PHOTOS: MATTHEW GAULIN
Skip the beach trip and visit Gator Joe’s, the place for Florida food and fun in the sun.
A trip to the beach sounds like a great way to cool down in Florida in August, but the trek may not be in the budget, or even worth it, once you factor in gas, food costs and crowds.
Instead, head just a little north and discover the laid-back beach atmosphere and casual cuisine of Gator Joe’s, in the sleepy town of Ocklawaha. Gator Joe’s has been the place locals go to for a nice swim and a good time since 1926.
“Back then it was Barnes Beach and people would come out here to go swimming and enjoy the lake waters,” says Gator Joe’s general manager Steve Poucher. “Then it became Johnson’s Beach, named after the owner, Ken Johnson. He built a concession stand and people would come out here to dance, swim and listen to live music. Soon it became a destination, with the help of the nearby cabins, which can still be rented for a little R&R.”
That rest and relaxation was what I was in desperate need of. So, leaving behind the nerve-racking congestion of U.S. Highway 441, I found myself settling into the drive on County Road 25. Cracker homes, orange groves and small-town necessities lent themselves to the quintessential Old Florida scenery that flew past my window. Arriving at the lone traffic light in downtown Ocklawaha, I turned left and followed the brightly painted cabins to my final destination, an electric lime Key West-style waterfront restaurant kissing the edge of Lake Weir.
Inside, windows overlook the lake and large beach area, which is open to the public. However, Steve invited me to experience the Tiki dock, which stretches over the water. I had a front-row seat as I watched bikini-clad people idly float by in lounge chairs and inner tubes. Below, the waves gently lapped the shoreline.
Since it was midweek, the mood was mellow and tranquil at Gator Joe’s, but Steve assured me that on the weekends the place comes alive with “killer” music, people and nonstop fun.
“You can do anything out here,” he says. “We just like people to come out here and have a good time. We have great music playing on the weekends, a full liquor bar and a great menu that people can enjoy.”
As to be expected, the menu features a variety of seafood dishes, including gator tail, ironic since the restaurant is named after a 15-foot gator that once called Lake Weir home. However, if you’re not a seafood fan, there are enough sandwich, salad and entrée choices of the non-seafood variety to satisfy your appetite.
For a well-rounded experience, I created a smorgasbord. The table of out-of-towners from Clermont didn’t know what to make of my table, which was shrouded in deep-fried calories.
Naturally, I had to try the fried gator tail first. I made sure to have it fixed both ways: traditional and buffalo. Easily, the gator was some of the best I had ever had. It was tender and full of flavor, not to mention the batter and buffalo sauce was out-of-this-world good.
Next, I moved on to sample the Bahamian smoked fish spread. I was nicely surprised at the mildness of the fish flavor. It had a bit more tang than your typical tuna salad — though the texture is similar — and the smoky taste was pleasant, not at all overpowering.
The fried fish basket was also a delight. The Alaskan pollock, lightly breaded and deep-fried golden brown, flaked with ease as I carved through the tender white meat with my fork. Again, the batter was light and delicious and the fish was seasoned well. The accompanying crinkle fries were also tasty and fried to a crisp — the way fries should be.
As for non-seafood dishes, I tried Gator Joe’s baby back ribs. They were fall-off-the-bone tender and generously slathered in sticky sweet barbecue sauce. And for the first time I tried fried pickles. Theirs had a kick to them, because they use jalapeno dill pickles and you can dip them into a piquant chipotle ranch dipping sauce.
Finishing their first meal at Gator Joe’s, Peggy and Fred Arn of Clermont gave me a thumbs-up and a rating of five out of five stars on the service and the food.
“When my clams first came out they were overcooked. They immediately gave me new ones and they were perfect,” said Peggy. “You can’t beat that kind of service.”
Their friends, John and Carole Arnold, are longtime Gator Joe’s fans and said they always bring people to the restaurant.
“We have told a lot of people about this place,” said Carole. “I love watching seaplanes fly in and land. Just being able to sit outdoors and enjoy the lake’s beauty is magnificent.”
On my way back to the hustle and bustle of Leesburg, I decided to catch a quick glance at the infamous “Ma” Barker house. According to local folklore, legendary gang boss Kate “Ma” Barker and her son, Fred, rented the lakefront retreat as a hideout. While trying to track down the Barker gang, the FBI intercepted a letter from “Ma” to one of her other sons that mentioned how they were trying to kill a gator known as “Old Joe.”
After some digging, Lake Weir was pinpointed as the location of the house, and on Jan. 16, 1935, “Ma” and Fred were killed in a gun battle with the FBI that lasted four hours.
By and large, Gator Joe’s and the town of Ocklawaha is definitely a place you can sink your teeth into. I’ll be heading back soon, but this time I’ll be sure to bring my bathing suit, some friends and my own floating lounge chair.
Address: 12431 S.E. 135th Ave., Ocklawaha, FL 32179
Hours of Operation: Monday–Thursday, 11a.m.–9p.m.; Friday, 11a.m.–10p.m.; Saturday, 10:30a.m.–10p.m.; Sunday, 10:30a.m.–9p.m.
• Joe’s Own Gator Tail: $10.99
• Fried Pickles: $6.99
• Bahamian Smoked Fish Spread: $7.99
• Baby Back Ribs: $16.99
• Fish Basket: $9.99