Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The fabulous Skipperdome!

Off Nebraska Avenue in North Tampa, Florida, you can pull into an unpaved parking lot, crushed oyster-shells popping under your tires, and park among the pickup trucks, Harleys, muscle cars and abandoned boat trailers under the branches of a broad live oak festooned with Spanish moss. At the street, there's a battered old lifeboat turned upside down, and a lit-up signboard listing coming attractions.

Follow the neon signs to the dining room and take-out counter, or just wander down the passageway and look for the bar. The first thing you learn about this place is it's easygoing.

The stage at Skippers

You walk into a shabby rambling structure with an inner courtyard opening onto a sandy yard with benches facing a covered stage, beneath the spreading limbs of more old oaks. It's really a dilapidated collection of shacks cobbled together, with rambling dining rooms, covered outdoor patios, and palmetto-frond-shaded picnic tables. It's enclosed by an irregular fence of corrugated rusty metal, weathered plywood, and woven bamboo, all covered with a layered, faded pentimento of colorful murals and obscene graffiti.

This is Skipper's Smokehouse, an old Florida seafood joint and blues club. Since 1980, Skippers has been serving up classic redneck food, booze, and music. Blues, reggae, Grateful Dead cover bands, bluegrass, zydeco, folk and classic rock - you can dance barefoot in the sand to it in the outdoor venue affectionately known as the "Skipperdome."

The only time I've actually come here for the music was when [The Man I Love] and I were courting, and we went to see Buddy Guy play. He was so drunk he was fumbling in his bag for harmonicas, playing the wrong key harp for each song, but it was still a great show. Or maybe it was the beer that made me think that.

Usually, we come here in the afternoon, when it's quiet, and the only place hopping is the Oyster Bar, where a few old codgers sit and slurp down oysters on the half-shell with their beer, or tuck into fried gator-tail sandwiches.

A pound of peel-and-eat shrimp are served on an ice-filled tin beer tray. You can get chicken wings, onion rings, crawfish, catfish, grouper sandwiches, and fried okra.

A scoop of smoked mullet spread comes in a pleated paper cup with a handful of saltines and a healthy dash of paprika for color.

Smoked mullet, like boiled peanuts, is a Gulf coast Florida delicacy, sold from roadside stands in the palmetto scrub. Mullet are caught in warm coastal waters of Florida's bays, bayous and inlets. Easy to catch, they're a mainstay in the diet of poor rural folks. The fish fillets are brined and then smoked over a charcoal fire with wood-chips.

Skippers smoked mullet spread on saltines

The spread is made in a similar fashion to tuna salad, the flaked fish mixed with minced onion, celery and parsley in a seasoned mayonnaise.

We opted for the assorted fried platter, which included calamari, shrimp, fish fillet and nuggets of fried gator tail. You also get a couple of hush-puppies and two sides, which could be barbecue beans, cole slaw, black beans and yellow rice, fries or steamed vegetables.

If you haven't had hush-puppies before, be warned that these are a golf-ball-sized gut bomb of cornmeal batter mixed with some chopped green onions, deep-fried. At Skippers they come to the table in a little cardboard cradle, almost too hot to touch. They're perfect with a dash of Crystal hot sauce or Skippers own bottled hot sauce, a searing tincture of vinegar, carrot juice, and Scotch bonnet peppers, called "Captain Tom's Scorch Bonnet Pepper Hot Sauce."

Conch fritters at Skippers

Conch fritters are super-sized hush-puppies, the batter augmented by morsels of conch - rubbery pale chunks of meat from a gastropod mollusk, the queen conch, whose familiar pink-lipped seashell is emblematic of South Florida tourism. Conch is also the name used to describe the crusty native residents of the Florida Keys. Alas, it's no longer legal to fish conch in US waters, so Florida seafood joints serve conch imported from the Bahamas. At Skippers conch fritters come with a fierce yellow curry dipping sauce - perhaps in homage to its Bahamian heritage.

The dining room features marine-based junk and signed photos and posters of all the musicians that have played here for the past 30 years. The dress code at Skippers is casual - tank tops and flip flops abound, for guests of both sexes. Tattoos are in vogue. Ball-caps or straw cowboy hats are allowed. Male hairstyles range from long gray ponytails to shaved pates. Times must be changing, in one way though - I didn't see anyone wearing a mullet.

If you're ever in the Tamp-St. Pete area, you'll want to visit Skippers.


Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

hush puppies = gut bomb

you couldn't be more accurate

I got them once at my favorite soul food restaurant here in New Haven. OMG I felt like I had swallowed a cannonball.

But the rest of it sounds super - nothing better than battered and deep fried calamari!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

My mom would jokingly describe this place as a "bucket of blood". It sounds awesome!

If you come to New York, you must check out this place in the Bronx.

mo.stoneskin said...

"shabby rambling structure"

The cheek. You should watch what you say about my house.

There's something about those murals and that tacky looking table that I quite like. I can imagine eating a packet of crisps there or something!

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