At SeaWorld Orlando, guests can interact with and learn about a variety of marine animals, from playful dolphins to hungry sting rays, but one of the most stunning sights in the entire theme park is found at Sharks Underwater Grill and Bar, a sit-down restaurant that boasts incredible views of many types of sharks and fish.
But identifying different species of marine life and learning facts about sharks aren't the only way to stay entertained at Sharks: The menu itself takes a deep dive into the fresh flavors of Florida cuisine.
At a recent visit to Sharks, I ordered the coconut-crusted chicken tenders and was delighted by the light, crispy coconut batter and the spicy dipping sauce, made from honey, Florida citrus and chili-garlic sauce.
So I chatted with Jock Williams, the culinary vice president at SeaWorld Orlando, about what makes the tenders so good.
"I think one of the most important things about the coconut chicken tenders we have at Sharks is that they're nice and light," said Williams. "In the theme park environment, you don't want to be weighed down or to eat anything heavy, so it's nice."
To create the crisp and airy tenders, Williams says to use an egg wash and cornstarch, double-dipping in the batter to make sure the tenders are well-coated.
"The coconut adds a lot of flavor to it and gives it that Florida flare that we love," Williams explained. "That's what gives it that distinct taste, that and the fact that it's not just a regular frozen tender you buy in the store and dip in sauce. It's fresh, hand-battered and made to order."
The tenders are served with a spicy dipping sauce that Williams calls "the cherry on the top."
"It has a lot of fresh flavors," he said. "We source the lime juice and honey locally, and it's just a nice citrusy sauce you can spice up."
"It's really simple, there's only a couple of steps," said Williams, "But the main thing is just to make sure that your grease is heated to the proper temperature and to make sure you have a good coating all around the tenders before you fry them."
Interviewing Williams about the chicken tenders, naturally, made me crave the dish, so I attempted his recipe in my own kitchen — with fintastic results.
I created a mixture of cornstarch and coconut and used store-bought liquid eggs to dip and batter each tenderloin, then fried them up in an electric skillet, just as Williams suggested.
The results were coconut-chicken heaven. My husband, who only had a small bite of my tenders at SeaWorld, declared them "the best chicken tenders" he'd ever had. And my kids were a few tenderloins deep before they asked, "What's different that makes this batter so good?"
It was the coconut, of course.
Another perk of creating the recipe at home was the amount of leftover dipping sauce we packed up and stored in the refrigerator for later. I just may need to make a second batch of the coconut chicken later this week to use it up: The pair really complement each other perfectly.