Hot Rod's BBQ is hard to miss in somewhat sleepy Lutz, Fla. The yard is littered with folksy, hand-painted sculptures and signs. There's a ramshackle front porch and smoke billowing out the side.
When I walked in, I was a vegetarian. But then I ate the fruit bat.
We came to Hot Rod's at the end of a long day traveling through Hillsborough County and talking to voters for Morning Edition's series First and Main. Lutz is just north of Tampa, in this county that could be key in deciding the upcoming presidential race.
The restaurant is quite a place: wood paneling, knickknacks galore, a wall of hot sauces and plenty of sass on the menu: You can order "Swamp Salad" or "Red Neck Prime Rib" (Spam).
On a Thursday evening, the place was packed. Rod "Hot Rod" Gaudin wasted no time ordering up a dozen wings with his new "Hot Sticky Sauce." He said he hoped we'd do more eating than talking, and we dove in, trying not to get that sauce all over our microphones.
"There was a time when I was running for public office, I'd love to talk," he said. "Now I'd rather eat."
Gaudin unsuccessfully ran for Hillsborough County commissioner three times: as a Democrat in the '80s, unaffiliated in 2002, and as a Republican in 2004 — a swing politician in a county of swing voters. That is, he used to swing. These days he describes himself as a diehard Republican. He said the country has been doing badly with President Obama as the quarterback, and it's time to get someone new in the game.
"I'm not in love with that man," he said of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "But I do know what Obama's done, and I have never in my 60-some years of life had the lack of confidence, the lack of security, the lack of inspiration."
He plans to vote for Romney in November.
Gaudin's wife, Helen, is undecided. She's a registered Democrat, but she voted for Republican John McCain in 2008. "I vote for the person that I feel might do us the best, regardless of what party he comes from," she said. "I don't want Obama and I don't want Romney, so I don't know."
The last few years have had their rough patches for the family. Helen Gaudin lost her job as an insurance customer service representative after 27 years working at the same place. She found a new job, but she says she makes half of what she made a few years ago.
The economy has also taken a toll on Hot Rod's. "Construction workers were 50 percent of our business," Rod Gaudin said. When construction in the region stalled and workers lost their jobs, "it knocked us between the eyeballs. I'm gonna tell you something: When you don't make money, you don't go out to eat too much. You cut back fast."
Still, as we talked, families piled into the seats at the quirky restaurant. When time came for us to order dinner, despite years of relatively faithful vegetarianism, I got the smoked fruit bat, served over corn bread pudding. I was determined to try it in the name of cultural experience. (Even though, I learned, it's not a Central Florida specialty; it's just something the Gaudins ate while traveling in South America.) Rod Gaudin told me when he first opened, he included it on the menu as a conversation starter, although it holds its own in sales against more recognizable appetizers.
Now, it's been many years since I ate meat, so my palate is probably unrefined in this respect, but here goes: It tasted — you guessed it — like chicken. Maybe closest to dark meat chicken, but a bit more gamy and a bit sweet.
Gaudin said the sweetness comes from soaking the bat in cherry juice so it tastes less wild. I should mention that Gaudin was quite a cutup; when talking about the restaurant's unconventional fare, it was often hard to tell when he was pulling my leg.
As far as I know, I ate a bat, and should you be tempted, be warned that it's not for the faint of heart. It wasn't pretty — it looked like a strange pigeon or a quail. Eating it was a slow and bony undertaking, and there wasn't a lot of meat. But I think it was worth it.
The sauce made it. I would have eaten anything covered in that sauce.
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