Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive. The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park. To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando. It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.
As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic. I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore. I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become. Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out. I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am. Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included. Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better. I’m living proof of that.
But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past. On to the food!
I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):
And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando. I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry. These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried. I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share. Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings! Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.
My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel. This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery. It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot. That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter!
I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25. You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much. They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them. You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.
And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound). This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans. These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love. So they’re more work, but totally worth it.
This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled. The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s. If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.
These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted. The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel. As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got. They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.
Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food. I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person. Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.