Despite the urban myth claiming they live in the subway, I was pretty confident I’d never run into an alligator in New York City. But one night at Brooklyn’s The Gumbo Bros, I found myself in the bizarre situation of being fact-to-face with the grinning reptile, thanks to Adam Latham, co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant..
Adam was hosting an off-menu special event Gator Roast at his small cajun eatery in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood. Like an embassy on foreign soil, stepping into The Gumbo Bros small shop transported me straight to Louisiana. The floors are made of wood salvaged from the port of New Orleans while tables are planks pulled from a textile mill in Alabama; the sign out front comes from Magazine Street’s Mystic Blue Signs whose artist created iconic signage for The New Orleans Jazz Museum, La Petite Bistro, and other NOLA establishments. Adam himself grew up in Alabama creole country and attended Louisiana State University; his delicious gumbo recipes come straight from his great-grandmother. Saints games play on the television during football season while Louisiana basted Abita beer flows from the bar.
I stopped by the shop having no idea what to expect from a gator roast. Questions and cartoony answers swirled around my head: Did the animal come straight from a swamp? Does it arrive like a pig on a spit? Does it come intact with it’s skin or does that get sent over to the fashion industry for shoes and handbags? The part of me that watches too many movies pictured a live 10-foot-long reptile on a leash in a cage. Reality was a little different.
Adam brought out the alligator on the pan it was roasted on, as the guests gasped, a startling sight combining the familiar and the unfamiliar. It looked part Sunday roast, part monster. It was smaller than I anticipated, about three feet long as it was a young three years old. (Adam mentioned that they grow around 10” to 12” a year.) The little guy came out whole in his full glory, arms and legs tucked behind him and tail snaked around his body, so he’s fit on the sheet pan. His flesh was bare and pale except for his feet and head, which still had the skin and claws and teeth. The animal actually appeared to be grinning at us, despite the hole in his head where the bullet struck for the kill. This was hardcore.
The alligator arrived up via FedEx, from the farm it was raised on in Natchitoches, LA. It arrived skinned and cleaned, ready for roasting. As alligator meat tends to be dry, Latham soaked him in a cayenne pepper/maple syrup brine for two days. Next he was roasted in an oven, low and slow for 6 hours, to ensure a juicy reptile.
Adam cut into the roast, showing us how the alligator meat differs from the more familiar pork, beef, and poultry. The flesh and fat are more layered and separate easily, very different than a marbled beef. Like other animals, there’s light and dark meat -- the dark coming from the area near the legs. I couldn’t wait to sample. The last time I had alligator, I was in New Orleans and my main takeaway was simply the generic flavor of fried food, all breading and crispiness but no real sense of the meat itself.
Carving the Gator
The old adage that everything tastes like chicken certainly held true here. We started with the white meat, which really did resemble a chewier, almost seafood-y chicken. The dark flesh’s flavor was a cross between turkey and pork, also with that seafood vibe. Both shades of flesh were gamier than your usual poultry. It was familiar yet unusual with a different texture than more common meats. And it was good!
In addition to the roast of honor, the evening also included the restaurants less bizarre selections: an incredible crawfish boil and tasting of the restaurant’s jambalaya (topped with the alligator meat!), three gumbos (meat, seafood, and vegan), fried green tomatoes, fried okra, boudin (southern sausage) balls, and some Abita strawberry beer. We finished the meal with baskets of warm and fluffy beignets. By the end, I practically forgot I was in New York!
The Gumbo Bros Main Offerings
If the thought of walking into a restaurant to see a grinning reptile on a tray freaks you out, have no fear, the alligator roast isn’t a regular thing at the restaurant. But if you can’t get enough of the idea, you can find it on their catering menu -- can you think of a more memorable party?
I’m always up for trying something new, and this was certainly one of the more unusual experiences I’ve had. Adam’s cajun pride comes out in his cooking and the restaurant itself; he was the perfect guide to walk me through the ins and outs of this animal from his home state. And how cool to be able to take a trip to Louisiana just by hopping on the subway? A subway that’s alligator free, mind you. Unless you take some to go.