Friday, April 8, 2011

Tarks of Dania Beach

One cannot claim to be a restaurant critic when he orders the same thing on every visit. I’m writing about this particular establishment because I passed it by for almost 30 years before stopping in. It’s now an annual eating spot.

Tarks of Dania Beach, Florida, established in 1966, is a five-minute drive south of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Travelers and locals driving on Federal Highway (U.S. 1) on their way to and from Fort Lauderdale or Jaxson’s famous ice cream parlor spot it on the east side of the road, a small, one-story building featuring paintings of palm trees, an oyster and a penguin. Despite traveling almost annually to south Florida since 1973, I didn’t stop in until five years ago, after I’d arrived a few days before Janet (my reward for opening the apartment, cleaning it up and buying the groceries). She has since resisted my requests to dine there, as its dive-like appearance and her avoidance of deep-fried foods dampened her interest.

A hole-in-the-wall, dive or whatever you want to call it, Tarks is as far from a white tablecloth establishment as it gets. The interior consists of a u-shaped counter and ledges at the windows, and it’s just clean enough to pass inspections. Well-worn stools are the only seating option.  Its small open kitchen puts everybody in direct contact. Rock music blares on the speakers, and ESPN is always on the one old analog TV. The fare is mostly fresh seafood – deep-fried, grilled and steamed – as well as buffalo wings. Bottled and draft beers ($1.50 during weekday happy hours) are the beverages of choice. Rolls of paper towels serve as napkins.

I opted for the fried clam bellies on my first visit. The menu indicated these were fresh, as opposed to the frozen clam strips. Curly fries seemed like a better option than the regular fries. The clams arrived hot from the fryer, which is visible behind the counter. The fries were dusted with seasoned salt. I simply say this: If I were on Death Row, I would order this for part of my last meal. They were so good I’ve never ordered another entrée there. And when they say fresh, they mean fresh. During one visit, the server asked if I’d mind a delay because they didn’t have any bellies ready. Of course not, I replied, to which one of the cooks shucked a dozen, then dredged and tossed them into the fryer. The wait, of course, was totally worthwhile.

The workers and patrons cover a wide spectrum of life. The main server calls me “Hon,” and the cooks always have quip or joke (usually NSFW). Diners tend to be a mix of residents and snowbirds, with a few tourists tossed in. Janet finally expressed an interest in eating there, and her first visit last month is a perfect example of Tarks’ dynamics. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we garnered the last two stools at the counter. A group of French-Canadians, a common sight in south Florida during the winter, were at our end, diligently poring over the menu for this first-time visit. While dining on clam bellies, New England clam chowder and conch salad, we struck up a conversation with the man on the next stool. Janet recognized his New York accent; sure enough, he’d dug clams in his youth on Long Island Sound.  Finding out we were from Chicago, he noted his college roommates were from the western suburbs. 

“Where did you go to college?” I asked. His reply: “Harvard.” As Janet noted, even men of Harvard love Tarks. Don’t pass it by. Maybe some day I’ll get to the oysters, shrimp, mahi-mahi and wings. Just don’t miss the clam bellies.

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