Did you really visit Florida if you didn’t try gator once?
Luckily for all of the Florida Men and Women in training, this essential bucket list item can be crossed off at many Tampa Bay eateries. But you may have questions before popping a piece of a prehistoric-looking creature into your mouth. We have answers.
What does alligator meat taste like?
While gator meat is technically classified as seafood, it doesn’t have a fishy flavor. In fact, local gator trappers say it should have no distinct taste or smell. The way it’s prepared will dictate the flavor. You can have crispy, greasy bites of popcorn gator or smoky, tender ribs.
When you eat alligator in a restaurant, where does the meat come from?
It’s hard to pinpoint. Some meat is sourced from alligator farms in Florida and Louisiana. Other portions may come from local trappers who work for Florida’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, or SNAP. When Floridians report a giant gator found in a swimming pool or golf course, SNAP trappers are dispatched in order to protect people from attacks. Many professional trappers opt to sell the meat to area restaurants.
Where can I try gator in Tampa Bay?
Intrepid home cooks can purchase frozen gator meat at specialty grocery stores like Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg. The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Fresh From Florida program has published several recipes that star the swampy protein. For example, Florida gator chili, Florida alligator stadium dogs and Creole tomato pasta with Florida alligator.
The regional delicacy is also prepared in a variety of methods around town. We’ve rounded up different gator dishes found on local menus:
Gator bites, sometimes called gator nuggets, are perhaps the most common way diners will find the reptile on local menus. Most are made with jaw and tail meat. Each restaurant does them a little differently, but you’ll know you’ve gotten a good serving when the meat is tender, not chewy.
Ulele in Tampa offers chili-marinaded, flash-fried gator tail as an appetizer with a kick ($15). 1810 N. Highland Ave., Tampa. ulele.com.
Happy’s Bayou Bites serves chunks of gator tail blackened or fried (market price), plus gator sausage bites with Creole mustard ($6.99). 431 Skinner Blvd., Dunedin. happysbayoubites.com.
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Skipper’s Smokehouse prides itself on its smoked gator ribs ($20.95), which were featured on the TV show “Man Vs. Food.” It’s also been known to sling black bean gator chili and fried gator tail. 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. skipperssmokehouse.com.
At Linger Lodge RV Park and Restaurant in Bradenton, gator shows up many times on the menu. Start with alligator chowder, which features heavy cream, secret seasonings, potatoes, onions, celery and peppers ($10 for a cup, $14 for a bowl).
Linger Lodge also serves the classic alligator bites ($20) and gator burgers made with 100% wild alligator patty ($20). Go all in on a Florida gator dinner, where wild alligator is “marinated in buttermilk and our own special spice mix for maximum flavor and tenderness.” Choose between fried, grilled or blackened meat ($25.) 7116 85th St. Court E., Bradenton. lingerlodge.com.
Alligator sauce piquant
Cajun Cafe on the Bayou has a range of Louisiana-inspired meals on the menu, from gator burgers to bites. The standout dish is alligator sauce piquant (pronounced pee-KAWNT), which features a superspicy, roux-based sauce and white rice ($21). 8260 66th St. N., Pinellas Park. cafeonthebayou.com.
Gator sausage sandwich
There’s nothing like a grilled sausage hoagie topped with hot mustard, grilled onions and peppers. Try this classic made with alligator sausage at Jack Willie’s Bar, Grill & Tiki ($13.99). 1013 St. Petersburg Drive W., Oldsmar. jackwilliesbarandgrill.com.
Alligator hush puppies
Gator mingles with bacon and creamed festival corn in the Tarpon Turtle Grill & Marina’s hush puppy appetizer, which is served with remoulade and horseradish aioli ($13). 1513 Lake Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs. tarponturtle.com.
Gator jambalaya and gator mac and cheese
Seafood Seller & Cafe specializes in Cajun flavors and offers the option of topping its jambalaya with alligator sausage ($17 for a dinner portion). The Crystal River spot’s menu also features appetizers like crawfish and alligator sausage mac and cheese ($10 for a cup, $14 for a bowl), plus gator ribs ($14) and bites ($12). 300 S.E. U.S. 19, Crystal River. seafoodsellerandcafe.net
General Tso’s gator
Why should chicken hog the spotlight? Hales Blackbrick Chinese in Tampa tosses Florida gator meat in General Tso’s sauce, orange preserves and chili crisp for an elevated riff on the takeout classic ($29). 4812 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.