I don’t want you to call me a Parrothead (i.e. Jimmy Buffett fan) but something strange happens to me whenever I visit Florida. I find myself tapping my toes to the tunes of my youth, and it won’t take but a day or two in “Margaritaville” before I start craving a Grouper Sandwich. Ask anyone along the West Coast of Florida to define paradise and they will tell you: a sunset over the water, a cold beer, and a giant Grouper Sandwich. New York has its pizza, Los Angeles owns the taco, and chowder reigns supreme in Boston. In St. Petersburg, Florida the Grouper Sandwich is iconic.
It’s a simple sandwich and only succeeds when the freshest fish possible is snuggled between the ubiquitous fluffy bun and dressed with core condiments of leaf lettuce, a thick tomato slice, and homemade sauce. It can come fried, broiled, grilled or blackened. There are arguments to be made for each preparation. On a recent trip to Florida I set out to find my favorite Grouper Sandwich, and I succeeded. Drippy. Messy. Perfect. The Blackened Grouper Sandwich at Maximo Seafood Shack in St. Petersburg, Florida is served dockside. Which is the first hint that this Grouper Sandwich is the Grouper Sandwich of my balmy Floridian dreams.
The dockside location of Maximo Seafood Shack of course guarantees a focus on fresh fish, but it also creates a casual waterfront ambiance that makes the grouper taste all the sweeter. Which attracts a crowd. On warm weather weekends, when the sun glitters off Boca Ciega Bay, the Maximo Seafood Shack can get as rowdy as a church basement on bingo night. When I arrived every pine-planked picnic table was filled with groups of weekend boaters, locals in the know, and quite a few pink-faced tourists in Tommy Bahama shirts. Which is how I found myself, the only solitary diner, pressed into the corner – a window sill as my dining table. I’m not complaining, I consider that window the best perch in the place. You get to sit shoulder to shoulder with other diners eating sweet as candy peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp, hot conch fritters with spicy rouille, and of course that delicious Grouper Sandwich. It’s easy to linger long into the afternoon, listening to yacht-talk while watching skiffs and pelicans float by.
I realize that sipping beer and watching pelicans sounds like something Jimmy Buffet might do. It does have its allure, and it’s how I first noticed a particular pelican. He was impatiently bobbing around just outside the open-air kitchen window. I watched in amusement as he defended his territory. I soon spied two tattooed arms tossing freshly-filleted red grouper carcasses my feathered friend’s way. The tattooed arms belonged to Wendy who had been my server. I found Wendy to be sharp as malt vinegar and as salty as the air! She’s the main reason I idled my way through a second beer long after the lunch crowd began to thin. It’s also when I found the Parrothead in my DNA humming “Son of a Son of a Son of a Sailor.” GREG
Maximo Seafood Shack