BHS Grouper Guide: St. Pete Beach Eats

We made our second trip to St. Pete Beach, in Florida, a couple weeks ago, and I learned a lot about myself. Okay, okay, what I really learned is that, on vacation, I am a person who mostly wants to not do my hair and eat beer-battered grouper several times a day. Near the end of our week in paradise (which St. Pete Beach totally is - the sign on our hotel said so!), Shawn asked me to rank all the grouper I'd eaten from best to worst, and the idea for this post was born.

But first, an honorable mention: Castile Restaurant, in the Hotel Zamora, on the bay side of Gulf Boulevard, was our Valentine's Day destination. The ceviche, butter-poached shrimp, and ricotta donuts with pistachio creme anglaise we indulged in there were some of the most developed, delicious dishes of our trip. Castile is a big step up from SPB's typical beach bars, but you should check it out when you visit. Butter poaching is my new standard in shrimp cookery.

5. PJ's Oyster Bar - Beer battered grouper sandwich

I loved this massive slab of flaky, moist fish encased in a beer-forward golden crust served on a toasted kaiser roll with some lettuce and a lemon wedge, but the fries alongside were ice cold. Moreover, Shawn's grilled grouper sandwich was over-seasoned, the fish just tasting salty. PJ's came recommended from a lot of the online research I had done about SPB, but it's pretty dingy and dated inside. It makes my top five, but comes in last on the list.

4. Sea Critters Cafe - Sauteed grouper with key lime butter sauce, rice and black beans

Another run-down restaurant recommended by a bunch of blogs and sites I assume are paid for by local businesses, Sea Critters has seen better days. The bathrooms were a mess, and the service was slow and not particularly gracious. The conch fritters were nearly burnt, and my grouper was overcooked. Though the rice and beans were flavorful and tasty, the rice also was overcooked, the key lime butter sauce plopped on top of my fish tasted neither of lime nor of butter. The only thing bringing this place in above PJ's is location - eating waterfront is always a treat.

3. Crabby Bill's - Beer battered grouper platter

We had a big group dinner at Bill's our last night of vacation, and I got so excited for my last batch of grouper, I forgot to take a photo, but it was delicious. In accordance with the beach prophecy, Bill's is shabby and the carpet badly needs replacing, but the food there is legit and really well priced. My grouper was cooked and seasoned perfectly, and the garlic butter shrimp we fell upon like hungry cavemen as an appetizer was groaningly good. Also, our waiter, Winston, was funny and charming, and if we had each had probably two more cocktails, we may have invited him to an impromptu after-party, we liked him so much.

2. Mad Fish - Grouper and shrimp in tomato caper sauce over risotto

This was the most delicate preparation of grouper I ate all week, and unlike our other contenders, Mad Fish is a delightful venue in ship shape. This renovated diner is slightly upscale, the service is friendly and upbeat, and the vibe is chill but swanky. The tomato caper sauce, by rights, should have overshadowed the seafood in my dish, or the parmesan in the risotto should have clashed, but instead, the acidity in the sauce smoothed out the richness of the cheese and made a marriage between it and the tender grouper and shrimp.

Special mention for Mad Fish, because it also served up our favorite dish of the whole trip: drunken island shrimp, which you are a fool if you miss on your next trip to St. Pete Beach. The blackened shrimp in a wine and cream sauce with some lemon juice and some heat was so good sopped up with an entire basket of slightly sweet, crusty Cuban bread, we almost went back again the next night. This dish belongs on a whole other list - top five dishes I've eaten this year.

1. Dockside Dave's - Beer battered grouper sandwich and onion rings

Dave's, in Madeira Beach, is a similar dive to some of the other spots on this list, but the food here is so good, you could be sitting in the middle of an actual dump and not care. Plus the service is faster than you can imagine. The onion rings were breaded in-house, and the breading actually stuck to the onion after your first bite, a rarity in the homemade ring game. They were well-seasoned without being downright salty, and had the sandwiches not been so incredibly resplendent, we might have eaten the entire basket.

The grouper sandwich was a champion, taking all other grouper sandwiches to fish school (get it?) and teaching them lessons on juiciness, flavor, and lack of grease. The fish was a huge, thick cut, and the batter was fried in the perfect temperature oil, rendering it robustly crunchy without holding on to the grease. It was served on a squishy white roll with romaine lettuce, and big squeeze bottles of ketchup, tartar, and cocktail sauce are brought to your table, but you won't need them, because this fish is everything you've ever needed, right on a bun. Let the truth of this fish set you free, my friends. Let your bun runneth over!

Ahem. So, uh, that's what I have to say about the grouper options in St. Pete Beach. Don't even come at me talking about The Hurricane in Passe-A-Grille, because that place is filthy and its fish is a greasebomb. But if you have other suggestions I might have missed, please do weight in! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!