Tampa's Salt Shack plants its flag as a quintessential, but upscale, beach bar

Bring the snowbirds, or claim it as your new local hangout.

click to enlarge Tampa's Salt Shack plants its flag as a quintessential, but upscale, beach bar
MELISSA SANTELL
Salt Shack on the Bay

3 out of 5 stars

5415 W. Tyson Ave., Tampa. 

Appetizers: $4-$13; entrees: $12-$26; desserts: $7-$9; beer/wine/cocktails: $4-$10.50. 

813-444-4569; salt-shack.com.


Driving out to Tampa’s Rattlesnake Point takes you through a luxury condo neighborhood, but as you turn west toward the water, the road narrows and you suddenly lose a sense of place. It’s reminiscent of some abandoned industrial area on TV where gangsters drive you to get whacked. Just as you start to question if you’ve made a mistake, the “rustic-refined beach getaway” Salt Shack appears. 

It’s a pair of enormous open-air tiki huts on the waterfront. Just past the valet station, there’s a giant beached vintage cabin cruiser on a path leading to old Tampa Bay. There are royal palms and picnic tables nestled in the sand next to a seawall topped with timbers linked by thick nautical rope.

Boaters have the option of leaving their vessels at the “first-come, first-served” dock — which is merely a short walk away — to enjoy Gulf-to-table fare and a day under the palms.

Clearly, the management also wants to be on the cutting edge of technology. And why not? Our smiling server touches a handheld screen to place our order. Everything is sent electronically to the bar and kitchen. There’s a crackerjack team of robot-like runners that deliver the food with surprising speed. 

However, the runners are unconnected to the servers. Everything is so efficient that the food arrives too fast. We’ve barely had time to sip our refreshing craft cocktails while waiting for appetizers, when the salad and soup to accompany the entrées arrive. At least there’s no waiting. 

We taste the cups of Bahamian conch chowder with spicy tomato-based broth and the lobster bisque, which is just flat out terrific. There’s a wonderful balance between the lobster stock, the cream, and a hint of sherry. They absolutely nail this classic. However, our appetizers haven’t arrived yet. It’s not that they are late, it’s just that the soup appears almost instantaneously. The one thing it turns out that technology can’t do is to pace a meal and keep track of the courses.

I certainly hope as they continue their shakedown, that the management figures out a way to track how dishes leave the kitchen. It’s not a tapas restaurant where dishes arrive as they’re done. Clearly, the runners have been trained to deliver food as quickly as possible. It’s almost so rapid as to be comical.

As our gaze turns toward the lovely view, there’s a curious paradox that a bridge such as Gandy can be a nemesis while we’re crossing it in traffic, but can stir an emotional reaction when viewed in silhouette without obstructions as the sun sets behind it and dips below the horizon. Perhaps it’s the tropical cocktails we’re sipping.

We push aside the soups as our appetizers arrive. Gaspar’s tuna tartare is an old Florida ring mold recipe stacking luscious avocado under fresh tuna topped with green scallion rings and cubes of bright yellow, ripe mango. There’s a sesame and ginger soy drizzle and plenty of large, crisp malanga chips. It’s a beautiful and satisfying way to begin.

Even better is the perfect smoked mahi spread made fresh daily from Tim Nachman’s famous Redington Shores family recipe. I’ve eaten lots of fish spread, but this strikes my whole table as the perfect combo of creaminess and smoke. I usually don’t opt for jalapeño, but thin slices are included with more of the same delicious malangas for dipping.

The Caribbean fritters of the day are supposedly filled with crab and chorizo. I pick up one of the golf ball-sized brown orbs and take a bite. “Hmmm… try one of these,” I say to my tablemate who hates crab and finds chorizo too spicy. “It’s tasteless and doughy,” is the reply. “Thanks, that’s just what I thought.”

Our entrees are also a mixed bag. The skewered, grilled Gulf tail-on shrimp are lusciously coated with flavorful banana chutney. They sit on a bed of fluffy rice dotted with dark peas. An adjacent radicchio leaf is stuffed with crisp julienned jicama slaw. They include a shot of cooling guava cocktail and some Caribbean tartar sauce.

click to enlarge Tampa's Salt Shack plants its flag as a quintessential, but upscale, beach bar
MELISSA SANTELL

The catch of the day is grouper. You can choose from oak grilled with lemon-garlic herb butter, “shack style” like the French en papillote—baked in a bag with onions, peppers, and Caribbean spices and opened table-side, or our choice of pan-fried with coconut cream sauce.

Unfortunately, a perfectly lovely fillet is totally ruined by too much salt. Even with the sauce, the fish just doesn’t cut it.

The broiled premium jumbo lump crab cake has squishy breading and, by contrast, is under seasoned. That’s too bad because the roasted red bell pepper sauce and pineapple salsa are first-class accents. And the crisp marinated onion straws add nice texture.

Dessert is golden rum yellow bundt cake slices with some walnuts baked into the edge. The warm butterscotch rum sauce is sweet and syrupy, but for some inexplicable reason the promised vanilla bean ice cream has taken a night off. Without it, this one falls flat.

Luckily, the homemade key lime pie is simply superb. It’s been made in a springform pan which means a thick, buttery L-shaped graham cracker crust topped with creamy, tart lime filling and an unnecessary fresh, light meringue. I suppose that’s a personal preference, but traditional Key lime pie is fine without it. Nevertheless, we love it.

Salt Shack is a quintessential, but upscale, beach bar with a casual vibe; a place to bring Northern friends in shorts and flip-flops, linger, and revel in Florida sunsets.

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system, or email him at [email protected]

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