When I think about starting this new adventure with food writing, I picture myself eating weird creations at local hole-in-the-wall dives….. “weird” not like Andrew Zimmern weird (no part of deep fried testicles sounds appetizing to me) but weird for a vegetarian with pescatarian “tendencies.” Fish tacos, lobster ravioli and crab chowder are still ‘exotic’ to me. I’ve tried scallops, various white fish and even gator but I draw the line at calamari. (I’ve been scared by the thought of calamari ever since I heard a podcast on NPR about how most ‘calamari’ in the U.S. is actually pig bunghole. NO THANK YOU. I’ll pass on that one.) So when I think about my new food adventure, I think about pushing myself outside of my comfort zone (relatively) or at least going all out on my vegetarian selections. I won’t restrict myself to a completely vegetarian diet when sampling and writing but I will be selective as I get my sea legs, so to speak.
In the name of food experimentation and in honor of gaining my new ‘sea legs’, I ventured to Madeira Beach to the local favorite, Dockside Dave’s. I had heard about Dockside Dave’s when I first moved to Florida but I had never made a point to experience the eatery firsthand.
The modest sized lavender-colored building sits right on Beach Blvd. with a front patio overlooking the massive condos on the Gulf of Mexico. Dockside Dave’s grand entrance is a homemade PVC pipe and plastic door with a handwritten message stuck to the front instructing patrons to ‘slide to open.’ The outside seating is full so I find myself a seat at the bar, excited to begin my food “research.” The solid stone slab of a bar with bits of blue mosaic tile littered throughout is cool to the touch and brings sweet relief after sitting in spring break traffic in the hot sun for the duration of my ride here. The whole atmosphere of Dockside Dave’s is casual, laid back, and stress free. (Typical Florida vibe.) It appears there is no uniform policy for the staff and the eating utensils come hand-packaged in plastic sandwich baggies.
I like this place already.
I had skimmed the menu online (I like to review my options ahead of time – when it comes to food, I am not a fan of surprise) and thought this seemed like the perfect venue to get back in touch with one of Florida’s finest appetizers: gator bites. Up until today, I had only eaten gator one other time at a chain restaurant while on a family vacation nearly 10 years ago. But these gator bites were not like I remember. Less than 3 minutes after placing my order, the bartender delivers a plastic basket layered in multiple sheets of parchment paper soaking up the grease from my deep fried gems. Hot and chewy, these gator bites were nostalgic, not because they reminded me of a family vacation a decade earlier but because they instantly emotionally transported me back to my days as a carnivorous 7 year old. In fact, when I was younger, just about the only thing I would eat were chicken strips. These gator bites, more specifically the breading on these gator bites, took me right back to my childhood chicken strip obsession at Arby’s. The fluff and crunch and whatever secret seasonings Dave or their food wholesaler uses in the breading tastes EXACTLY how I remember Arby’s chicken strips. I chuckle to myself at the ridiculous memory and how the only thing that would make these nuggets of goodness anymore perfect would be if they came with a side of Arby’s sauce for dipping.
One of my personal criteria I use for judging the quality of a restaurant is the selection of hot sauces. I am a spice fiend and love when I have opportunity to eat fire in the form of hot sauce. Dockside Dave’s sports plastic caddies with an array of sauces to choose from. There are the standards: Krystal, Tabasco and Texas Pete. But guests can also choose XX, a locally-made jalapeno green sauce or XX, their hot habanero sauce. I opt for the local sauce and smother my bites.
Dockside Dave’s, despite its name, is in fact not on a dock (or even by the surrounding water) nor am I aware of anyone named Dave that works there (to the best of my knowledge.) The restaurant is, however, known for its fresh grouper – their “World Renowned Fresh Filleted ½ Pound Wonder!” I can’t remember the last time I went out to eat and ordered a fish sandwich or the last time I ate grouper but this seemed like the perfect time to get reaquainted with the Florida favorite. I opt to have the fish blackened, although the menu offers 6 additional preparations: lightly blackened on the grill, chargrilled, country fried, batter fried, buffalo style or lemon peppered.
Before I can finish all of my gator bites, my grouper sandwich arrives. The generous half pound hunk of fish is served modestly on a standard bun with LTO (restaurant speak for lettuce, tomato and onion) with 2 sliced pickle rounds and a banana pepper for garnish. This is no thrills nosh but it certainly delivers on taste. Cooked to perfection with the just the right balance of crunch and salt, my grouper sandwich totally hits the spot. The bartender slides a generous portion of homemade tartar sauce in front of my basket and cracks me open another beer as I scribble down notes to document my food feasting experience.
Including the cup of crab chowder I bring home for my better half, my bill only totals $32. My first food outing has been a success! And it was budget-friendly! With a full tummy and happy tastebuds, I drive home in the spring break heat, already planning my next edible adventure!