And that's not because the food at this month-old eatery is indigestion-inducing, though items like the Jamaican-style conch fritters, which were more like conch patties, needed a wrap in Bounty to absorb the grease. Rather, it was the clientele that set the scene for me one evening. As I walked in with friends to sample the goods at this fish-themed sports bar, seven stocky suburbanite men, all late 20s to early 30s, strolled out through the doors, resembling a community center basketball team with two subs who had ridden the pines all evening with Bud in hand. In short? A couple of the, ah, gentlemen were belching. Loudly. And repeatedly.
Don't get me wrong. In some cultures, a burp is a compliment to the chef. A burp can also be excellent entertainment -- those of us who can bring one up at will (and yes, I'm a member of that elite group) can delight youthful relatives and friends by engaging in contests. Medically speaking, burping has value for folks who have lost certain vocal abilities due to cancer or surgery: Many are retaught to speak using the mechanism of belching.
At Tarpon Bend, a good rolling belch pretty much signals that the young professional patron, collar unbuttoned and tie loosened or pantyhose and discreet blazer disposed of, had an awfully fine time with a Newcastle draft or two and a fried oyster sandwich garnished with Cajun-flavored mayonnaise. The first Tarpon Bend, in Himmarshee Village in Fort Lauderdale, clearly caters to this type of client. The few times I've had drinks at the bar or ordered a fish sandwich at a table, I've always felt distinctly in the minority: No longer a waitress in a tight T-shirt, not yet (or ever, I hope) a stiff in a suit and heels.
But I've always felt that the Tarpon Bend Uno was something of an accident. Proprietors Tim Petrillo and Peter Boulukos, who also own Himmarshee Bar & Grill, the eatery next door, as well as the River House down the street, saw an opportunity for what had been a vacant space and introduced a concept that was immediately successful with the local, happy-hour-starved business community. It was an experiment with casual dining from a hospitality-educated and highly trained fine-dining duo that proved lucrative enough to spawn a second site. Can't fault 'em for that.
On the other hand, Tarpon Bend Weston feels deliberately chain-ish, especially since the restaurant was conceptualized from the get-go rather than fit into an already existing space. Located in the surreal Town Center, no doubt the eatery was constructed with the "Are you ready for some football?" jingle in mind. The cavernous, high-ceilinged bar and dining room -- decorated with wooden booths, kitschy fishing tackle, and other sea-evocative goods, a contemporary, SoFla version of ye olde Northeastern seafood house -- is also quite family- friendly, a plus in this built-to-order neighborhood. For these kinds of goals, I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.
Unfortunately, I can also think of better ones, especially if watching the Dolphins, picking up a date, or taking the kids out to dinner isn't on the agenda. Actual trophy fish hang on the walls; those with a sensitivity to such things might object to some glassy eyes overlooking the dinner service of another member of the scaled and finned species. According to theme, puns riddle the menu: "minnows" are kids; "Tarpon scales" are homemade potato chips. The beer list is extensive, but wine bottles are limited to a mere few. Service is exuberant but cheerfully uneducated. "How's that 'sizzling seafood stew?'" we asked. "Is it good?" Replied the waitress: "I don't know. I don't eat seafood." We weren't exactly sold, especially since the stew, at $16.50, wasn't exactly as reasonably priced as one might expect.
All that aside, Tarpon Bend has its advantages. For one thing, the fare is fresh. We had no quibbles with the quality of the cracked conch starter, encased in a light batter and deep-fried. The conch was tender as calamari and was a pleasant alternative for those stuck in the squid rut. One recommendation: I'd spice up the garnish of bland black-bean salsa. At the moment, the beans taste canned, and there doesn't seem to be much of an onion or pepper kick to the concoction. For a bigger boost of Floribbean flavor, look to the hot-pepper condiments on the side of the table where the paper goods are stored. Or veer toward the chilled conch salad, which was given the palate-tingling advantage of shaved red onion and lime juice.
I also found a catch of the day to be succulent and pleasing. The catches are listed on a blackboard and change daily, but you can probably expect the familiar fishies: the snappers, the mahi-mahis, the tunas. You can also order them grilled, fried, blackened, or jerked; mix and match as you see fit. I always enjoy a good blackening spice, savory but not searing, and I wasn't disappointed with the piquant coating on a juicy dolphin fillet. I will recommend that those with sensitive tummies stay away from the battered versions. Fried grouper was oozing oil, and even when presented as a "grouper dog" -- on a hot dog bun, with cole slaw on the side -- it was a bit slippery.
Nonfish options, which our waitress heartily recommended (guess she eats those), include barbecued chicken breast, pork tenderloin, and a New York strip steak, along with an assortment of pastas. We went with a traditional protein-carb combo, a double slice of meatloaf and garlic-mashed potatoes. The meatloaf was a bit nubbly with gristle, but it tasted homey and comforting, and the mushroom gravy on the spuds was rich and vibrant.
Sweets are sort of simple -- key lime pie, brownie, cheesecake, apple crisp. Our interest was piqued by our server's description of a special dessert of the day, a peanut butter-chocolate pie. "Ice cream?" we inquired. "Yes," she told us. No, as it turned out, but it was still a nice pastry, with plenty of peanut flavor in the crust and a dense chocolate filling. All in all, Tarpon Bend Weston has its value, as long as you understand its character: Sometimes, in the end, there's nothing more to say than buurrrpp.