Offering seafood and counter sandwiches, the award-winning Big Ray’s Fish Camp has a history steeped in Tampa history and seasoned with a great Florida flavor. Big Ray’s operates from its original location at 6116 Interbay Boulevard, and from a second location on the Tampa Riverwalk.
As a child growing up in Tampa, Nick Cruz would spend his summer mornings fishing with his grandfather at Ballast Point, then spending his afternoons and evenings in the kitchen cooking with his sister, mother and grandmother. . As an adult, Cruz took this appreciation for fresh peach and tasty food and opened a restaurant for the community he grew up in – Big Ray’s Fish Camp.
Specializing in seafood and sandwiches – especially the strong-tasting grouper and shrimp dishes – Big Ray’s has been in business for almost seven years. Named in honor of Cruz’s father and grandfather, Big Ray’s is located just down the road from his grandfather’s old house and the water where Cruz spent so many of his life days. favorite childhood.
And thanks to the skills he learned during his youth, the casual restaurant was so successful that Cruz ended up opening a second location two years ago, an unsurprising result given that Big Ray’s was elected. Tampa’s best seafood just two months after it opened in 2015.
However, true to his roots, Cruz has not let success change the way the business is run. Fifth-generation Tampanian – with great-grandparents who rolled cigars in factories in Ybor City – Cruz has kept the âcome as you areâ approach central to how Big Ray operates.
âIt’s just our little cabin, man,â Cruz said, laughing. âIt’s a neighborhood hut. It is not pretentious. You can just go in and get some really good food. Just have shoes and a shirt. We don’t really care what that looks like.
A lifetime of experience has created Big Ray’s hugely popular menu
However, while the dress code is decidedly unrefined, Cruz maintains high standards for a menu full of traditional fare and quite original traditional fare, such as lobster tailed corn dogs and fried lime pie. . The main draw though, and the menu item Big Ray’s sells by far the most, is the Blackened Grouper Sandwich.
In Cruz’s Blackened Grouper Sandwich, the style of cooking he’s spent his entire life developing really shines. As well as using the freshest catch available, the grouper is heavily seasoned and paired with ingredients designed to complement each other and bring out every unique flavor of the dish. Served on warm bread and stacked with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and tartar sauce, the result is a deliciously cool and warming sandwich that invites diners for another bite.
Cruz has spent his entire life cooking, and working in a kitchen is all he has ever known, which has given him time to develop and perfect his style. The result is plates served en masse every day at Big Ray’s.
âBasically the whole menu that I created and developed here in the kitchen,â he explained. âI knew I had to be creative and find different ways to be creative with the best product I could get in Florida, which was seafood right here in our backyard. I had to do a little twist on traditional stuff.
And as he hastens to point out, Cruz does not use any new or insane ingredient. He gets the same pieces of grouper and the same size of shrimp for everything, and each dish is either grilled, blackened, or fried. It’s what he creates from there – from shrimp burgers and poboys to reuben grouper – that makes Big Ray’s special. And of course, there’s a not-so-secret secret that helps add that extra flavor explosion.
âWe are not afraid to season our food well,â said Cruz proudly. âWe don’t want you to have to ask for salt and pepper. We don’t mind you doing it, but we want you to enjoy your food and not have to worry about anything more.
Timing, persistence and tons of coffee made Big Ray’s possible
Of course, all of this could easily have never happened. Like most success stories, Cruz’s took a little luck and a lot of determination. Or as its owner might say, a lot of wear and tear.
Years ago, Cruz lived in the street with his grandfather before his death. Every morning, Cruz got up early and had a coffee in front of the building where Big Ray’s now operates. As he sat down and enjoyed his start to the day, he saw the usual morning commute of vans, scrap trucks, lawn care people and the like.
âGrowing up here, you would see a lot of working class blue collar workers,â he explained. “This is what I used to see.”
Then one day, Cruz looked up and noticed a strange sight at the brake light. Instead of the usual pickup trucks, there were three cars lined up waiting for the green light – two Mercedes and one BMW. It was at this moment that Cruz realized that the calm district, sandwiched by the water on one side and the MacDill air base on the other, was starting to develop.
The neighborhood had been a bit of a food desert before, but now Cruz believed that there might be enough people coming to the area for him to support a full-time operation and help feed his community at the same time.
Cruz had the vision and the know-how, and his dream location was already there on Interbay Boulevard, but he quickly ran into a problem. The owner of the property told him no. A categorical no, in fact. It took Cruz a month to show up every day to find the guy, and even then, “he really didn’t want to rent the building to me.”
So Cruz did what any sane person would – he showed up every day for 16 weeks in a row until he finally got a yes.
âI spent four months, every morning, having coffee with him until I could finally use him up,â said Cruz. “And then he rented it to me cheaply.”
Big Ray’s remains a neighborhood favorite with growing regional popularity
Persistence paid off, and from there it was as easy as a fried pie. Of course, Cruz was warned that the restaurant business was difficult, but he was never concerned. That’s all he had ever known, so the hardships involved never felt so difficult – they were just part of the job that needed to be done.
Besides, said Cruz, his mission is simple. By staying true to their philosophy and getting down to business, Big Ray’s has become a Tampa staple and neighborhood favorite.
âWe are rooted here. We want to be here forever. My mission was to be able to come and feed people and serve them great seafood at a great price, âsaid Cruz. “Since [we opened], we just have to be non-stop. It was awesome.
So now that Big Ray is expanding, with a second location open and potentially more to come, Cruz keeps it simple. Just like the days on the water with his grandfather or the evenings in the kitchen with his abuela, the welcome chorus is warm and simple.
“Come as you are and enjoy good food.”
Learn more about Big Ray’s and view the full menu at bigraysfishcamp.com.
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