September 21, 2003


It brings me no small measure of comfort that I can leave my chicken wing compadres for a couple days of professional enrichment and know that The A.O.F. Tour will still roll along without me. Some men might be jealous at being left behind, or be filled at envy that quality poultry products were devoured despite being absent.

Not I.

It's not unlike the show "8 Simple Rules For Dating My Daughter." John Ritter may have joined Father, Son and Holy Ghost in heaven (talk about "Three's Company"), but the show will still roll on with a crazy uncle in the lead role. My money is on Craig T. Nelson.

So on Friday, Mitch, Rommie and Walt traveled to Stingray’s Bar & Grill in Clearwater. Rommie filed this report:


Sorry you missed out on Asses of Fire today. I didn’t get your voice mail until we got back from lunch. Somehow that glowing red light on my phone wasn’t quite enough to capture my attention until late afternoon. Maybe that’s because I had to get up at 7 a.m. to drive a friend to the airport. I didn’t even know there was a 7 a.m.

Anyway, Mitch, Walt and I went to a place called Stingray’s Bar & Grill in Clearwater. Total dive bar. A dump, actually. A real live honest-to-god shithole. It’s tucked away in the middle of a nondescript strip mall, which itself is lost somewhere among a seemingly endless line of nondescript strip malls bordering this particular stretch of U.S. 19. Even though the place occupies two adjacent store spaces, it’s tiny – or maybe just cramped.

As soon as you walk in the door you’re sitting at the bar. There’s barely enough space between the regulars and the wall behind them to squeeze past. And regulars are the only people who could possibly tolerate the squalor here.

The bartender descended upon us as soon as we entered, obviously recognizing us as otherly beings. Erin was her name. She was friendly enough, and was I believe our fourth consecutive Asses of Fire server whose last name may have been LaRue.

We sucked in our guts and pressed past the bar into the “dining room” (basically two tables with chairs crammed between the bar and a pair of pool tables), which was completely dark despite the fact that there was a guy sitting at one of the tables reading a newspaper in the dark, a patron who was at least putting on airs of being literate.

After Erin the Bartender turned on the lights for us, we ordered 10 hot wings and 20 “Stinger” (extra hot) wings and settled into our black Naugahyde seats with silver duct tape over the rips.

Stingray’s has about 10 TV sets. There are two “big screen” sets (probably about 45” screens) and another bunch of smaller sets. In addition to the pool tables, they have several electronic dart boards, a fairly sophisticated juke box and the ubiquitous Golden Tee golf video game.

The rest of Stingray’s is decorated in ‘80s Dorm Room Chic. If not for the promotional items acquired from beer distributors – clocks, lamps, posters, flags, neon signs, inflatable mini blimps – Stingray’s four walls would be barren, save for a cheesy painting of a ’69 Corvette and an inexplicable mural with a butte/canyon motif. Well, those and the layer of yellow filth from decades worth of cigarettes, of course.

Oh, there was also a poster of Osama bin Laden holding a machine gun. The poster had several holes in it, as if someone had shot him. Also, someone had scrawled something illegible on Osama’s turban.

During our excruciatingly long wait for lunch (after a grueling 50-minute drive to Clearwater from the office, we placed our order and had to wait another 45 minutes for the wings to arrive at our table – speedy service, much like cleanliness, is not a core value at Stingray’s), an octogenarian patron pulled up outside the hovel in his golf cart. Erin the Bartender went outside and helped the doddering gentleman to his usual stool at the bar and brought him a frosty beer. Everyone in the place except us said, "Hi," to the old guy, exchanged witticisms and they all laughed and laughed.

“They have a party here every day and we crashed it,” Walt said.

At that point we’d pretty much decided we didn’t belong in -- or care for -- Stingray’s at all. Several people came and went with takeout orders, and just as we were about to run out of patience Erin the Bartender rounded the corner with our wings. Surprisingly enough, they looked pretty good. And they smelled really good. And apparently the chef can’t count -- there were four more than we’d ordered.

The hots were tasty. Nice tangy sauce. Plenty of meat on the bones. Crispy without being greasy. Saucy without being soggy. But the “Stingers” … the “Stingers” were just plain awesome.

These are wings au poivre. They’re flecked with at least a couple of different varieties of ground peppercorns, and the result was some of the most distinctive wings any of us had ever tried.

They had a great flavor, and while they didn’t seem particularly spicy at first, by the end of the meal our eyes were watering, our noses were running and our lips were numb. (The Loneliest Wing, captured in the photo above, ultimately was consumed by Walt.) They were so good we forgot about the 50-minute drive, the 45-minute wait and even the filth surrounding us.

Mitch reported that the bathroom did not meet his standards for sanitation. Or I assume that’s what he meant. What he actually said was, “I’d think twice about taking a dump in there.” That’s assuming he had a choice, of course. It’s entirely possible a post-wing sense of urgency could leave an unwitting Stingray’s customer with no alternative. Which is why we found the street sign over the bathroom door so poetic: “Ragged Ass Road.”

It ain't pretty but that's the road we ride.

Totally worth the trip. But Stingray’s is still a stinking cesspit.

Posted by Jeff at September 21, 2003 04:44 PM | TrackBack