I have been craving oysters of late. Big, juicy, briny oysters on the half shell and, no I am not pregnant…I had a vasectomy years ago. It has been a really frustrating search around the Tampa area for an establishment that has those fat, juicy, salty hummers that I love so much. After searching from Tampa down to Punta Gorda it stresses me to report that my search for the perfect oyster on the half shell has been in vain. The oyster aficionado must make the long journey to at least highway 98 west of Perry, Florida to find anything worth consuming. Besides, the prices are better in the Panhandle anyway.
When DJ’s Oyster Bar on the corner of Gandy and Dale Mabry shut down, Tampa as well as SOG City (DJ’s was technically south of Gandy) lost a true treasure…a real honest to gosh oyster bar with people who knew what the hell they were doing. So, what have we been left with? I will share a few of my experiences:
Gallagher’s Steak House, Channelside Drive, Tampa: [Editor's note 1/12/11 - Gallagher's has closed] they advertise Apalachicola oysters. Maybe they are, but they have had all the flavor pasteurized out of them. If it wasn’t for bad taste they would have had no taste at all and the texture was that of a wet wad of cotton.
AquaKnox, at the Westin on Courtney Campbell, Tampa: these were cold water oysters. When served they were too chewed up, as in mangled, to be recognized…and, over two dollars a pop.
Hula Bay Club, on Tyson off West Shore, Tampa: they didn't know where their oysters came from, but they insist upon washing them off in some nasty looking water before plopping them back on the shell…even after being asked not to do that. They also tend to mangle.
Timpano Chop House, West Swann, Tampa: they advertise that they fly in their cold water oysters. Only a few were mangled, but all had been rinsed in fresh water before being served. This is a big no-no for me.
Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda: they advertise several restaurants with oyster bars. I was thrilled! We drove down and could not find a single restaurant with an oyster bar. We sat at a riverside table at one of these “Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks” kind of seafood restaurants and I ordered a dozen. First off, they were not freshly shucked…they had that glassy look that says they have been sitting out for a spell. Second, they were Ameri-Pures. That is all Fisherman’s Village serves I discovered. In fairness to Ameri-Pure, their web site says that their process does nothing to the oyster but kill bacteria. Well, Ameri-Pure, something or someone is killing the taste and texture. Holy crap, they were awful!
Mitchell's Fish Market, West Shore Plaza, Tampa: they ususally have a nice selection of oysters, but the presentation can be inconsistant depending on who is shucking on a particular day. Mitchell's is probably the best of the bunch, though.
So where does one go in the Tampa area for decent oysters you may query? I go to IC Sharks seafood market on the Pinellas side of the Gandy bridge, buy a couple dozen and bring them home and shuck‘em myself.
Unless someone can offer an alternative, for oysters done right I am thinking it’s time for a road trip to the Panhandle. I get almost orgasmic thinking of the oysters at Boss Oyster in Apalachicola. And, their jumbo heads-on shrimp? To die for!
As long as you made that drive to Apalach, why not go another 70 or so miles to Panama City Beach and stop in at Shuckums for another couple dozen oysters. Even the Fair Maiden Lydia, who is not a fan of oysters, ate a bunch the last time we stopped in. Tell Mack the proprietor that we sent you. He might give you a free beer. Of course, he also might be sending me the bill for that beer.