Blake Brooks really liked the Florida-Tex Mex restaurant R.J. Gator’s Sea Grill & Bar when he stumbled upon the concept from the Sunshine State almost a decade ago.
So he and his wife, Diane, bought a franchise and opened one just outside North East Mall in 2004. Never mind that the company declared bankruptcy a handful of years later; the Brooks’ spot in Hurst is still going strong — so much so that last month he opened another outpost in southwest Fort Worth.
But it is a risky location. Two restaurants — the improbably named Hot Tub’s Back Porch Grotto and the much-loved-in-Benbrook Pop’s Burgers & Grill — couldn’t make a go of it in this small swath of land between Granbury Road and South Drive. All of which makes the new R.J. Gator’s very much a “destination” restaurant, as in: Is the food worth venturing off the beaten path?
I’ll go with a cautious “yes,” judging from a recent satisfying lunch there, and because this R.J. Gator’s has the potential to blossom come spring and summer (hello, large patio!).
The weather was icy when we stopped by, so we took a booth in the comfy dining room, which the Brookses have completely renovated. There’s a neat tin ceiling and the requisite homage to alligators on the walls in the form of murals. Dark cherry wood chairs and black booths are a handsome touch, while the bar spans the center of the room in a straightforward, neighborly drinking establishment kind of way.
I’m not sure where else in the area (except at the Hurst location) you’ll find gator tail on the menu, so we started our meal off with an order of the fried variety ($12.99), which were like a chewy, meatier riff on the common nugget. Served with two dipping sauces — a cocktail and a vinegary, Thousand Island-like one — they were one-bite bits and quickly disappeared off the platter.
R.J. Gator’s offers a lot of lunch specials (15, not counting the $5.99 soup and salad combo), ranging from straight-up fried catfish ($9.99) to fish and chips ($9.49), and even chicken fried steak ($8.99) and an Angus burger ($7.49). Sprinkled among the basics are some dishes that you could call “taste sensations.” That is: You wouldn’t think the flavors mesh, but they do.
Case in point, the Buffalo chicken pasta ($9.49) — penne tossed in Alfredo and topped with veggies and the spicy-sweet chicken. Or the Havana-banana style chicken ($13.49), an attractive platter of butterflied, grilled chicken breast served atop black beans and fried plantains. The yellow rice is virtually hidden underneath the chicken. On top of all of this were tasty fried tortilla strips and a sour cream sauce. The plantains were great, perfectly sweet and crisp on the outside, and they balanced the other more savory items on the plate. This was an entrée that had a lot going on, but it worked.
Other plates were pleasant if not overly exciting. The fish and chips featured a flattened fillet of pollock with a textbook, uninspired batter. The fries were shoestring and could have used more seasoning; the coleslaw, too, would have benefited from salt and pepper.
Fried shrimp came with a choice of a side — anything from steamed broccoli to refried beans or fruit salsa — for $9.49, and consisted of fewer than a dozen tasty shrimp, served with the same sauces as the gator. You could probably do better elsewhere if you’re expecting a stand-out fish taco. Here, they are two corn or flour tortillas with tilapia and topped with tomatoes and lettuce ($8.49).
Kids may get special pleasure out of something called the Gazookie ($5.99) — essentially a chocolate-chip sundae — which looked tempting but we hadn’t saved room.
Overall, the food we tried at R.J. Gator’s was solid. And matched with a homey, neighborhood vibe that’s just in its infancy, R.J. Gator’s may just require a repeat trip to the grotto, er, make that swamp.