Restaurant Reviews

A Guide to South Florida's Cheap Seafood Dives

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Deciding that the dewy, ivory-colored hog snapper looked too good to pass up, I snagged a vinyl-sized platter of fried seafood with chunks of the lightly battered fish as the main attraction. What a deal. In addition to almost a whole fish's worth of moist chunks of perfectly fried snapper, there were also three bouncy jumbo shrimp, a trio of conch fritters with big hunks of savory shellfish, and three fist-sized diver scallops so juicy that they practically burst with savory liquid when bit into. All that, plus a mound of celery- and onion-flecked Bahamian rice and peas, some sweet cole slaw, and crusty French bread cost just $20.95.

In addition to the simply prepared dishes, the restaurant stuffs fillets of dolphin and snapper with crab meat and lobster sauce, prepares pan-seared swordfish Livornese, and does huge portions of pasta with clams and white wine sauce or shrimp fra diavolo. You can eat in with the hordes of octogenarians that fill the place around 5 p.m., or take your fish dip, conch salad, or crab-meat-stuffed portobellas to-go.

Kelly's Landing

1305 SW 17th St. Causeway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-760-7009;

Kelly's Landing's emphasis on big piles of sea critters prepared lovingly speaks to the Floridian's soul – but with a Bostonian accent. The bar-like atmosphere shows Kelly's has embraced both New England and local cultures. Case in point: For every Narragansett beer sign hanging on those wood-paneled walls, you'll find one for Fort Lauderdale's Holy Mackerel as well. Either brew is a good choice to go with New England steamers ($10 small order, $17 large), medium-sized clams served in their steel-gray shells. Our waitress told us the best method is to pull the little buggers from their cases and give them a quick rinse in a milky-looking clam broth. Then, you can dunk the meaty jewels in a bowl of drawn butter without fear of gulping down any salty grit. You can cut out all the work by ordering the whole-belly Ipswich clams, deep-fried fat boys coated in crisp batter ($9 and up, depending on order size).

Kelly's is also known for killer burgers, lobster rolls, and clam chowder. The latter ($4 mug, $6 bowl) is some of the finest stuff in South Florida. It's thick and creamy, yes, but also loaded with the flavor of bay leaf and mirepoix and big chunks of clam meat. About the only thing I can't recommend at Kelly's is the crab cake ($7). Give me a well-seared Florida version over this grayish puck any day.

Hurricane Alley

529 E. Ocean Ave., Boynton Beach; 561-364-4008;

This dive bar with fishing snapshots and paraphernalia all over its walls looks like a typical neighborhood watering hole. But it's actually one of the best-kept secrets in Palm Beach, the kind of funky place where a dozen oysters and a cold pint of beer will run you less than $8 during happy hour. On weekends, the plastic patio tables along Old Town Boynton's sleepy Ocean Avenue usually fill up with locals who, dogs in tow, come to sit and hang for hours at a time. They'll suck down $1.75 Yuengling drafts and a tray full of those oysters — cold, fat, and full of briny liquor. Equally enticing is the Alley's smoked marlin fish dip ($8.95), made in house and served with a dangerously addictive pile of pickled jalapeños. The place also serves peel-and-eat shrimp, plates of stuffed sole, and lemon-dill salmon for less than $13 a pop and even some decent sushi at its raw bar. And if you do bring your pup, the Alley will even cook Fido some roast beef tips or a bunless burger for less than $5.

Kim Kelly, owner of Hurricane Alley for more than ten years, said that although the oil spill will eventually force them to change their prices, she plans on holding steady for the time being. "Unless it gets to the point where we're losing money, I want to keep our oyster prices the way they are now," said Kelly, who is currently sourcing the bivalves from Texas waters. "No matter what, I want this to be a working person's restaurant."

Tark's of Dania

1317 S. Federal Highway, Dania Beach; 954-925-8275;

This blue- and white-painted seafood counter has been shucking raw clams and oysters, frying chicken wings, and serving cold lager along Federal Highway since Lyndon Johnson was in office. The place is little more than a single bar top and a chef's line — just pull up a stool and watch the entertainment. That, of course, would be the way the staff lovingly banters back and forth with one another as they sling beer and whip up orders with dramatic flair. You can tell they're having genuine fun, that crew, and you will too once you taste their unpretentious takes on Old Florida favorites. Buffalo shrimp, grilled dolphin, and steamed crabs are simple and delicious fare, while bar food favorites like burgers and chicken wings have the locals trucking in with regularity. The daily lunch specials are legendary: Ten fresh shucked topneck clams, their blue-green shells glistening with alabaster meat, are only $6.95 on Wednesdays; whole belly clams are $8.50 on Fridays. Sadly, Tark's isn't serving raw oysters anymore — not until this whole oil-spill thing blows over, according to our waitress.

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John Linn