There is no occasion too monumental, no milestone too significant to celebrate with a sandwich. The birth of my niece Julia, just before Christmas in Tampa, was no exception. My older brother Chris is Julia’s father and a longtime advocate of the Florida way of life. He and his wife returned to the Sunshine State nearly three years ago after a short stint in the D.C. area, and, in addition to some other semi-professional endeavors, he now authors the Gulf Coasting column that appears regularly on this site. He has settled into the lifestyle of a permanent snowbird with startling ease.
Although Chris’s incessant, years-long guilt trip wasn’t enough to persuade me to visit, having his first kid was. And so as D.C. dodged polar vortices, I basked in an early afternoon sun at one of a multitude of vibrantly colored picnic tables in the large open-air patio of Crabby Bill’s Seafood Co. in Indian Rocks Beach. Although Chris, who had spent the previous weeks praising the joint’s seafood-heavy offerings, had to be practically dragged away from his little one, once seated he eagerly began an energetic recital of the menu highlights.
We started with drinks. Rum runners, to be precise, which arrived looking like watery Bloody Marys. Peter Frampton howled from speakers mounted atop the outdoor tiki-bar. As members of the immediate and extended family has spread out among the tables, I turned on my recorder.
Chris: “A rum runner is light rum, gold rum, blackberry brandy, banana schnapps, orange juice, grenadine and sometimes you can float a shot of dark rum on top. A rum runner, a mai tai, those are some typical beach drinks people get around here. Piña coladas.” Jack: “It tastes a lot like a drink we used to make back at Ohio U. We just dumped a bag of Skittles into a bottle of cheap vodka and shook it up. We called it ‘Skittles.’” Chris: “Fuck off. One of the things I like about the rum runner is that a lot of the ingredients of pretty gross by themselves. Ugh! Oh, yeah. There’s a shot right on top there.”
Somewhere in the middle of our second drink we considered our sandwich options. The menu is generous but not overwhelming, and more than a couple choices caught the eye. Curious was the presence of both a “fresh” Gulf grouper sandwich and New England lobster roll. (“You know, when you’re eating next to the beach there’s at least a plausible chance some of this stuff is fresh,” I joked.)
In violation of one of my holiest principles of dining out, Chris and I both ultimately ordered the Philly Grouper, which seems to be a signature item at Crabby Bill’s. The sandwich features grilled Gulf grouper smothered in American cheese with sautéed white onions and hot peppers on a trademark Amoroso roll. “My wife is from Philly. She doesn’t really like cheesesteaks very much, but she will tell you: The Amoroso roll is critical,” Chris noted.
Locals are quick to tell you Tampa is the true birthplace of the Cuban sandwich, but as far as I can tell, grouper is first and foremost in these folks’ hearts. And with good reason. It’s a delicious but delicately-flavored fish, and I worried it would be lost in the traditional Philly treatment. Not so. Though it doesn’t exactly evoke a traditional cheesesteak, the Philly Grouper is mild but well balanced, and the lightly seasoned grouper more than holds its own. The soft roll is nicely toasted, and a generous squeeze of lemon provides a nice, tangy finish. As sandwiches go, it’s lighter fare, so a side of fried gator bites was a welcome addition. Some fantastic beers from Tampa-based Cigar City Brewing also were consumed. (FYI: Cigar City is now available in D.C.; I strongly suggest Washingtonians avail themselves of some as soon as possible.)
After a short walk on the beach, the brood piled into the cars and headed back across the bay to resume familial duties. As so it was that the Philly Grouper became the sandwich that I will forever associate with the birth of my first niece. I’m sure it won’t be long before Julia makes her first trip to Crabby Bill’s; in my mind, she’s already there.