Without my quite realizing it until recently, the grouper reuben has become ubiquitous along Florida’s Gulf Coast — or, at least, the relative sliver of it that I frequent. I’ve seen it on menus in Sarasota, in Naples, in Clearwater, in St. Petersburg, in Tampa and now in Tierra Verde, a long isthmus separating St. Pete Beach from Fort Desoto Park, home to many a sprawling community of condos, a few marine supply stores, and Billy’s Stone Crab and Seafood, a little gem of a place tucked alongside an inlet from the Gulf.
This seems to be quite a broad reach for a sandwich believed by a few to originate at Tampa’s renowned eatery and music venue Skipper’s. A few years back I profiled their rendition, the blackened grouper reuben, and some time later even had a conversation with the man, a former Skipper’s cook, who claimed to have invented the sandwich. Subsequent events have put that claim in some doubt, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the sandwich has caught on, regardless of the nature of its genesis. It’s seems to be something of a Florida Gulf Coast staple at this point, a statement I make with the caveat that I have a small sample size of eateries to draw from, and may have simply lucked into visiting those that have offered the grouper reuben.
Still, its geographic range suggests that it is a phenomenon with some staying power and regional appeal. And Billy’s version is, simply put, excellent. The charming setting helps. Although the rambling, sprawling multi-floor house is a popular design for Florida seafood restaurants, more common even than the grouper reuben itself, Billy’s rocks it. Many of the dining areas offer great views of the water and docks. If you’re with someone who is fascinated by boats and pelicans and dolphins competing for fish among mangroves (or are fascinated by those things yourself), you’ll find plenty of pleasant distractions looking out the near-wall-sized windows.
(While we’re on the subject of ubiquitous Florida entities, Billy’s rum runner is tasty. Nothing remarkable, but it does the job. The Bahamian conch chowder was overflowing the cup and was packed with conch – it was also a tomato-heavy broth, and not cream-based, which certainly appealed to me.)
But as to the main event: Billy’s grouper reuben features broiled, not blackened, fish, and while this in some ways lowers it a notch from the Skipper’s version, the fish itself was delicate, flavorful, and complemented very well by the usual reuben accoutrements: Thousand Island, marble rye, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut. As I’ve written in the past, a sandwich is usually only as good as its ingredients, but with creations like the grouper reuben, the synergy of those ingredients matters a lot. The dressing wasn’t excessive; the cheese was maybe applied a bit heavily, and for someone who believes cheese is generally anathema to fish sandwiches outside of McDonald’s, this was my only real complaint. The bread was buttered and good to the last bite. (I usually find myself leaving chunks of uneaten bread on the plate with most sandwiches, so this last feature is vital.) And this thing is a meal. I probably didn’t need the conch chowder or the fries it came with, but of course they didn’t go to waste. If I had a more reasonable sense of self-control when it came to my diet, the sandwich alone would’ve filled me up easily.
A final note about cheese on fish sandwiches: the blackened grouper sandwich at JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach is the only non-grouper reuben/non-Filet-O-Fish that successfully pulls this off. And I was a little reluctant when I first tried it. Like Billy’s grouper reuben, JB’s grouper sandwich will be served to you inside a rambling, repurposed/converted house on the intracoastal waterway. They also serve fine rum runners and have a dock out back where you can watch pelicans and fishing boats. Funny how that works, even on the Atlantic coast.