Is it a good thing when a side order and dipping sauces overshadow the sandwich you’ve ordered at a restaurant you’re eating at for the first time? The glass-half-full answer is of course, that experiencing any sort of gustatory joy is a worthy achievement, even if it’s the consumption of a pile of petal-cut fries and some spicy sweet and sour sauce. Another point of view (roughly) parallels the old saw that one will often return to an eatery with poor service if the food is outstanding, but superb service will not attract return visits if the food is unremarkable. I can’t imagine saying to myself: “Gee, the fries at that place are really good — let’s go there!”
Because the fries at Hula Bay, located deep in South Tampa off Westshore Boulevard near MacDill Air Force Base, are really superb. As you can tell, the analogy with “service” is imperfect, but I hope you get my point. The place has much besides the fries to recommend it for a return visit (not the least of which is a great rum-runner, that staple of waterfront Florida dining and drinking). And the fried grouper nuggets are dipped in beer and crushed cornflakes before their swim in the oil. Outstanding, and accompanied by more of that delicious deep-red sweet and sour sauce. In hindsight, I probably should’ve used that sauce on my sandwich instead of the lime tartar sauce (house-made, according to our server, for what that’s worth; the cole slaw is also “made to order”).
This is not to imply the “Hawaiian-style” grouper sandwich at Hula Bay is subpar. One can order it one of three ways — fried, with the homemade tartar sauce; grilled in citrus butter; or blackened with melted bleu cheese. I opted for the first method. Simple, right? After all, a lot of seafood loses a degree of its distinctive taste when fried, but on a sandwich that can be overlooked. Also, with other means of cooking, such as blackening, I often want to toss away the bun as an unnecessary obstacle. The filet on this sandwich is impressive — hanging over the edge of the bun, and fried lightly, not to the point where the “fried” outweighs the fish. Aside from the tartar sauce it comes with the usual accompaniments of lettuce, tomato, and red onion slices. I dispensed with the tomato and added the remaining two fixings. One of the first things I noticed was the bun — thick, buttery, and filling, but not to a degree where it overpowers the sandwich filling (one thing that can absolutely spoil a sandwich for me). The tartar sauce was nice, not too salty, a fine complement to the fish. The rum runner was, as usual, a fine aperitif. My daughter was amazed by it; she has been less-than-thrilled at the rum runners offered at other Bay-area establishments.
If you don’t notice an effusion of enthusiasm here, that’s intentional. A nice grouper fillet can never be ruined. But I found myself thinking more and more about the fries. And the grouper nuggets*. And the dipping sauce. Wow… that sauce. It’s worth a trip to South Tampa, if only for the waterfront views, the appetizers, the drinks, and… the sauce.
Christopher Nank, Ph.D., is adjunct instructor of literature at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. He resides in Tampa.