The first thing you might notice about Stewby’s Seafood Shanty is that you did not notice it, and that you drove past it. The restaurant is on Racetrack Road (the end near Beal), and though the sign is quite visible, one can see it too late in summer traffic. We got lucky and turned just in time. The restaurant opens daily at 10 a.m. (spring and summer hours, apparently). We did not get there until 11, and the parking lot was nearly full, with a line to the door and cars in the drive-thru lane.
Stewby’s has been around for a while, and the locals—both civilian and military—form a loyal clientele. The restaurant sits in a wooden building, with an enclosed patio area for dine-in and takeout trade. All inside or takeout orders are placed at a window just inside the door. Drive-thru orders are placed around the side and picked up at a side window. It’s just like a fast-food place, except there’s an essential difference.
Unlike your national fast food joints, Stewby’s 98-percent seafood menu (the only non-fish item featured is chicken) offers fresh, local catch. It varies seasonally, it’s cooked to order, and the only real resemblance between it and Captain McFishNuggets is the kitchen’s rate of speed. I did not time them, but it was under 10 minutes, maybe seven or eight. And they were busy.
It was just me and my wife this time. Our 5-year-old daughter Grace (the Tiny Diner) had a play date and had to send regrets. Stewby’s interior is utilitarian (it really is all about the food), and she might have been bored, and therefore restless. That said, Stewby’s is very kid-friendly, and we saw plenty of them. The menu prices are tailored to family budgets.
The two principal methods of cooking at Stewby’s are deep-frying and grilling. Preparation and presentation are simple, with tacos and gumbo being the most complex entrees offered. For the most part, it’s platters and sandwiches, sides, and a la carte items for those with hearty appetites or who want variety. Think of it as Shanty Tapas.
Stewby’s menu does not offer appetizers as such, but the list of a la carte choices would be good for starters. The proteins—for platters, sandwiches, tacos or sides—are fish of the day (amberjack, mullet and snapper that day), oysters, shrimp, soft shell crab, and chicken. All the fish can be ordered as a side, and there are Caesar salads. More traditional platter sides are fries, fried okra, fried onions, hush puppies, cheese grits, cole slaw, BBQ beans, potato salad and a lettuce wedge. The condiments are ketchup, tartar sauce, cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Only soft drinks are served. I did not see desserts, but they do have a kid’s meal with fruit.
My wife’s decision was made as soon as she saw the sign—“local mullet” has a concentrating effect on her mind. I know I eat fried calamari a lot when I dine out, but when I saw they had a platter of it with two sides and hushpuppies for $9.99, I didn’t waste time debating either. My wife also ordered a cup of gumbo, and I got a cucumber, tomato and onion vinaigrette salad, one of the daily specials.
We got the only available table. They are all varnished picnic benches and perfectly suited to informal seafood dining, right down to the roll of paper towel napkins.
Both our plates came out fresh from the fryer, with a pop and crackle or two still in them. My wife got three chunks of filleted mullet, crunchy outside, tender, fluffy and boneless fish inside. On the side were hush puppies, a pile of crisp fried chopped okra and thick, tangy cheese grits. Like my squid, it was $9.99. Her gumbo was thick, with chunks of fish and shrimp, and a hearty, flavorful base.
The calamari, both tubes and tentacles, was sliced thick and chunky. The pinkish-white meat was a perfect balance of chewy and tender. I had hush puppies, fries and BBQ beans, which were laced with slices of smoked sausage. I did not have room for more than a few bites of the crunchy, tart salad, so most of it went home. It was a great accompaniment to fried seafood.
If you have visiting friends ask you where they can get fresh local seafood without having to sell a body part, give them (precise) driving directions to Stewby’s. Be smart and tag along.
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