Iron Rhino cook James Pendulik loves to see the look on people’s faces when they take a bite of gator tail for the very first time. One patron said the Iron Rhino, located near Royal Hammock Bay, was a hidden gem for such Southern traditions like eating gator.
Pendulik’s stepfather, Gary Viggiano, owns the dual-atmosphere biker bar and family restaurant. When Pendulik isn’t helping out behind the bar, he can usually be found frying gator tail nuggets in the kitchen, but he also likes to get a little creative from time to time. He’s been known to skip the fryer completely and sauté the nuggets scampi-style, sweet chili-style and Caribbean jerk-style - “Pretty much, if people ask for it, I’ll find a way to do it,” he says.
The gator meat comes to the shop raw, and he pounds away at it until it is real thin and tenderized and cooks it to the patron’s liking. Most order fried gator tail nuggets, prepared with a fry mix and the restaurant’s own seasonings added in. The dish is served with a creamy horseradish sauce made with mayonnaise and sour cream.
Pendulik also prepares the nuggets sautéed, with a special sweet chili sauce, adding drawn butter with seasoning to the dish.
Another favorite for him is using Caribbean jerk seasoning, dredging the gator meat, and then sautéing it in butter. It doesn’t stop there. He also likes to sauté them with a little bit of olive oil and butter, adding to it fresh garlic and cilantro. Sometimes, he uses olive oil, garlic, butter and a little lemon to give a scampi twist to the dish. Pendulik is always open to hearing from the customers about how they’d like it prepared, especially if it’s a little bit of a challenge. “I’ll always figure something out,” Pendulik says.
Each order of gator tail nuggets is weighed out and usually contains eight to 10 nuggets in an order for $8.50. During summer, the restaurant goes through about 30 pounds of alligator meat every week, which doubles at the height of season. It can make ordering the meat a tricky business.
Viggiano doesn’t want to buy too much at a time, because he likes it fresh for the customers, but they’ve also been slammed with gator tail nugget orders on some weekends that leave them without any in the kitchen come the new week, while they wait for the next shipment to come in. “It’s great. They love it. People come in here just for it. Our gator, our burgers and our wings are the best-sellers,” Viggiano said.
Patron Doug McKinney said of the dish: “It’s the best gator I’ve ever had.”
Another patron, John Hoffman, usually gets the fried gator tail, but tried it sautéed with the sweet chili sauce and drawn butter. After just one bite, he said: “This is very good. It’s excellent.”
If you go...
Iron Rhino Saloon
19800 Tamiami Trail East, Naples
Open daily at 11:30 a.m., closing hours vary in and out of season