By Laine Doss
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"The One and Only! Nothing But the Best for Less." What restaurant reviewer specializing in cheap eats could resist such a come-on? Especially when it's plastered beneath the place's name -- Conch Town USA -- even more of an enticement, because good conch is harder to find than a good man.
The old cliché is often turned around, into the ribald "A hard man is good to find." The same cannot be said about conch, unless your idea of good food includes car tires. Like calamari, quality conch is tender yet charmingly chewy, and getting it that way involves precise cooking time: quick-frying and long-stewing both do the tenderness trick; anything in between produces rubber. Unlike squid, conch is so naturally hard that, before cooking, it must also be physically and precisely tenderized (usually with a meat mallet); it takes experience to pound conch into submission rather than into hamburger.
After roughly 40 years in business, Conch Town USA certainly has that experience. And according to our server -- a jill-of-all-trades who, after taking orders, disappears into a back room to cook and plate them -- the place also has a machine to tenderize the conch. Because this contraption is in the kitchen, the nature of this tool is a mystery. But based on two orders of cracked conch consumed on recent visits, a magic wand would be a good guess.
3637 NW 17th Ave.
Miami, FL 33142
Region: Central Dade
Admittedly the conch on the first visit, when the one-woman show was juggling several customers, was just a tad tough owing to slight overcooking. Still, it was far better than average, being neither the overpounded mush that makes many folks mistakenly think conch is bland, nor the pencil-eraser texture that makes people hate the stuff outright. On a second visit, the lightly battered, deep-fried strips were absolutely perfect in terms of balancing tenderness and toothiness.
To precede the cracked conch, there are starter-size portions of three other conch preparations: stewed (which we didn't try), fritters, and salad. Fritters were both disappointing and odd -- heavy, egg-sodden slices rather than classic balls. Though vaguely conch-flavored, the fritters contained no pieces of mollusk meat whatsoever. The salad was also atypical, lime-"cooked" conch chunks in a roughly equal amount of tart tomato broth. Still, despite being more a cold soup than the usual saladlike mix of diced conch, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, it was remarkably refreshing.
For those uncharmed by conch, there are a few other seafood selections (including shrimp, deep-fried as precisely as the conch, in the same lovely light batter), plus more meaty, Caribbean-accented soul food selections -- curry goat, oxtail, et cetera. There are also a few unremarkable desserts, such as peach cobbler (featuring canned peaches) and lemon cake (more like lemon extract cake). But Conch Town's nicely priced ($9.25 to $12.75) dinners contain so much food it'd be hard to find room for dessert anyway. All entrées come with three sides, including what could be the universe's most admirably crisp coleslaw and, for sweet teeth, rich candied yams.
It must be noted that Conch Town is not a date-night kinda place. Located in an iffy neighborhood, the tiny eatery is take-out only, unless you want to scarf standing up at the seatless counter. But for cracked-conch fans, the barred black metal door (screened for security, not for atmosphere, and darkly formidable enough to make the restaurant look closed even when it's open) might as well be the Pearly Gates.