I have a brother who understands how I crave fish.
When I was in Florida for the month of March, my brother Micheal took my sister-in-law Charleen and me to a place in Dunedin called Frenchy’s Outpost. This lovely restaurant was biking distance from Caledesi State Park, one of my favorite places on the planet. I have hiked the nature trail many times, looking up at the ospreys in their nests, watching them tear meat from the bones of fish to feed it to their hungry, fuzzy babies. I love this park, so I was excited to finally visit the nearby seafood joint.
Frenchy’s is an open air restaurant, so although technically we sat inside, the ceiling fans were cranking, and the sea breeze flowed through the restaurant. I love eating al fresco, and there is nothing more relaxing than warm, salty air.
I opened the menu and saw that Frenchy’s offered not one, but four different kinds of grouper sandwiches- a regular grouper, a super grouper, a buffalo grouper, and my very favorite, a grouper rueben.
Nothing says I’m from Florida (and of Polish-German heritage) than a filet of fish with sauerkraut. This sandwich was superb, and I felt grateful.
I was home.
Florida is half of me. My other half is Midwestern. When I was a kid, my brothers and Dad fished the fresh water lakes and rivers of Wisconsin. I grew up eating perch, blue gills, catfish, and bass. The boys also ice fished, so we did eat fish all year long. Still, I associate this protein with some of my favorite spring and summer vegetables like asparagus, zucchini, and tomatoes right off the vine, so fish is warm weather food for me. It’s always fresh. (Well, almost always. As an honest side note, there are two other forms of not-so-healthy pesca that I ate as a kid—fish sticks from the school cafeteria and McDonald’s fish sandwiches. I am not ashamed to say I still eat these sometimes).
Our family took a trip to Florida in the 1970’s, and during this vacation, my cousin Michael made the most delicious crab enchiladas. I remember eating this meal as we sat beneath palm trees on the intercostal at my Aunt Margie and Uncle Angel’s house in Indian Rocks Beach. I remember feeling like we were eating the most exotic food in a most exotic setting.
I was hooked. Oh, pun intended!
Then, when we moved to Florida in the 1980’s, my family really got into salt water fish and seafood. My brothers and I worked at the same Cuban-Italian restaurant washing dishes. While we scrubbed burnt cheese and red sauce from cast iron pans, we also experienced certain rites of passage. We learned how to make Cuban sandwiches and Fra Diablo sauce, and we were introduced to things like deviled crabs and breaded fried scallops. I can barely type those two last dishes without salivating.
During my young adulthood, Florida continued to be good for my fish addiction. In college, whenever I went on a date, I always ordered steamed crab legs. My college roommate and I skipped our Sociology Class to partake in seafood buffets. I had the most delicious shrimp scampi in Tarpon Springs. I had my very first raw oysters and grouper rueben sandwich at Skipper’s Smokehouse, an iconic Tampa joint and live music venue. I’ve written about Skippie’s before. This was the place where I danced to live reggae music, the place where I won a bottle of champagne in a limbo contest. So many stories!
After college, I left Florida (and returned and left again several times). In each place that I’ve lived, I’ve tried the fish, but with a few exceptions, it’s never the same as eating it in the Sunshine State. I do try maintain a glass-half-full attitude for this blog, however, so I’ll briefly list the positive fish experiences outside of Florida:
In Chicago, I liked an imported fish from Hawaii called Butterfish, and I also enjoyed some coconut shrimp.
In North Carolina, there was a man who worked at the fish counter at Whole Foods. He made his own tarter sauce and consistently recommended whatever was freshest that day. Most of the time, it was tilapia that he had prepared himself. He made a great coconut macadamia tilapia. Benjamin and I also drove out to the beach to a place called William’s where we had the best snowy grouper.
In DC, we walked to the Sunday farmer’s market to get fresh crab cakes. These were delicious! We pan fried them in olive oil and ate them with salad. I never tried rockfish while I lived in DC, and I regret it. Someday I’ll remedy this.
In Berlin, I was proud of myself whenever I shopped because I had to do it in a different language. There was a Saturday market near our apartment where the patient German man understood me and kindly measured the .45 kilograms of Jakobsmuschel (scallops) or Kabeljau (cod) for our meals. Benjamin and I also frequented a couple of fish joints in the city—Fischfabrik and Der Fischladen. Both places offered generous portions for reasonable prices.
Here in New York, I like the salmon and cod, and the mussels are excellent. The place to dine out for fish is our favorite pub, The Bridge View Tavern. The menu changes at BVT, because Chef Chris likes to keep it fresh and interesting. My favorite dishes have been the fried catfish sandwich, the fish and chips, fish tacos, and grilled shrimp or salmon on the Harvest Salad. I have yet to try Bronzino in the many Italian restaurants here, but I plan to, as soon as I learn how to properly and safely eat a whole fish. Michael told me that when I do this, to make sure I keep bread nearby. “If you feel like you might have a bone in your throat, eat a piece of bread quickly, and it should stick to it and help you swallow it safely.” Good tip!
No matter where I roam, I know I will always find my way back to the Gulf of Mexico, to Tampa, my family, and especially to a brother who willingly carts his sister around in search of the best grouper sandwiches. Thank you, Micheal!