A wisecracking server has found multiple reasons to mock us in the first few minutes we have been seated, and our table is so wobbly I can tilt it enough to send a beer sliding across the table and into my hand, but that's fine. I brought my out-of-town visitors to Backfin Blue Café for just this sort of experience.
The place just reeks of Florida charm — a fish shack restaurant crammed into an old wooden house in the revitalized and prettified Gulfport business district. Backfin's menu is limited to a few classics, they don't take reservations for their limited seating, and you may wait longer here than at your local Outback. There's a big difference, though, between waiting for good food on quaint Beach Boulevard and waiting for low-grade, butter-soaked steaks on Tyrone.
We start with Backfin Blue's signature chowder ($3.50) — pureed buttery yellow corn and a tiny bit of cream topped with a pile of unadulterated lump crabmeat. The result isn't a liquid and probably doesn't even qualify as a soup — it's thick enough to hold your spoon upright — but the sweet and smoky corn is a perfect match with the mild shellfish. Chunky, golden spoonfuls travel across the table at a record pace, and the bottom of the bowl appears sooner than we might have hoped.
After finishing the chowder, we still have the smoked fish spread ($4.50) as a palatable runner-up. Two different types of plastic-wrapped crackers are fanned around a pile of crushed fish and mayo. Nothing fancier is needed for this downscale Southern delicacy, most often hot-smoked in backyard barrels packed with a bounteous catch of fresh mullet. Backfin Blue's version is just as simple as that found at a neighborhood barbecue, and just as good.
Two upscale items — Portobello mushroom blue ($5.95) and stuffed mushrooms with hollandaise ($5.50) — we leave largely untouched. Over-seasoned breadcrumbs and a few dollops of crusty, melted gorgonzola are the substandard accents to a watery slab of Portobello, while the crab-stuffed shrooms are graced with an unappetizing fishy smell that is not helped by a very bland hollandaise. Having eaten at Backfin several times, I know these crab-laced shrooms are often better than this, but I think I'm going to give up on the Portobello dish for good.
You can get a simple green salad with your entrée, graced with the usual array of dressings in tiny plastic cups, or you can be smart and try the bowl of marinated tomatoes and artichokes. While my friends poke listlessly at honey-mustard soaked romaine, I munch through ripe red tomatoes and tart artichokes soaked in balsamic vinaigrette. Experience pays.
While mopping up the dregs of the dressing with the last hunk of soft, warm, molasses-sweetened black bread ($1.50, order two for the table, they'll be gone in minutes), I realize that this is the perfect time to eat at Backfin Blue. The weather has begun to turn slightly, so nights are cooler, skeeters are fewer, and al fresco dining is more sultry than sweaty. I can see the lights of the artists' colony across Beach Boulevard and locals are walking their dogs down the sidewalk towards the casino. Ain't life grand?
The arrival of the main event interrupts my reverie. The crab cakes ($16.95) at Backfin Blue are damn good, and this trip I brought a native Marylander to add an expert's seal of approval. What a mistake. She immediately mumbles a sheepish request for ketchup and, when nailed to the clapboard walls by our shocked glances, claims that Heinz 57 is de rigeur in that crabby state. Whatever. Taste traitor.
These golden balls are baked, instead of pan-fried, which allows the mild shellfish to speak louder. After a few bites packed full of large lumps of buttery crab — with a hint of garlic and minimal breadcrumbs — it's apparent that no sauce is needed, even the mild remoulade provided by Backfin.
Ketchup does work with Backfin's meatloaf ($9.50). The thick, meaty slices are toasted in the oven before being served, giving each bite a bit of crunch to go with the soft meat and breadcrumb interior. There is a tiny vein of gorgonzola running through the center, but it doesn't add much to the already interesting loaf, infused with sweet-and-spicy red pepper and onion.
Experience has taught me to add the garlic mashed potatoes to all of our entrees — although the crazy Marylander insists on steamed veggies. What a moroon. While she pokes at the bland green and orange decorating her plate, the rest of us fork up incredibly thick and creamy spuds, each bite perfumed with a hint of garlicky goodness.
Backfin Blue specializes in local fish, right off the Redington Shores docks down the street, usually from local purveyor Nachman's Native Seafood. That means that an unsuspecting fish, lazily swimming along a few miles off the shores of St. Petersburg, might be pulled from its watery home, coated in macadamia nuts, and served to you on a plate, all within 48 hours. That's about as fresh as it gets.
On this night, that fresh catch (market price) is macadamia-crusted grouper, meaty and mild and well served by the rich Hawaiian nuts. Even better is the special, a two-inch thick grouper filet ($16) split down the middle and crammed with shreds of buttery crab. It's doused in a light cream sauce infused with the taste of fresh red bell pepper, a subtle touch to match the subdued taste of fresh grouper.
Desserts, brought in from local supplier Ken's Pies, are surprisingly good, from tart and rich Key Lime pie ($3.50) to the candy-bar-like banana split cheesecake ($3.50).
We order a few slices to go and saunter down the lane to the water, hoping to walk off some of our crab feast. This little gem of a restaurant, tucked into this little gem of a neighborhood, is another reminder of why we live in the Bay Area. It's a good night to be in Florida.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.