Registry Tampa Bay

When I arrived in Florida in my early 20s, it didn’t take long to hear about the wonders of a grouper sandwich.

I was not a seafood-eater, having grown up in the Northeast with mostly fish sticks and horrible cod from frozen packages. I was intrigued about this grouper sandwich, but skeptical. If was, after all, fish. As it turned out, eating fish of the fresh variety was something of a revelation. As in, yummy. It did not make me an avid consumer of sea fare, but over the decades I’ve certainly had my share of grouper stuffed into buns with lettuce, onion and tomato and tartar sauce and fries on the side.

Most restaurant versions offer the fish fried or blackened. I chose the latter for this week’s episode. Our combatants are Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro, located at the entrance of the St. Pete Pier, and Hookin’ Ain’t Easy on 22nd Avenue South in St. Pete.

FRESCO’S WATERFRONT GRILL

Cloud cover blocked out the sun on Sunday at 6:30, and although it was humid, we chose to sit at a four-top on the patio. The indoor dining room was dark and nearly empty.

A stiff breeze tempered the heat, but I soon realized it was a fan set on high. Hey, whatever works.

I ordered the Grouper Sandwich with fries ($30) and a ginger ale ($3). Bonnie got the Yellowfin salad ($26). I try not to factor price into this column, but this was the most expensive grouper sandwich I’d ever seen. What would the server have to bring to the table to make a grouper sandwich worth thirty bucks?

Appearance

All good, just like a grouper sandwich is supposed to look. A thicker filet than most. At its price point, though, I expected a bit more fish to be hanging out of the bun, or maybe even a double stack.

Texture and Taste

This was a perfectly fine grouper sandwich. It did not make me sit back in my chair and admire its transcendence, but the fish was tender and moist, expertly cooked. The bun was nondescript, but thankfully not overly thick and doughy.

I would’ve liked a bit more blackened seasoning to provide some zing. The tomato slices were pulpy and devoid of flavor. The tartar sauce — a bit thinner than most, and more subtle — was a bonus. As grouper sandwiches are wont to do, this one fell apart as I crossed the halfway point. I reverted to the fork.

The fries, lightly dusted with blackened seasoning, were a cut above most. I ate the entire meal, save for a few crispy fry husks.

HOOKIN’ AIN’T EASY

I chose this playfully ramshackle complex with the ridiculous name mostly because of its rave reviews online — hoozahs for its Old-Florida authenticity, for its uber-fresh seafood.

At 5:30 Wednesday (the place closed at 7), I recognized Hookin’ Ain’t Easy’s dilapidated charm, but it was hard to fully appreciate with sun out in full and temps in the 90s.

The outdoor complex has a tiki bar on one side and a food truck on the other, with a long swath of sand in between. The bar area was loud, so our party of four commandeered an umbrella-covered picnic table. A staffer turned on an industrial fan, which blew right on us and mitigated the summer heat, but only a little.

I ordered the Grouper Sandwich ($23.99, pretty pricey, too) with fries. Kudos to HAE for having Three Daughters Beach Blonde Ale on tap ($6). I had two pints.

Appearance

Everything looked ship-shape. This fish appeared more heavily seasoned than its competitor, and I was hoping for a bit of spicy bite.

Texture and Taste

First (bite) impression: The blackened seasoning was more potent than the Fresco’s version, and had a more interesting flavor, but it didn’t give off much heat. The fish was a shade drier than the opposition, but the tomato and onion were superior.

Although this might seem trivial, the tartar sauce here was thicker and tasted more processed. It mattered.

The fries — hand-cut, the menu said — were barely warm, limp and a tad greasy, but they were pretty good all the same. I did leave quite a few on the plate.

And the Winner of the Grouper Sandwich Skirmish, Blackened Edition Is …

Fresco’s.

Not by much. This was a very close contest. Both grouper sandwiches proved worthy entries into the pantheon of Tampa Bay’s signature dish.

I do wonder, though: if I’d had my HAE meal on a 70-degree day in March, would my decision have been different? I take a restaurant’s atmosphere into account when writing these FFFs — but should that include the weather?

Just askin’.

 

 

 

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