One of my most favorite sammies in the world is a flaky yet succulent grouper sandwich, preferably served with fries, cole slaw, pickle spear, and cold beer. To get such a treat you should go to southwestern Florida, where you might be temped by other similar delights…a soft-shelled crab sandwich, say, or even an oyster po’boy. But the crab sandwich can be readily procured in a Maryland clam shack in season, and the oyster po’boy, as the name implies, reaches sacrament status where the term po’boy was invented, New Orleans.
For grouper, you go to Florida.
The thing is, while in Florida you might make the acquaintance of some other flaky, white-fleshed fishies, some of which might even rival the grouper in taste if not name. The place is lousy with good-eating gilled critters.
On vacation recently I met a couple of these other fish that you won’t find on the Mucky Duck‘s chalkboard, or any other bar menu for that matter, and I have to say they were every bit as personable as the grouper. Luckily I had my boy with me, because he’s the one who made the introductions. I could only dredge up one hapless catfish after another, while the kid hooked a whole aquarium of warm-water swimmers in the mangrove-shaded back bays of Naples. We ended up keeping a couple of black drums and a nice sheepshead.
Back at the shack I was disappointed to find a general lack of flour in the cupboards. This was vacation after all. No problem. We put a stack of stale Triscuits into a blender usually reserved for that other Florida specialty, the Planter’s Punch, along with handfuls of Cape Cod potato chips and mixed cocktail nuts, plus a dash of Old Bay seasoning and some salt. Voila. A perfectly acceptable dry batter. Next I cut up the fillets into sandwich-sized portions, egged them, and rolled in the batter before frying in ample butter and finishing with a generous squeeze of lemon. The rest of the sandwich is academic: a fairly soft French roll or poppy-seed bun, shredded lettuce, and thinly sliced tomato. We also whipped up a batch of homemade tartar sauce with mayo and chopped pickle.
I wonder how many Florida natives would have discerned the truth about my homemade “grouper” sandwich. And how many reputable establishments are serving “grouper” with the fry cook’s catch on his day off? If I lived in southwest Florida I’d definitely be one of those guys you curse at while driving the obstacle course that is the Tamiami Trail, one of those guys fishing from a bridge abutment on an already narrow two-lane blacktop lined with traffic hazards like birdwatchers, panther crossing signs, and orchid thieves.
Florida may be overloaded with white shoes and blue hair, but it’s paradise for grouper groupies.