Today, around 80 food editors and editors from across the country gather in St. Petersburg for the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists. As a member of the local team, I will be called upon to give my opinion on the local restaurant scene and give suggestions on where these savvy visitors should eat. Question n Â° 1 that people are likely to ask me? “Where can I find the best grouper sandwich?” ”
And that’s why Big Ray’s Fish Camp was such a frightening chance. Nick Cruz opened the adorable four-table spot six weeks ago on an unglamorous stretch of Interbay in the now defunct Chubasco Seafood Market. (They’ve kept the 1950s sign because it adds a gritty vibe.) The small room is decorated with the required glass buoys and a handful of awesome trophy fish, but the most charming part of the decor is along the way. ‘a wall: dozens of large metal clips invite diners to take pictures of “big fish”, some places already claimed by pictures of smiling anglers and their fish prices, some clips nibbling on pieces of white paper indicating “Place the picture of fish here”.
Cruz, a longtime self-taught cook and caterer from Tampa, brings in fresh fish from Save on Seafood. He and his absurdly friendly staff are doing a few things and doing them right. I’ll go ahead and call it: this is one of the best grouper sandwiches in the Tampa Bay area, definitely the best I had in 2015.
Yes, I love Dockside Dave’s, Frenchy’s, the Bayboro Tavern at USF St. Pete and the Reuben Grouper at Skipper’s (AFJ Editors, you reading?), But this deliciously fresh black grouper board was perfectly toasted (blackening and frying are also options) and stacked on a tender but not squidgy bun with a strip of ripe tomato, crispy cold romaine, onion cut thick enough to be broken but not too sharp onion, then finished with a little spicy homemade tartare ($ 13). That’s it. Nothing extraordinary, nestled in a cardboard square and placed on a metal tray.
The riddle comes with the choice of a side. Cruz is a frying maestro: thin onion rings dragged through a thin dough so that the onion / crispy thing ratio is ideal, equally commendable herbal-speckled fries, plus things like fried croissants and donuts and some Oreos and an epic indulgence that is the lobster corn dog. But we’ll get to that later. The choice of accompaniments is between O-rings, fries and a ramekin of vinegared coleslaw salad that gets its letter from college from small pieces of pineapple. Tart, refreshing, interesting, crunchy – all the things that serve as the proper sheets for this grouper sandwich. Still, I can recommend the O-rings, at least on a first visit.
Why are there so few fish camps in these areas, places that serve grouper and devil crab peels and cheeks? Cruz’s grandmother taught him the basics. He saw a void in the neighborhood, noticed when the old Chubasco apartment building became available, then harassed the owner until it was his own. And that looks perfect for its line of fried carnival doodads and rustic seafood classics. He says they resolve the issues before they open for dinner for good. (There are shallow dinner hours on Fridays and Saturdays, only until 8 a.m.)
Saw no problem: a shrimp roll on a crispy baguette ($ 11) marries a pass of fat-free, bouncy fried shrimp with more of those ripe tomato rings and chopped romaine (give it a drizzle of lemon to make it really bright); a whole lobster tail is skewered and coated in a sweet and crispy cornmeal crust for the lobster corn dog ($ 21, but come on, that’s a whole lobster tail in there). People were coming out with awesome burgers ($ 10) and pulled pork sandwiches ($ 9), but I had a hard time straying from seafood.
A wall at Big Ray’s features a weathered “No Wake Zone” sign with creepy little crabs stuck on it. Responsible sailing advice, sure, but Cruz and his newcomer are moving quickly enough on the local seafood scene that it only leaves a small wake.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unexpectedly; the Times pays all the expenses.