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 overhim. 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.
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.
In fact, Iggy makes nearly everything in-house, from the tequila-flavored salsa that accompanies chips to the supple beef that he roasts and slices for po'boy hoagies. Kilmo, who plays bass with his band the Killers on some evenings, adds to the offerings with his recipe for a superb bowl of chili con carne. Robust but not spicy, the beefy kidney-bean concoction, cloaked in rich tomato sauce, is available as an entrée with an elbow macaroni partner. But we noted it enhanced the chips, and certainly it improves standard nachos.
As you might have guessed by now, the designation "native Florida" somehow has expanded to include Louisiana; indeed, Alligator Alley is more Creole and Cajun than Old South. In other words, there are no black-eyed peas, collard greens, or even frogs' legs, but there's gumbo and plenty of it. Iggy has a standard recipe for this soupy stew on the regular menu that has won the coveted Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival Gumbo Cook-Off in 2000 and 2002, which comprises the classic andouille sausage, hunks of chicken, shrimp, okra, celery, and onions. On some nights, though, you can score the "monster gumbo," a conglomerate of the above along with oysters, clams, and calamari added to the mix. The whole mess -- and I use that word in the kindest sense -- is served over rice, and the result is a silky stew so addictive it'll turn you into a gumbo-crazed monster yourself.
Equally piquant but perhaps a bit less challenging to the consumer, a half chicken is also offered jerk-style, and other menu items range from red beans 'n' rice to andouille-topped pizza by the slice. When it's available, the Alley might have a key lime pie for dessert, but sweets aren't the focus here. We were just as happy to fill up on the draft beers, which include Seven Thunderhead Red Ale, Eleven Nut Brown Ale, and Native Lager, all distinctive and satisfying microbrews from Northwest Florida. Our server, who was new and didn't know much about the beer, brought us tastes before we ordered full pints. Service in general, as a matter of fact, was maybe just as uninformed as I've had in other places but so honest and forthcoming that it wasn't a problem. And Kilmo spent a good 20 minutes at our table inspiring us with his passion for good food and good music, something he does, I suspect, with every new face that comes through the door. The old ones... well, they get hugs and kisses.
If there's a caveat to dining at Alligator Alley, it's that a cover charge is sometimes applied when bigger names take the corner stage. But those are the nights that cigarette smoke scents the air more than the gumbo, and you're not likely to be able to grab a table anyway. So if you're going for the food, quieter weeknights are best. Just don't skip over the gator.
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