Fishy Origins

Fishy Origins

The tale of a Keys dining legend

Craig’s Restaurant has been open for business for 36 years and counting.  Its large red emblem above the diner, with the words “World Famous Fish Sandwich” just below, is one of Plantation Key’s most recognizable sights. Though if you ask Owner Craig Belcher, an even more recognizable sight is the sandwich itself, which he helped originate a version of while working at the Pilot House in Key Largo.

Craig’s Super Fish Sandwich comes on whole wheat bread, with tomatoes, tartar sauce, and melted cheese similar to a grilled cheese sandwich. But it was an Upper Keys fixture, named Harvey Rosean, who deserves most of the credit for his role in Florida Keys dining history.

“Harvey was a fish cutter at the Pilot House and lived at the marina. At that time, the only fish Pilot House used was grouper because it was so abundant,” said Belcher. “So Harvey would often salvage his favorite part of the fish, the grouper’s cheek meat.”

“On his way to work, Harvey would stop at the local Winn Dixie to dumpster dive for food. His finds would often include out dated eggs, out dated bread, and whatever vegetables he found,” said Belcher. “Harvey would store his finds in the walk-in freezer until later, when he would have it for lunch or take back to the marina where he lived.”

Harvey’s daughter, Amber Rosean, remembers how her father would take salvaged food and feed homeless and low-income earners with it.

“Along with food he found, my father would also take unwanted fish from charter boats at the marina, filet it, and feed his family and the community with it,” said Rosean.

“At the marina, Harvey would hang out with friends and smoke ‘what they smoked in the 70s.’ Afterwards they would develop the munchies, so he would sauté some cheek meat, whatever veggies he had, scramble some eggs, and put it all between bread to enjoy his “Harvey fish sandwich.”

John Spencer, a fellow fish cutter and friend of Harvey, says the sandwich grew in popularity because, “People know a good thing when they eat it, and since everything in the Keys was word of mouth, it didn’t take long for word to spread.”

“I started cutting fish with him because he would often bring me filets, and I wanted to repay him. While cutting fish he showed me how the cheek meat of grouper, which if often overlooked and thrown away, is some of the sweetest meat on the fish,” said Spencer.

To this day Spencer still remembers his friend when eating his signature creation.

“I love the sandwich. I eat it all the time,” said Spencer. “I had one a couple weeks ago and still prefer grouper the best, the way Harvey showed me.”

The sandwich soon became a ‘must eat’ among workers in the boat yard, who would often come in asking for one of Harvey’s fish sandwiches.

“In those times, no one was blackening or grilling fish, you got it boiled or fried. When Harvey would have the sandwich made at the Pilot House, I would put the concoction on whole wheat bread with melted cheese,” said Belcher.

Pilot House’s owner at the time, Ernie Bean, approached Belcher with the idea of adding the sandwich to the menu. Belcher was skeptical at first, seeing as the process to scramble eggs and grill fish seemed like lengthy extra steps, and instead had another idea.

“My suggestion was to put a grouper filet in a grilled cheese on whole wheat bread, with tomatoes and tartar sauce,” said Belcher. “His response was ‘ok,’ so I made one, he loved it, and the rest is history. Within 3 months it was 50% of the business.”

The popularity of the sandwich and Pilot House grew with their variation of Harvey’s sandwich. Belcher eventually left Pilot House, and some years later, opened Craig’s Restaurant in 1981. The original Superman movie had recently hit theaters, and that inspired Belcher to aptly name his take on Harvey’s creation the Super Fish Sandwich.

Rosean, however, recalls her father’s sandwich slightly different from how locals recall it.

“The popularized Harvey fish sandwich is a derivate of the real thing. My father’s version has no eggs. I remember it as toasted wheat bread, two types of cheese (usually Swiss and Cheddar), thinly sliced tomato, thinly sliced raw onion, mayo, tartar, with grouper cheek and throat meat,” said Rosean.

“He always said that you know it’s made right when the juice from the sandwich is running down from your arms to your elbows.”

At Craig’s, there are four options of fish for the Super Fish Sandwich: Grouper, Yellowtail, Mahi and Catfish. While there are a number of restaurants throughout the Keys that sell a variation of the famous fish sandwich, Belcher says the difference in his version might be in the sauce. But he’ll never tell.

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