As you drive north on Gulf Boulevard over the bridge at John’s Pass Village, you leave the Hooters and Bubba Gump franchises in your rearview mirror. A mere two blocks farther on there’s the local Mad Beach Fish House up on stilts, with a third-floor deck overlooking the intracoastal waterway. It’s beautifully enticing and promises “‘Old Florida’ style seafood at it’s [sic] best! Fresh and consistent seafood, locally caught and made to order, at an affordable price!” What’s not to love?
The red sangria promises a glass “full of fresh fruit, with wine, brandy, triple sec, orange juice, sour and spices, and a splash of Sprite.” When I see a “full of fruit” description, I assume that perhaps the sangria will feature grapes, apples, pears, peaches, strawberries or kiwi. Something more then the typical cocktail garnish of half an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. No such luck; not only do we get a fruitless glass (except for the traditional ubiquitous garnish), but the sangria is undrinkable. It has a peculiar acrid taste with no sweetness or fruit. It is, in the word of a dining companion, “vile.”
Luckily, I opt for the “mad blue margarita” made with Cuervo gold, blue Curaçao, Cointreau, lime juice and a splash of OJ. No one asks if I want salt, and the pretty drink (looking like a Caribbean pool) comes with a heavily coated rim; chunks of salt break off and fall into the glass, providing a taste of the sea that sometimes overwhelms the tasty cocktail. Still, I’d choose it again, which is not true of the nasty sangria.
The appetizer menu includes peel-and-eat shrimp, oysters, crab cakes, ceviche and “tuna sushimi” [sic]. Because of the seafood festival at John’s Pass, they’re out of tuna, oysters and lobster. We decide to focus on two Southern stalwarts to start: fried green tomatoes and smoked fish spread. After the sangria debacle, we are pleasantly surprised. The six thick slices of tomato are hot and crispy, and while the “spicy mango sauce” seems more like a mayo-ketchup blend (plus a little heat), it adds a creamy note of spice that balances the natural acidity of the fruit and the fat from the breading. So far, so good.
The smoked fish spread combines mullet and mahi mahi with just the right amount of mayo and paprika. The plate also includes celery sticks and cucumber slices for crunch and a huge unadvertised pile of slivered jalapeño just in case you want to add some pop. Unfortunately, my heart sinks at the small packets of celo-wrapped Premium Gold crackers. I understand the need to preserve freshness and avoid waste, but this spread deserves better.
Still, we are optimistic as the table moves to entrees.
The beer-battered, unidentified white fish is moist inside and crisp outside just as one might hope, but the chips are a disaster. They are a huge mound of soggy, lifeless spuds. While not overtly oily, they are lukewarm and not even remotely crisp, hence totally unappealing. Which is a shame, because the fried shrimp are right on point and the hush puppies (which we need to remind our server are included) are a bit doughy, but acceptable. The same is true for the coleslaw, but passable is not exciting.
There are mix-and-match dinner options that include two choices from a variety of sides. The Fisherman’s Platter is a catch-all that includes a grouper fillet, shrimp, scallops, oysters (which surprisingly appear) and two Bahamian-style conch fritters. It’s made to order blackened, fried or grilled. We opt for grilled as there’s no place to hide; the true flavors of fresh seafood are free to soar. Unfortunately, the platter doesn’t — it’s more of a low-altitude generic glide.
The same is true of our sides. The cheese grits are forgettable, and a small dinner salad is the quintessential example of monotonous food. Hunks of iceberg lettuce, a few unimaginative croutons, an underripe tomato wedge and two rings of sliced white onion. This is the definition of a boring salad, circa 1975, before the U.S. discovered the wonder of flavorful mixed artisanal greens. The conch fritters never arrive, which is emblematic of a kitchen and service on automatic pilot.
The key lime and pecan pies are clearly purchased products made in bulk. The problem with mass-produced desserts is that they are mundane, with corners cut at every turn. The pies both feature a Cool Whip-type garnish instead of homemade whipped cream. The key lime pie is odd, but at least it’s tart. The pecan pie, however, is sweet gelatinous glop covered with few nuts instead of a delicious and seductive confection. There's literally just a thin coating of pecans, instead of a flaky pastry filled with nut meats coated in butter, brown sugar, and some corn syrup just bound together by eggs with a dash of vanilla. This is a translucent sweet goo pie that bend the Sun's rays as they pass through the nut-less filling; thin pecan slivers sit on top. I am reminded of a Gulf oil spill, only sweet. We should have stopped with the starters.