"Hooweeeee! Gonna get me some gator tail!"
Okay, so I may not have used those exact words this past weekend, but, that is kind of what I felt like as I clunkered down Krome Avenue in my 1993 Ford Explorer heading towards SW 366th Street.
This unfamiliar trek was put in motion by someone who contacted Short Order with an insider tip -- Gator Grill serves the best gator tail.
So I packed up my camping gear, filled a canteen with Vitamin Water, and headed deep into the Dirty South.
Gator Grill is located on 192nd Avenue, about twenty blocks from the über-popular tourist and local haven known as Robert is Here (named both Best Farmer's Market and Best Milkshake by the New Times in previous years). And if you don't know about Gator Grill, it is possible that you will drive right past it, even if you notice the signs that read "Best Hamburger in Town" and "Last Stop for 40 Miles."
If you do drive by though, you will in fact miss out on the best gator tail in all of Miami.
Gator Grill, a small, cottage-y looking structure, appears closed for business to the untrained or hurried eye. In fact, there is a perennial closed sign visible in one of the windows. But the neon sign that reads "Open" is what you need to look out for.
Behind the counter you will usually find the tanned and tattooed Nino, a transplanted New Yorker ("I'm from the Bronx.") who has been working at the Gator Grill for about two years in addition to being a corrections officer at a Homestead juvenile facility. Nino is responsible for the best tasting gator tail this side of Louisiana (which coincidentally is where Gator Grill gets its gator meat from).
"When I first started working here, I was like, 'Gator?' oh, hell no." Unaccustomed to such exotic fare in the Bronx, he first had to overcome his distrust of reptilian cuisine. "Then I would see people ordering it and they would complain that it was too chewy, so one day I tried it."
It didn't gross him out, but he did agree that it was too chewy which compelled him to do some research. After speaking with a few experts, he discovered that he needed a 16-point tenderizer to soften up the tough meat. The contraption looks somewhat like a portable medieval torture device, but like Nino says, it works wonders on tough gator meat.
The second step in making gator meat less chewy is to marinate it. So, one - use the mini iron maiden on it and two - saturate it with a vinegar-based marinade. "Now it's perfect. No more complaints and everyone says how good it is."
And they're right. I won't tout myself as a gator expert or even an aficionado (until now), but I have had gator tail several times in my life, one being a recent trip to the Islamorada Fish Co. where the ambiance was spectacular, but the gator tail was too... well, chewy.
At Gator Grill, apart from the necessary tenderization, the gator meat is chopped into small, bite-size pieces - think of it as popcorn gator tail, which Nino breads with simple flour. These procedures ensure that each basket of gator tail is flavorful, crisp, and of course, non-chewy.
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Each gator tail basket ($8.75) comes with tons of popcorn gator bites sitting on top of a bed of French fries. The gator is so good, that it is worth scheduling a day trip to Homestead to try it out. You can plan your meal around a visit to the Alligator Farm or Coral Castle, or tons of other cool spots to make it a full day's worth of activities.
Unfortunately, some people still need to overcome their gastronomic prejudices. While I was smoking a cigarette at one of the outdoor tables, some tourists pulled up. They were German or Swedish, or some such tall, blond human-producing country. "Try the gator tail. It's amazing," I called out to them. They shook their heads and made icky toddler faces as if to say, "Alligator tail? Yuck."
They came out with burgers and a ham sandwich. What a shame.