TAMPA — “Ask any Floridian the definition of heaven, and they will tell you: a sunset over the Gulf, a cold beer, and a giant grouper sandwich,” says Lori Kizer, who has lived in the Sunshine State for more than 30 years.
What clam chowder is to Bostonians, the grouper sandwich is to folks in the Tampa Bay area. If you don’t know from grouper, here’s a quick primer: There are about 85 species of this fish, and many are overfished, so the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommends red and black grouper from the Gulf of Mexico as responsible choices. This is what they are catching locally, we are told. Often, the fishing boats are right outside the door.
This firm, mild-tasting white fish benefits from some added zip. We liked it best when we ordered it Cajun-seasoned or blackened, either grilled or fried, and served exactly as Kizer describes: outdoors, with a cold beverage and water views.
Directly from the airport, we hit Frenchy’s Salt Water Cafe, across the street from Clearwater Beach, a local favorite that crops up on every “best grouper” list. At this colorfully-painted indoor-outdoor fish shack, we joined families fresh from the beach (“A group of grouper groupies with guppies,” as our friend described them) to dine on their bestseller, the beer-battered “original grouper sandwich,” served with chips or slaw ($10.95). Our verdict: a gourmet version of McDonald’s fish sandwich — kind of blah, too much batter. We liked the grilled Cajun grouper sandwich better (also $10.95); it was flavorful but still pleasantly fishy, and it paired well with the pineapple-studded slaw. 419 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-461-6295, www.frenchysonline.com
Southern Living magazine once named Dockside Dave’s version “the best grouper sandwich in the South,” so we had to try it. Dave’s offers a freshly-filleted, half-pound black grouper sandwich prepared six ways, including “country fried” and lemon-peppered on the grill. We tried the latter ($12.95), and enjoyed it once we tore away the big white bun. For the sake of variety, we also got grouper tacos ($9.95) with cilantro sour cream and shredded cabbage, and boy, were they gone in a second. And we still had room for Key lime pie. 14701 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach (also in St. Pete Beach), 727-392-9399, www.docksidedavesgrill.com
We tried the grouper sandwiches at three restaurants in Pass-a-Grille, and we were getting groupered out, until we hit Sea Critters. Blame the freshly-squeezed margaritas, or the cute kids feeding fish from the docks, but we loved this place, and the awesome almond-crusted grouper sandwich ($13.95), served with slaw and potato salad or steak fries. It was so good (and the rustic fish shack ambience so appealing after dark) that we forgave them for also offering a New England-style lobster roll. 2007 Pass-a-Grille Way, St. Pete Beach, 727-360-3706, www.seacritterscafe.com
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Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.