What I Miss Most: Fried Grouper on the Gulf Coast
Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click
I fled Florida. The balmy nights, the tepid waters, the mid-afternoon storms that’d so frequently punctuate summer’s long, hot days. I traded those things (and a bunch of other true cliches about my homeland) for New York City, leaving behind friends, family, and Publix in the process.
Most importantly, I left behind grouper sandwiches.
It would be years before I’d accept the grim truth: there is no good grouper in NYC. In retrospect, it was completely naive of me to believe anything else. The fish -- a slow-swimming reef behemoth -- is most prevalent in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, where the water is warm. In New York City, the water is as warm as the reality, which is to say, it’s quite cold. Also, exceptionally grouper-less.
This is my existence, and I’m OK with it now. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a series of painful steps I’d have to take first.
Step 1: Denial
I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn with three other Floridians, who had already been living there for a year before I arrived. If anyone knew where to find good seafood, my statesmen would be a good start. “So where do you guys go around here for fish?” I asked. Answers ranged from where to get the best fish tacos to an Argentinian cafe that had a killer Chilean sea bass. But no one could deliver on grouper. It can’t be true, I thought. It doesn’t make any sense.
See, fried grouper is a masterpiece. The filet is tossed delicately in a deep fryer until a golden-brown outer crust develops. From there, it’s taken out and placed briefly in a basket to dry, before being set atop a bed of tartar sauce spread haphazardly over a Kaiser roll. That’s outside. Inside this crispy cornmeal blanket, the grouper itself remains flaky & warm. The meat will barely hold its structure as you make your way through the sandwich. And the tartar sauce! Oh, the tartar sauce. It sets up the piping-hot filet with a creamy, tangy, utterly smooth alley-oop. A grouper sandwich, built properly, is edible bliss.
You can imagine that when I discovered I wouldn’t be able to find such seaborne supremacy in New York, I felt lost. I felt sad. I felt...
Step 2: Anger
I was busy my first month in the New York: pounding pavement for work, arranging the shipment of my bike, and exploring with wide eyes a city I’d never stepped foot in before. New York City! Opportunities were endless! Cuisines, unrivaled! Amidst the new-town thrill, I temporarily forgot about my longing for grouper. It wouldn’t last.
Sometime around mid-summer 2010, I stepped off Bedford Ave and into Williamsburg’s Surf Bar, a still-standing joint that serves strong Tiki drinks and seafood. Oysters, mahi mahi, crab cakes, shrimp... Surely they have grouper here!
You can't deep-fry depression.
The menu was one I’d perused countless times back in flip-flop Florida, serenaded by the sounds of seagulls cawing and speedboat engines snarling. I anxiously scanned for my prize, but instead of the promise of flaky white fish, I found crushing disappointment. My dear grouper was conspicuously absent.
Why? My exasperation and dismay swirled into an emotional hurricane. I finished my drink (a Zombie, not a Hurricane, and a very stiff one), slammed it down in disgust, and stumbled out of the bar in even more disgust.
Step 3: Bargaining
Look, I should clarify some things. Grouper and I never went through an amorous relationship, nor was I ever physically or emotionally addicted to it. I never thought I’d have to write a sentence like that, but life is funny sometimes. Anyway, the point is: I didn’t experience the dramatic bargaining of a struggling addict or forlorn lover. No, mine had none of the literary romance. Mine was mostly just whining about it to friends who had neither the power to give me what I wanted, nor the patience to listen to it.
I’d give anything for a grouper sandwich right now. Anything! This wasn’t true. I wasn’t going to give up my new apartment, job, and friends to move back to Florida just to eat a crispy fried (or deliciously blackened) grouper sandwich. Once I internalized that, I was well on my way to Step 4.
Step 4: Depression
Like a fully matured grouper, depression creeps in slowly and rears its ugly head without warning. Unlike grouper, however, depression cannot be deep-fried and served on a Kaiser roll smothered in tartar sauce. It just sits in your stomach, the way all the other fish did that I desperately ate in compromise. I started with blackened mahi mahi. It was delicious, but every bite only served to confirm to me that it was, certainly and infallibly, not grouper. I moved on to fish tacos. I love fish tacos. We go way back. But I wasn’t ready to fully give myself to them. I often found myself calling them “pretty good” when they were actually skillfully prepared and expertly fried.
Depression casts a wide net, and not even fish tacos are safe from its tangle. The best grouper, on the other hand, is line-caught. Coincidence? Probably. But depressed I was, and nothing would shake me out of it.
Step 5: Acceptance
As summer wound down, I booked a trip back to Florida. I had some family on the Gulf, and I needed to go see about a fish. After my second or third day in the sweltering heat doing absolutely nothing except listening to classic rock and reapplying sunscreen (#florida), I decided it was time to venture out to the The Old Salty Dog -- a local fish shack that I’d been frequenting since I was 7 years old. When I arrived, I noticed the large chalkboard that sat in front of the hostess stand, “Fresh Grouper!” it read in large, sloppy white letters. As if by muscle memory alone, I skipped up to the bar and placed my order. “Fried, with extra tartar sauce on the side.” Wisdom dictates that you should always order a pint of lager with a grouper sandwich, and I did.
NYC can't have it all, despite insisting that it must.
My long-lost friend, my long-chased quarry arrived. I eyed it with delight. I inhaled its aroma. I took photos of it. Then, I took a bite.
It was, without a doubt... a very acceptable grouper sandwich. Fireworks did not burst from the heavens. The lights did not flicker. I did not weep tears of joy at my sweet reunion. It wasn’t the best grouper sandwich I’d ever eaten, and it wasn’t the worst. But the closure tasted better than the fish ever could. I was finally devouring what had devoured my psyche all summer.
After the sandwich, I sat in this dilapidated fish shack for a while. I finished my beer, listened to Jimmy Buffett songs and eavesdropped on grizzly barflies in Guy Harvey shirts, and I was struck with a thought.
Grouper sandwiches don’t belong in New York City. This is where they belong. Brooklyn is the perfect place to serve overpriced Afro-Norwegian pastries paired with locally sourced barley wine, and I love it for that. But NYC can’t have everything, despite the petulant insistence that it must. Grouper? Grouper’s home in Florida, sloppily thrown on Kaiser buns and placed in red plastic baskets lined with wax paper.
A few weeks later, back in Brooklyn, my roommates were trying to figure out where to grab dinner. “Ramen sounds pretty good. Or a burger. I could go for a burger. What are you thinking?” The group turned to me.
“I know this great fish taco place in Williamsburg,” I said. “Their fish is skillfully prepared and expertly fried.”