Hide-less alligators in plain sight in Grosse Pointe

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe Farms — You might wonder why someone would buy an entire particularly ugly alligator from the seafood case at an otherwise normal upscale grocery store. Nick Roumayah didn't give it a thought.

Roumayah is the seafood manager at Village Market on Mack Avenue, which means he's the guy who got the urge and made the calls to find the gators that wound up on ice and on customers' Instagram feeds.

Nick Roumayah slides a frozen alligator back into the plastic bag it came in from a fish wholesaler in Chicago. The first two sold for $24.99 a pound after being put in the Village Market display case.

In a city where the only alligators used to be found on Lacoste shirts, he'd been hoping for a 6- to 9-footer. He settled for three 3-footers, two of which have already left the building. As for who took them home?

"None of my business," Roumayah says cheerfully. "They want it, they can have it. Have a nice day."

Others might have a few questions. Why, for instance, would a store known mostly for its meat, seafood and ambition suddenly decide to stock menacing reptiles? Where did it find them? Can you order alligator in restaurants? And, most important, what does it taste like?

The answers, in order:

For the heck of it; from a seafood supplier in Chicago; yes; and it depends who you ask, but chefs don't like it if you say "chicken."

Roumayah, 50, has a history of mixing whimsy with his whitefish. In the 2½ years he's been at the market, he has tracked down and displayed a live king crab, a 15-pound lobster, a whole swordfish and a 45-pound reef shark.

In that same span, the market has expanded from 7,500 to 23,000 square feet — an increasingly large tent for Roumayah's circus.

"Whatever's weird, I get it," he says.

Or to put it another way, if it's worth a selfie, it's worth stocking.

The king crab didn't move around much, he says. He saved the pointed appendage from the swordfish, and a friend is turning it into an ornamental dagger. A fire department bought the shark and he obligingly cut it into fillets.

One of Village Market’s trio of 3-foot-long alligators spills over the edge of the seafood counter. “Whatever’s weird,” says seafood manager Nick Roumayah, “I get it.”

As for the seven-pound gators, they arrived in plastic bags, pasty white except for the dark hides on their heads and feet. "Zombie alligators," Roumayah calls them, each one bent into a circle like a creepy translucent wreath.

They were farm raised, he says, and it took a few months for them to make their way from Florida to Chicago to a spot at the fish counter next to some groupers, who wouldn't win any aquatic beauty contests, either.

The first two sold between Christmas and New Year's at $24.99 per pound. The third was still in the freezer late last week, awaiting its assignment.

Other oddities are already on display. If a shrimp can be terrifying, it's a wild caught Nigerian Monster, a murky red-and-brown and 10 to 13 inches long.

Roumayah says the monsters taste sweet and buttery. He says alligator tastes like chicken, but that's mostly to get a rise out of Village Market's executive chef, Adam McGiness.

Roll a piece in flour and Cajun seasoning, fry it quickly, drizzle it with a sriracha aioli, top it with green onion and "it's like heaven on Earth," McGiness says.

He says the meat itself is earthy and gamey.

Hold on, though: at Howe's Bayou, a Cajun restaurant in Ferndale, owner Michael Hennes says it's earthy but not gamey.

"It's a mild, firm-textured white meat," Hennes says. Howe's Bayou offers it as an occasional special, sauteed like frog legs, and it'll probably waddle back in the next week or two as a run-up to Fat Tuesday.

The Fishbone's restaurants serve deep-fried gator bites called Alligator Voodoo. At Hazel, Ravines and Downtown in Birmingham, alligator bites will make a cameo appearance from Thursday through Feb. 16 when the restaurant does a menu takeover as Hazel's Crab Shack.

In Southfield, Gator's Cooking & Catering mostly sells ribs and chicken, but also has hand-battered alligator, shipped in and then deep-fried in lemon pepper seasoning.

Alligators are surprisingly speedy reptiles, not fish, but they tend to get lumped in with other things that swim. At Gratiot Central Market in Detroit, Star Fish & Seafood will sell you a one-pound bag of frozen gator meat for $17.99.

A few steps away, Ronnie's Meats sells 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of oxtails every week, and it's your go-to spot for $1.49-a-pound pig snouts. But alligator can't carry its weight.

While "I've had a few requests for it," says owner Tom Bedway, he'd need a bigger turnover to keep it fresh, so he doesn't take the bait.

Still, you never know. Forty years ago, he'd sell 200 to 300 pig heads around New Year's to people whose family traditions included head cheese. This year, he sold four.

Older shoppers have passed on — and newer shoppers are watching the Food Network. "Look at pork bellies," he says. "People are trying new things."

Maybe it'll be alligator's turn soon. In the meantime, Roumayah is pondering the next big thing. Or small thing. Whatever will turn heads.

Fortunately, geography is on his side. Two-thirds of the planet is covered in water, and an idea always floats to the surface.


Twitter: nealrubin_dn