Today, 80 or so food writers and editors from around the country convene in St. Petersburg for the annual Association of Food Journalists' conference. As part of the home team, I will be called upon to opine about the local restaurant scene and to give suggestions for where these discerning visitors should eat. The No. 1 question I am likely to be asked? "Where can I get the best grouper sandwich?"
And this is why Big Ray's Fish Camp was a freakish bit of good luck. Nick Cruz opened the adorable four-table spot six weeks ago on an unglamorous stretch of Interbay in the long-defunct Chubasco Seafood market. (They've kept the 1950s-era sign because it adds some gritty ambience.) The tiny room is festooned with the requisite glass buoys and a handful of impressive trophy fish, but the most charming part of the decor is along one wall: Dozens of big metal clips invite diners' "big fish" photos, some spots claimed already by snaps of smiling anglers and their ichthyological prizes, some clips chomping down on white slips of paper that read "place fish photo here."
Cruz, a self-taught cook and longtime Tampa caterer, is bringing in fresh fish from Save on Seafood. He and his absurdly friendly staff are doing a few things and doing them well. I'm going to go ahead and call it: This is one of the Tampa Bay area's very best grouper sandwiches, certainly the best one I've had in 2015.
Yes, I like Dockside Dave's, Frenchy's, the Tavern at Bayboro at USF St. Pete, and the grouper Reuben at Skipper's (AFJ food editors, you reading?), but this plank of lusciously fresh black grouper was grilled perfectly (blackening and frying are options, too) and piled onto a tender but not squidgy bun with a swath of fully ripe tomato, crisp and cold romaine, onion cut thick enough to have snap but without too much oniony sharpness, and then finished off with a little swipe of tangy tartar that tastes homemade ($13). That's it. Nothing fancy, tucked into a cardboard square and set atop a metal tray.
The conundrum comes with choosing a side. Cruz is a frying maestro: skinny onion rings dragged through a thin batter so the onion-to-crunchy-stuff ratio is ideal, equally laudable herb-flecked fries, plus things like deep-fried croissant-doughnuts and Oreos and an epic indulgence that is the lobster corn dog. But we'll get to those later. The choice of sides is between the o-rings, the fries and a ramekin of vinegar-based green cabbage slaw that gets its varsity letter from small hunks of pineapple. Tart, refreshing, interesting, crunchy — all things that serve as appropriate foils for that grouper sandwich. Still, I may advocate the o-rings, at least on a first visit.
Why are there so few fish camps in these parts, places that serve peel-n-eats and grouper cheeks and deviled crab? Cruz's grandmother taught him the basics. He saw a void in the area, noticed when the old Chubasco building became available, then hounded the landlord until it was his. And it seems perfect for his lineup of fried carnival doodads and rustic seafood classics. He says they are working out the kinks before opening for dinner in earnest. (There are perfunctory dinner hours Friday and Saturday, only until 8.)
I didn't see any kinks: A shrimp roll on a crispy baguette ($11) marries a passel of greaseless, bouncy fried shrimp with more of those ripe tomato rounds and chopped romaine (give it a squeeze of lemon to make it really pop); a whole lobster tail is skewered and enrobed in sweet, crunchy cornmeal crust for the lobster corn dog ($21, but come on, it's a whole lobster tail in there). Folks were taking out great-looking burgers ($10) and pulled pork sandwiches ($9), but I had a hard time dragging myself away from the seafood.
One wall at Big Ray's features a weathered "No Wake Zone" sign to which creepy little crabs have been glued. Responsible boating advice, surely, but Cruz and his little newcomer are motoring swiftly enough onto the local seafood scene that it's bound to kick up a little wake.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.