America's Oldest City Has a Pepper You Can Only Really Taste Here

Outside of St. Augustine, Florida, the humble datil pepper is unknown, but Minorcans like Mike O’Steen know it is the secret to delicious seafood stews, pilaus, cocktails, desserts, and more.

<p>Courtesy of FloridasHistoricCoast.com</p>

Courtesy of FloridasHistoricCoast.com

St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, known for cobblestone streets and historic forts, has a secret history celebrated in farmers markets, restaurants, and bars. The datil pepper — part of the Capsicum chinense family and on the same Scoville scale with the habanero at 100,000-300,000 heat units — only grows well in this area and has been cultivated by Minorcan farmers since they came over as indentured servants in 1768.

Mike O’Steen, known locally as Minorcan Mike, found his family's handwritten datil sauce recipe 30 years ago in the back of one of his grandfather’s cookbooks, St. Augustine Cookery, published by Flagler Hospital Auxillary in 1965. He grew up watching his grandfather plant and harvest datil peppers and has developed that recipe into something found in stores, farmers markets, and restaurants around St. Augustine.

“Datils can grow in other places, but they only flourish here. They love the unique combination of humidity and salt air in St. Augustine," O’Steen said. "People come here and buy plants or seeds, but they never do very well outside a 50-mile radius.”

Related: Meet Smokin’ Ed Currie: The South Carolina Pepper Farmer who Created the 2 Hottest Peppers on Earth

Only found in this part of the world, the mystery of the datil pepper’s origin remains unsolved. Local Minorcan lore holds that ancestors made the trip from Menorca, Spain, with seeds sewn into their clothing. Some say the datil descended from a West African pepper family brought over on slave ships. Still others claim they came via the Caribbean islands like Cuba and Jamaica where the climate was favorable for Capsicum chinense.

Daniel Cantliffe, professor of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, studied the datil pepper in relation to other pepper families in an attempt to settle the debate — he found “...St. Johns County is the only place on the planet this plant, the Datil, has come from. We have looked around the planet; we can’t find it anywhere else … You have a unique plant material that is only coming from here.”

With a fiery flavor tempered with sweet notes that are easily manipulated, here are Minorcan Mike’s and my favorite places to sample datil peppers around St. Augustine.

The Floridian

<p>Courtesy of St. Augustine Ponte Vedra / Florida's Historic Coast</p>

Courtesy of St. Augustine Ponte Vedra / Florida's Historic Coast

At The Floridian, a Historic Downtown restaurant, sip a datil-infused cocktail, the St. John’s Son, a refreshing, slightly spicy version of a Whiskey Sour. They infuse local St. Augustine Distillery bourbon with datil peppers to bring the heat and layer it with muddled peach and rosemary, basil-infused velvet Falernum, Black Strap Bitters, and more. The food menu features many datil options — there’s the Fancy Shrimp fried with light rice flour and served over a datil jam, datil-dusted tuna bowls, tender meatloaf crusted with housemade datil ketchup, and my favorite: a traditional Minorcan pilau served in a cast iron skillet with sticky datil sauce drizzled on top. The pilau is a mainstay of Minorcan households like Mike’s, serving as a one-pot, budget-stretching dish incorporating fresh seafood (or chicken or pork) and homegrown datil peppers.

Black Fly

They love Minorcan Mike’s Datil products so much at Black Fly they have their own merchandise nook where guests can purchase all the sauces, dust, salsas, and more. At the table, choose from plate after plate utilizing datil peppers from Mayport Shrimp with datil remoulade to a pizza that tastes like a love child of the barbecue chicken pizza and sweet spicy datil sauce. Then there is the Minorcan seafood chowder laced with datils and a Caribbean bangers and mash featuring sausage made onsite with datil peppers. Located just over the Bridge of Lions on Anastasia Island, it is a worthy junket from Historic Downtown.

Bog Brewery

<p>Courtesy of The Bog Brewery & Taproom</p>

Courtesy of The Bog Brewery & Taproom

Historic West King Street has seen lots of hip restaurants, bars, and boutiques popping up and Bog Brewery is a must-stop. They specialize in seasonally influenced Belgian, German, and American-Farmhouse style ales, including a delicious Smoked Datil Ale. The peppers are mesquite and applewood smoked lending a smoky, slow heat to an otherwise light-bodied beer.

Brisky's BBQ

A favorite of O’Steen, Brisky’s BBQ serves a datil brisket bowl filled with Spanish rice, smoked sausage, black beans, corn, and more. It’s topped with slow-smoked brisket and datil sauce. As he says, “It’s good, real good.”

Catch 27

<p>Courtesy of Catch 27</p>

Courtesy of Catch 27

Tucked into a side street, Catch 27, evokes the feeling of being in a secluded enclave surrounded by tropical foliage away from tourist traffic. The shrimp cocktail brings me back to childhood when it was a luxury item reserved for once-a-year dinners out, except served with a side of the best cocktail sauce I’ve ever tasted, infused with datil peppers. For dinner, I opt for the nightly special — seared diver scallops overtop a mess of cavatelli, crawfish, and lightly fried okra, all brought together in a datil Creole sauce. So, so delicious.

Ice Plant Bar

<p>Courtesy of Ice Plant Bar</p>

Courtesy of Ice Plant Bar

This historic building is a cool stop even without datil dishes, but if you venture to the Ice Plant Bar, don’t miss their legendary Blue Crab Beignets with datil remoulade. I wash mine down with a Rhinestone Cowboy, a blend of bourbon, amaro, pomegranate, hibiscus, mint, muddled sage and lemon, and you guessed it, datil pepper.

Black Molly

<p>Courtesy of Black Molly Grill</p>

Courtesy of Black Molly Grill

Another favorite of O’Steen, Black Molly Grill utilizes datil peppers in several dishes. There’s the chicken grilled and topped with goat cheese and datil jelly. There are cheese grits infused with datil peppers. Or you can opt to have anything “datil-style” and if you save some room, the dark chocolate datil pepper cheesecake is divine. Mike’s favorite is grilled fish with a brushing of datil pepper jelly.

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