"Where do you get your gator?" I ask the man fixing up my lunch at Myakka Outpost, the elevated restaurant/gift shop that sits smack in the middle of Myakka River State Park. Alligators are a featured attraction out here; I'm sure there are plenty paddling right now in Upper Myakka Lake, visible through the Outpost's generous windows. So I'm picturing a brawny park ranger wrasslin' down a wild reptile and emerging from the lake waters, shirt ripped from bloodthirsty struggle, carcass in hand, ready to field-dress that critter before tossing hunks of its delectable flesh in the gator stew I just ordered.
The truth is a touch more mundane. Sysco. Myakka Outpost gets its gator from massive food distributor Sysco. Well, hey. My imagination gets away from me.
I'm doubling up on gator today, chowing down both on the aforementioned stew ($8) and a basket of deep-fried alligator bites ($12). The stew is particularly delicious: A thick, spicy tomato base is accentuated with nuggets of corn, green beans, kidney beans, red potatoes, green herbs and, of course, that gator meat. The alligator itself doesn't pack much flavor, or perhaps it's all been absorbed into the soup, but its texture belies gator's reputation for being tough and even (to some) inedible. Myakka Outpost's slow-cooked version is just the right mix of soft and chewy — soft enough to fall apart in your mouth, chewy enough to add body to the broth. The stew comes with a hunk of bread that's tasty enough when used to sop up remaining soup and a small side salad loaded with strands of Parmesan, halved grape tomatoes and crunchy croutons. I'm a happy camper.
Gator often gets knocked for tasting largely like chicken, and when I crunch down on the Outpost's fried gator bites, I can understand the criticism. It's a white meat. It's tasty like most deep-fried items are. But the Outpost's meat chunks have a seafood vibe to them — a little twist of flavor that differentiates the gator from your average chicken. A squeeze of lemon accentuates that perception.
The Outpost offers more than gator, of course. The menu lists burgers ($8.25), wraps ($9), barbecue pork sandwiches ($9), clam baskets ($10) and fish and chips ($13), and the restaurant even offers a surprisingly fun variety of craft beers, with suds from Florida Beer, Cigar City, Hop City, New Belgium and others.
While I chow down on an order of mahi mahi tacos ($10), I stare out the window. The restaurant's tall windows supply views of the brown, undulating waters below, where the park's boat tours depart. Across the way, Spanish moss streams between the branches of a massive oak. The restaurant is packed with birders, chatting about Caspian terns they've spotted, warming up before heading back out to hit the binoculars. Other patrons appear to be long-term campers, taking advantage of the Outpost's Wi-Fi to pry open their laptops.
Oh, how are the tacos, you ask? Not spectacular. The fish has good flavor and is well-seasoned, but it's buried beneath an avalanche of oddly dry slaw. The basic yellow rice and black beans that come with the dish are fine, though.
Driving back out toward the front gate, it suddenly dawns on me why my gator-snatching fantasy was so wrong. Why would the park rob itself of one of its most valuable assets? As my car thump-thumps over a small bridge, I follow the lead of the crowd gathered there and look down. Two alligators are lying on the bank, just chilling, wearing the confident smirks of animals that know they won't be thrown into a stew anytime soon.
13208 State Road 72, Sarasota
923-1120 or myakkaoutpost.com
Entrance to Myakka River State Park costs $2-$6.
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature in Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter:@LeveyBaker.