By Christopher Nank, Gulf Coast Correspondent
The grouper has to be the most ubiquitous fish in Florida. Not as a zoological category, not as a loosely-related host of species (although, in that sense, they are plentiful in these waters, no doubt), but as a product, as a totem, as a commodity, as a brand. One need only recall the Deepwater Horizon incident of a couple years ago—what sickened so many on the Gulf coast, what we despaired most of, was that our precious, copious marine harvest would be tainted and compromised. I remember speaking to a woman at the seafood counter at a Tampa Publix in June 2010 who, like me, deplored the skyrocketing cost of grouper fillets; this was perceived to be an ominous symptom of encroaching catastrophe.
Long time ago, granted, and a bit of a digression from the matter at hand. But it’s instructive in that it shows the regard the grouper is held in down here. Like the Cuban sandwich, it’s a food-service staple in the Sunshine State.
If you live in or know Tampa, you know Skipper’s Smokehouse. It’s a live music venue of some renown, but that’s not our focus here. It also admits of its culinary traditions via the copious (if informal) signage throughout and in the vicinity of the rambling, asymmetrical structures that compose the business. And there is, greeting the diner soon after entry, a framed poster asserting the centrality of the grouper in its offerings. This is Tampa, not the security fences, cameras, and talking heads that left town a few weeks ago. I doubt any of the delegates or hangers-on ventured far enough beyond the checkpoints to eat here.
Skipper’s is no longer a hidden gem, even for those outside the Bay area. It has been featured on Adam Richman’s Travel Channel series “Best Sandwich in America” and “Man vs. Food Nation.” It has won awards in recent years for “Best Live Music Venue” from blues societies. Even the sandwich that I am about to describe (praise, gush over and basically genuflect to) has done a turn or two on national TV.
Speaking of ubiquity: If the grouper is a staple of the Florida menu, as I have described it, the reuben sandwich is a staple just about anywhere, including places that would not remind many people of Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel or Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York, two of the settings most frequently cited as the sandwich’s birthplace. Likewise shrouded in mystery and ambiguity is Skipper’s grouper reuben. My server on a recent visit relayed two apocryphal anecdotes about its invention, confident of neither.* Regardless, the sandwich’s “genealogy” is at best a sidebar; the sandwich itself is the main attraction.
If you followed the asterisk in the previous paragraph, you’ve already been treated to a video of an “insider” with special access to the staff and a television crew capturing every wisecrack, every “knowledgeable” pointer about the sandwich, every canned reaction to the interplay of the ingredients following its preparation. The humbler experience of dining at Skipper’s, with the assorted lunch crowd, is far earthier and more visceral. Accordingly, I will give a proletariat’s account of eating the sandwich.
I agree with the founder of this blog that bread’s foundational effect on a sandwich shouldn’t be underestimated. This has to do not only with taste but with arrangement and proportion. I’m sure many readers have left scraps of uneaten bread/roll/bun on a plate following the consumption of a sandwich, or had their palates overpowered by bread. The grouper reuben does not suffer from either of these undesirable outcomes. The marbled rye is buttered and the rest of the ingredients fill it out to the crusts. Blackened grouper is already practically my favorite food, and I’ll just say that Skipper’s doesn’t mess it up. Sauerkraut and thousand island dressing are kind of meh to me in isolation, but here, in concert with the fish, bread and Swiss cheese, they achieve a gestalt, similar to that achieved with countless other sandwiches that take disparate, innocuous components and push them collectively to a far more satisfying level.
Oh, the eating of it? Look at the picture with the almost-finished bread and straight-from-the-fryer hush puppies, on paper plates at a wooden slat table. One of the cooks had previously passed out small cups of gator and black bean chili that he wanted patrons to sample. We also warmed up our palates with a platter of deep-fried okra. That’s Skipper’s. The grouper reuben is the star (to me), but you can’t really go wrong here, in terms of grouper, sides, or ambiance.
Christopher Nank, Ph.D., is adjunct instructor of literature at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. His contributions to the Carrollwood, Florida, Patch blog can be read here. He resides in Tampa.