meals.

I didn’t include drinks on the list — it’s crazy enough as it is. And I couldn’t include things I’ve never eaten, no matter how amazing they might be.

That said, I eat like it’s my job (which it is), and I racked my brain to try and make sure no obvious dishes were left behind. But I’m sure some were, so feel free to add your own Best Dishes in the comments.

Here goes…

SWFL 101

• The Alton Brown Ate Here grilled cheese — 11:Eleven Cafe, south Fort Myers: Avocado, four kinds of cheese, bread with a buttery crunch. It’s certainly Good Eats.

• Arancini  Sicily Trattoria, Cape Coral: Mimi Tumminello makes her arancini just as she did back in Sicily, meaning they’re crunchy, creamy and wholly addicting.

• Avocado cheesecake — Fuse Global Cuisine, Naples: Born from the genius mind of Chef Greg Scarlatos, this dessert blends the subtly savory fruit into a cheesecake of tremendous depth.

• Bistro Burger  Fat Katz Sports Bistro, south Fort Myers: Slow-braised short ribs on a hand-ground, hand-pattied burger and a house-baked brioche bun. Yes.

• Brisket — Reuben’s Smokehouse, south Fort Myers: When you put a classically trained chef in charge of a BBQ joint, deliciously beefy things happen.

• Bucatini cacio e pepe  Osteria Tulia, Naples: Fresh pasta, simple ingredients and a deft touch make this Roman classic sing.

• Buffalo wings  Buffalo Chips, Bonita Springs: Thick, meaty wings slathered in butter and hot sauce. It’s exactly how wings are done in Buffalo, and at Buffalo Chips.

• Bulgogi  Koreana, south Fort Myers: Pronounced bull-go-gee, the word translates to delectably marinated beef grilled over the open flames of your own personal tableside Korean barbecue. Or thereabouts.

• Caesar salad  The Veranda, Fort Myers: Still prepared tableside, the deliciously old-fashioned way.

• Cajun tuna sashimi — Origami, south Fort Myers: It starts with precise knife skills that make each wisp of tuna seem to melt in your mouth. Then there’s the pop of seasoning, the crunch of sprouts, and the heat of fresh jalapeno that helps it end with a kick.

• Carrot cake — Rene’s, south Fort Myers: I can’t explain why these towering squares are so good. Oh, wait, yes I can: Cream-cheese frosting, homemade, and lots of it.

• Cassoulet au confit de canard  Bleu Rendez Vous French Bistro, Sanibel: French comfort food at its soul-filling finest.

• Ceviche  El Gaucho Inca, Fort Myers: The national dish of Peru has a bracing, refreshing tang thanks to the expert hands of chef-owner Mariano Maldonado.

• Chicken biryani  Passage to India, Naples: This Bangladesh-born chef is a master of flavors, weaving intricate subtleties into all he touches.

• Clam cakes  Cape Cod Seafood Co., south Fort Myers: A half-dozen clam cakes and a cup of the Rhode Island chowder are my heaven.

• The Clam Bake — The Clam Bake, south Fort Myers and Sanibel: Seafood steamed over a bed of North Atlantic seaweed, just as God and New Englanders intended.

• Coconut cream pie  Hickory Bar-B-Q: Piled high with meringue and flecks of sweet coconut, this pie tastes like 60-plus years of history.

• Coconut noodle soup  Thai Star, south Fort Myers: The owners hail from Laos, as does this wonderful soup made of bone broth steeped with coconut milk then heaped with tangles of rice noodles.

• Corned beef hash  The Go-Go Diner, North Fort Myers: What happens when you put a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef in charge of a diner? A hash of epic proportions.

• The Coyote Chop — Blue Coyote Supper Club, Sanibel: Thick, juicy and almost-always perfect, this Kurobata chop is a carnivore’s delight.

• Cuban sandwich  Casa Rojas Cuban Bakery, Cape Coral: They bake the bread. They roast the pork. They layer the meats and pickles on just so. They have my utmost respect.

• Deviled eggs  Cork Soakers, Cape Coral: I once ordered 20 of them. In one meal. And it wasn’t enough.

• Dry aged rib eye  Chops City Grill, Bonita and Naples: There’s a few reasons this restaurant has been around for close to 20 years. But this is the most delicious one.

• Escargot Adobo  A Table Apart, Bonita Springs: What happens when a Filipino-Hawaiian chef and his French wife start a restaurant? Beautiful, delicious things like this.

• Etouffee  A Cajun Bowl, Cape Coral: It’s not about the crawfish or the deeply savory, roux-thickened gravy. It’s about Louisiana and family and soul.

• Everglades Pizza  Evan’s Neighborhood Pizza, Fort Myers: Gator sausage, wild hog, hearts of palm, frog legs and, yep, python meat. It’s an exotically different kind of amazing.

• Falafel  Kabab Village, Fort Myers: Order these crisp discs with Kabab’s saffron-scented rice pilaf. You can thank me later.

• Filet Mignon Wellington  Ariani Ristorante Italiano, Cape Coral: I almost went with Chef Dario Zuljani’s pate. But then I remembered this masterpiece, which swayed me in an equally rich direction.

• Fish Stew  Sweet Melissa’s Cafe, Sanibel: If Chef Melissa Talmage was a rock star, her Fish Stew would be her “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a classic everyone loves, and no one (save for her) tires of.

• Fish tacos  Rinconcito Catracho Latin Grill, south Fort Myers: If you listen closely you can hear them chopping the slaw for these beauties, which are as fresh as they are delectable.

• Flan  Fernandez The Bull, Naples: You may think you’ve had flan. Then you have it at Fernandez, and realize your whole life has been a lie.

• Florida Wild Hog  The Lodge, downtown Fort Myers: Solving the state’s feral hog problem, one plate of Three Suns Ranch barbecue at a time.

• Foie Gras Brioche  The Office, Cape Coral: Less than 2 months old, this dish is already making a name for itself among local food lovers. The perfect foie, the eggy brioche, it’s all the best flavors of France — in Cape Coral.

• Fried chicken  The Pecking Order, Sanibel: Juicy. Crunchy. Perfect. And I won’t even get started on the sides.

• Garlic crabs  Deep Down South BBQ, Fort Myers: If there’s a simpler, more delicious way of eating local blue crabs, I’ve yet to find it.

• Gelato  Cesibon, Naples: I tried to pick just one of the shop’s hand-made flavors. I failed.

• Ginger soup buns  Ginger Bistro, Fort Myers: These dumplings were my favorite dish of 2015 for a reason – they’re exotic, inexpensive and amazing.

• Grouper sandwich  Rumrunners, Cape Coral: So crunchy. So flaky. So ridiculously fresh. So not so-so. Which is good.

• Guava pasteles  Azucar Restaurant & Bakery, Cape Coral: Guava jam, cheese and flaky dough are standard for this Cuban pastry, but something about the magic of Azucar makes them taste like so much more.

• Gyro  Nelly’s Taste of Greece, Cape Coral: Fresh is a word Nelly knows well. She’s not much for speed. But fresh (yogurt-based tzatziki, warmed pita, chargrilled meat) is her jam.

• The HighBurger — BurgerQue: Simple, hand-pattied, the way fast-food burgers used to be and, here at least, once again are.

• Himalayan caramel doughnut  Peace Love & Little Donuts, Naples: So many delicious doughnuts to be had here. But this (relatively) newbie gets me every time.

• Hogfish sandwich  Dixie Fish Co., Fort Myers Beach: My absolute favorite fish, treated simply and with care. Bonus points for the water views.

• Hot Honey Pizza  Nice Guys Pizza, Cape Coral: Made with wisps of prosciutto and chili-infused honey, by some of the nicest guys in town.

• Hush puppies  Olde Fish House Marina, Matlacha: Roughly the size of small baseballs, these perfect rounds of dough are part guilty pleasure, part pure magic.

• Ice cream sandwich  Caruso’s Eats & Treats, south Fort Myers: Hand-made cookies surround a scoop of Love Boat ice cream, for one of the best sandwiches in town.

• Italian beef  The Beef Guy, Cape Coral: This Guy roasts his beef from scratch and pickles his own giardiniera. I like this Guy. A lot.

• Key lime pie  Keylime Bistro, Captiva: This two-layer pie starts with a rich base draped in an ethereal topping that hints of cream cheese and vanilla. A thin graham-cracker crust holds everything together.

• Kung Pao Avocado  The Local, Naples: Creamy bites of avocado rolled in panko and fried. And vegans everywhere rejoiced.

• Liege wafel  Tuckaway Bagel & Wafel Café, Fort Myers Beach: Chewy and thick with a luscious crunch. The best this side of Belgium. Period.

• Loaded Yucca  7th Avenue Social, Naples: Yucca fried till starchy and crisp. Short-rib chili. Queso sauce. Poblano crema. That’s my kind of loaded.

• Lobster roll  Doug’s Seafood, Bonita Springs: Crafted by a Maine lobsterman who pronounced lobster, “lawbstah,” so you know it’s got to be good.

• Maple bacon doughnut  Bennett’s Fresh Roast, Fort Myers and Sanibel: “It’s too much!” they say. “But the cholesterol!” they say. I just say, “Mmmm.”

• Matzo ball soup  Larry’s Lunchbox, Naples and Fort Myers: Schmaltz, matzo meal and good broth. Sometimes that’s all you need.

• Miso broiled sea bass  USS Nemo, Naples: How do you pack this much richness into a fillet? I don’t know. But USS Nemo does.

• No. 1 Special Banh Mi  Saigon Sandwiches, Fort Myers: Those seeking a real-deal banh mi (pate, cilantro, pickled vegetables, Vietnamese ham) needn’t look any further.

• Nori roll salad  Chef Brooke’s Natural Café: Never has eating healthy tasted so filling-ly good.

• Olive oil cake  Caffe Toscano, south Fort Myers: This insanely moist treat isn’t always on Caffe Toscano’s menu. But when it is… order a few.

• Orange Crunch Cake  The Bubble Room, Captiva: I can’t think of any other cake that causes an annual stampede. Nor can I think of any other one worth the hour-long drive from town.

• Osso bucco  Sasse’s, Fort Myers: Sasse’s starts with giant veal shanks, slow braising them to fall-apart deliciousness then serving them over the best saffron-infused risotto in town.

• Oyster po’ boy  Smokin’ Oyster Brewery: So many oysters. Just one po’ boy. And one thoroughly happy critic.

• Oysters  The Timbers, Sanibel: These guys are so oyster obsessed they’ve written poems about them. More importantly, they fly in the freshest from all over the U.S. (that kind of rhymes, right?)

• Oysters sashimi  Fresh Catch Bistro, Fort Myers Beach: Briny oysters meet perfect cubes of tuna and pearls of caviar in this beautifully oceanic dish.

• Pad see ew  Siam Hut, Cape Coral: There’s so much to love at this 32-year-old gem. But these wide noodles are a great place to start.

• Pad Thai  Phensri Thai, North Fort Myers: I crave this once a week (OK maybe once a day). And every time I go back I remember why.

• Pad Thai burger  Nosh Truck: Chef Scott Sopher is a mad genius. And this burger, topped in sprouts and peanuts and Sriracha, is your proof.

• Paella a la Valenciana  Gloria’s La Trattoria Café Napoli, south Fort Myers: At a place where everything’s good, this is good and a classic.

• Paletas  Zaragoza’s Ice Cream Shop, Bonita Springs: These fresh-made ice pops come in a rainbow of flavors (mango, guava, strawberry, lime). Picking is hard. Eating isn’t.

• Pancakes  Crave, south Fort Myers: Huge and buttery, the exterior has a slight crunch to balance the softly fluffy interior. Pancake perfection.

• Parisian burger  Mad Fresh Bistro, south Fort Myers: Watching this burger being made (the brie melting over the caramelized onions just so) is a thing of beauty. Eating it is something more entirely.

• Pasta fagiole  Leone’s, Cape Coral: Mama Leone works soup miracles each Thursday. Call ahead so you don’t miss out.

• Pastrami sandwich  Pastrami Dan’s, Naples: Wavy layers of pastrami, good bread and 40 years of history make this classic one of the best around.

• Pepperoni rolls — McGregor Pizza, Fort Myers: Garlicky knots filled with cheese, sauce, pepperoni. You can’t eat just one. Or just six.

• Philly cheese steak  Philly Junction, Fort Myers: Sandwiches made the way owner Lou Fine grew up making them back in Philly.

• Pho  Saigon Paris Bistro, south Fort Myers: Put a serious, French-trained Vietnamese chef in charge of the soup, and delicious things happen.

• Pine Island crab bisque  The Bay House, North Naples: Everything Chef Andy Hunter touches is delicious. This soup, made with lumps of local blue crab, is just an excellent starting point.

• Pistachio lamb meatballs  Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro, Naples: If you love a meatball, these marvels will take your relationship to another level.

• Pit beef sandwich  The Brisket Brothers BBQ SmokeHouse, south Fort Myers: Bread piled with slices of pit-roasted beef and horseradish, just as it is in Baltimore.

• Pizza slice  Downtown House of Pizza: Keeping drunken bar-goers well fed (and in some cases alive) since 2005, with the best slices in town.

• Polpette di manzo  DeRomo’s, Bonita Springs: I always dreamed of having an Italian mamma who’d make meatballs each Sunday. At DeRomo’s I don’t have to dream. Or wait for Sunday.

• Pork plate  John’s Good Food, east Fort Myers: This Eastern Carolina-style pork is smoked and chopped and tossed in pepper vinegar, the way John Anderson’s mama taught him.

• Porterhouse for two  Manhattan Steakhouse, Bonita Springs: Those seeking a NYC-style steakhouse, one with massive steaks that cut like butter, should head to Bonita.

• Pressed Angus Cheeseburger  Nevermind, Cape Coral: I always want everything on Nevermind’s menu. I always at least start with this.

• Pumpernickel bagel — Fresh Bagels & More, south Fort Myers: These are the closest things to NYC bagels I’ve found in Fort Myers; small and glossy with a tender chew that tastes of the Big Apple.

• Pupu platter — China Star, Lehigh: This classic Chinese-American dish gets the Star treatment (fat wings, hand-made egg rolls, beefy ribs) at this 40-year-old Lehigh classic.

• Pupusas  El Acajutla, Fort Myers: Google pupusas. Then go here for the best in town.

• Ravioli of the day  Cibo, south Fort Myers: Whether stuffed with balsamic-glazed barbecue or butternut squash, these ravioli are pockets of happiness.

• Raw bar menu  Sea Salt, Naples: Seriously, whatever’s on it will be delicious and absurdly fresh. Or splurge for the $95 Grand Platter and get it all.

• Reuben  Paradise Deli, Cape Coral: A simple sandwich, made by talented hands, never tastes simple. And this one is no exception.

• Sanibel Krunch ice cream  Pinocchio’s, Sanibel: Made in house using toasted coconut and chocolate-covered nuts, this ice cream has been cooling island palates for decades.

• Schnitzel  Austrian-German Restaurant, Fort Myers: Pounded thin and fried to a lush crunch, just like your Oma would.

• Scones  Wisteria Tea Room, Fort Myers: Buttery, flaky, sweet or savory, best with the house-made Devonshire cream.

• Smoked fish dip  Blue Dog Bar & Grill, Matlacha: The flaky dip is made with mullet or wahoo, or whatever the fishermen at the bar happen to have caught that day.

• The Special — Heavenly Biscuit, Fort Myers Beach: I can’t go to the beach without going to Heavenly Biscuit. With biscuits this good, it’s physically impossible.

• Spicy Lobster Spring Roll  Fish Tale Grill, Cape Coral: Big hunks of lobster meat wrapped in wonton skins and deep fried, until you cry tears of happiness.

• Stuffed artichoke bottoms  The Other Side Bistro, Bonita Springs: Chef Brian McCarley knows his way around vegetables. Think of these as Bagel Bites, for the 13-and-older set.

• Sweet potato pie  Farmers Market Restaurant, Fort Myers: Miss Libby (or Mama as most know her) still makes this 64-year-old restaurant’s sweet-potato pies. They taste of time and tradition and experience. They taste delicious.

• Tacos al pastor  Tortilleria La Rancherita, Bonita Springs: The tortillas are springy and house-made, the meat is tender and laced in pineapple. The mouth is full and happy.

• Toasted ravioli  Citrola’s, south Fort Myers: A little bit crunchy, a little bit chewy, a whole lotta cheesy and delicious.

• Truffles  Norman Love Confections, Fort Myers: He is the master. His chocolates are divine. Nothing more need be said.

• Veal agnolotti  Angelina’s Ristorante, Bonita Springs: These beautiful little envelopes are crafted from soft sheets of hand-rolled pasta stuffed with house-braised veal. They taste even better than they sound.

Jean Le Boeuf is the pseudonym used by a local food lover who dines at restaurants anonymously and without warning, with meals paid for by The News-Press. Follow the critic at or @JeanLeBoeuf on Twitter and Instagram.


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