By David Minsky
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By Laine Doss
The alligator lay sprawled across the entranceway to the walking path at Shark Valley, as stopped and unmovable as a battery-dead wristwatch, absorbing the distant warmth of the winter sun. The only way around the six-foot creature, if we wanted to even start our stroll through this part of Everglades National Park, was over him. He was dozing so lazily that if he were a dog, no doubt he would have been carelessly arranged on his back, paws moving in pursuit of some dream feline. The others in my group hopped over his torso as casually as jumping over a puddle of rainwater. For me, however, new to South Florida and having only ever put my feet into gators, skinned and made into shoes, of course, it took a literal leap of faith for me to begin the journey.
After more than ten years of living with South Florida fauna, I'm educated enough to have lost my unreasonable fear of alligators and smart enough to have gained plenty of respect for them. I know now they really don't hunt unless they're in water -- and they're likely to mistake you for prey only if you're in there with them. If I have to get near one on a nature hike or bicycle ride, I'd be wise to avoid his tail, the most powerful part of his body. If, during mating season, a gator lurks in canals near my house, looking like the rest of us for love and procreation, I must keep small children and pets out of reach. And along with the digits for the Poison Control Center and local hospitals, I always have the number for those "pesky critters" people at the ready.
I also have a decade's worth of treasured, postcard memories of South Florida alligators, since they fascinate me. Five years ago: the ten-foot specimen lounging on the grass near the third hole of a golf course, and my father-in-law holding a club over him as I, seven months pregnant with my first child, awkwardly teed off. (And no, I did not retrieve my ball from the water hazard. You try swinging an iron around such a belly.) Two years ago: watching a hatchling emerge from an egg in an incubator at a gator farm. Last year: getting on eye level with an untold number of them, canoeing in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Last week: chomping on succulent little bites of hand-breaded, deep-fried gator tail, dressed in traditional Buffalo wing sauce, at Alligator Alley.
1321 E. Commercial Blvd.
Oakland Park, FL 33334
Region: Oakland Park
That's right. For all their apparent and sometimes mythical fierceness, alligators make for tender eating. If they're sourced and prepared correctly, that is. Though no longer endangered, gators raised on farms, where their diet is controlled, taste better to humans than ones caught in the wild (or those removed from storm drains and impromptu lakes, say). And the tail, the part most likely to be consumed, can be sinewy and tough, which means that alligator should at least be cleaned thoroughly and even sometimes pounded like veal or conch to break the fibers before cooking.
"Kilmo" and "Iggy the Chef," the proprietors at Alligator Alley, a "native Florida restaurant and bar" located on East Commercial Boulevard in Oakland Park (and not in the western Everglades, as the moniker suggests), have a firm handle on both aspects of serving alligator. No wrestling with gators here. The basket of Buffalo gator nuggets boasted mild, tooth-tender gator meat, its freshness obvious even under the tangy pepper sauce. Another alligator dish, served as a main course, also comes breaded. But rather than deep-fried, these scaloppini are pan-fried in olive oil, napped with a lively sauce that is made of sherry and hot pepper. You can also pep the gator up a bit with a squeeze of lime. One companion, after a single bite, promptly declared the fare at Alligator Alley, which also promotes national and regional blues and jazz acts, "gourmet bar food."
I can't help but agree, though no doubt first-timers might snicker at the designation. This four-table eatery has more bar stools than chairs, and its luncheonette shape, open kitchen dominated by a gigantic hood (to suck up heat) and décor -- think "souvenir" tablecloths of Florida maps as wall art and you get the general kitschy picture -- isn't likely to attract local gourmands, if they can even find the establishment in its nondescript strip mall. The current clientele, which followed Alligator Alley from its former State Road 7 location when it moved into these brighter, cleaner digs four months ago, might also indulge in a giggle, along with a Bud and a cigarette or ten. Especially on nights when popular bands draw big crowds, the food can seem mostly like a way to keep the beer down and temper DUI possibilities.
Still, gator is not the only item that Iggy the Chef does with aplomb. Because he hand-breads every fried item on the spot, appetizers ranging from oysters to mozzarella sticks are crisp and marvelously grease-free. The marinara sauce could be rethought -- the flavors of tomatoes and herbs didn't seem blended or slow-cooked enough -- but we appreciated the homemade rémoulade that accompanied the oysters, which were so large that they looked like miniature Frisbees.