Battle of the Dishes

Gator Eats Tempe Town Lake Fish, Lands on Our Plate

In case you haven't heard, the poor fish that didn't survive The Great Tempe Town Levee Break of 2010 were fed to a six-foot alligator named "Tuesday" -- just one of nearly two dozen Arizona Herpetological Society reptiles that will feast on the receding water's tiny victims.

That inspired us to use our higher place on the food chain to get some revenge in the name of those fish, by having a special edition Battle of the Dishes: Gator. Let's see how these reptiles like landing on our plate!

In One Corner: Islamorada Fish Company at Bass Pro Shop
1133 North Dobson Road in Mesa

Though it's doubtful you missed the massive lodge-like building that is Bass Pro Shop at Mesa Riverview, maybe you didn't know there's a lovely upscale casual seafood restaurant inside. Think of Islamorada like a tropical island getaway. Or an adult version of Rainforest Cafe.

Rustic painted walls are decorated with larger-than-life marlins, bass and other sea creatures. A huge aquarium serves as a divider between the bar area and the unique dining rotunda. The dark furniture is island-chic; a round stone fireplace with towering copper chimney serves as an anchor for the sea-themed decor, preventing it from venturing into kitschy tourist trap.

We ordered up a plate of crispy fried gator and were presented with a dozen or so bite-sized pieces on a long, undulating black plate mimicking the lapping waves painted in a nearby wall mural. Pale green seafoam sauce decorated the crisp gator bites. My dining companion greedily reached out for one, anxious to try this "other white meat" for the first time.

The meat was firm and slightly chewy, similar to escargot. "It's surprisingly good," voiced my friend. "The outside is like hush puppy breading, and the meat is as mild as chicken." Yep, gator really does taste like chicken. The only thing that clearly separates it from fowl is the rubbery texture, which isn't everyone's cuppa tea.

The breading made up for any problem with the meat texture, though. The gator was coated in a delicious seasoned cornmeal batter reminiscent of Long John Silver's hushpuppies (perhaps the only thing on the beleaguered East Coast chain's menu I actually like). The creamy sauce added a nice visual contrast to the dish, and helped to ground the spice mix, which had a nice little kick to warm your gullet. Overall, this gator went down pretty smooth.

In the Other Corner: Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
11051 N. Black Canyon Hwy. in Phoenix

The restaurant's interior is comfortable and dark, with a great double-sided bar near the entry and a large dining room with a wall of windows overlooking the courtyard and front lot. For the best comparison, my friend and I ordered the fried gator -- though a nearby bartender mentioned it's also available blackened.

The gator arrived in crispy heaps on a white rectangular platter, served with an orange dipping sauce. Immediately, we could tell this gator was different. The texture of the breading was more like fried chicken -- crisp, brown and bubbly -- and there was a very visible sprinkling of Cajun spices over the top.

Pappadeaux's gator meat (taken from the tail) had a mild, slightly sweet taste somewhere between chicken and lobster. The texture varied depending on the size of the piece: large gator bites were chewy, similar to Islamorada's. But the smaller pieces were almost buttery in texture, making me wonder if the smaller surface area of the meat helped it to cook faster and thus become tender.

The breading was scrumptious, crisp and golden with a mild bite from the Cajun spices. (Though I wished the spices were infused into the batter, rather than just sprinkled on top. That might've made the flavors more subtle but better integrated into the dish.) The pungent sauce added a vinegary zing to the breaded reptile that complimented the seasoning well.

"This is a very hard call," said my companion. "They were both delicious and the meats very similar, but the cornmeal breading made the other dish better." I wasn't convinced. While the hush puppy batter was more tongue-tickling than the traditional version, the buttery texture of the smaller gator pieces and the zesty spice blend made Pappadeaux's version a hit. 

The Winner: Islamorada Fish Company AND Pappadeaux. This one's too close to call, and besides, the real score here is New Times = 2, Alligator = 0. 

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden