by Erin Thurby
Despite the name, Salt Life Food Shack is not a shack. There’s a studied beach casualness to the place, which looks like it cost plenty to create. Although it’s meant to reflect beach culture all over, it certainly captures Jacksonville’s beach sensibilities.
For those of you who don’t know, the Salt Life Food Shack was born out of the much-loved local Salt Life brand. You’ll see Salt Life stickers plastered on cars all over the area. The logo also turns up on t-shirts and the like. There’s a t-shirt or a koozie somewhere out there for you. You can buy shirts at the restaurant if you’re devoted to beach life and surfing.
The food was developed with much the same philosophy as the label–loving beach life. So they looked to menu items you might find near the ocean. Not all of it is fish. After all it’s not hard to conjure backyard beach barbecues, surf roaring, salt heightening the smell of the roasting meat.
One example are the island style ribs. These babies take about four and a half hours. The hoision glaze and the smokey flavor made me an instant fan. Also unexpected on the menu was their version of the backyard beer can chicken. A three pound chicken hickory smoked with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, lemon rub finished with a maple soy glaze, this moist beauty is worth tearing into.
When I mentioned that I hadn’t cared for the sushi on a previous visit, they brought out rolls to change mind, which they did. Things have changed since I ate a roll there, because they had just opened and were still experimenting with flavor combinations. Namely they no longer briefly marinade the tuna before putting it in their rolls. Since sushi seems to move quickly here and they get regular shipments from Hawaii, freshness isn’t a worry. (They’ve even stolen some chefs from Roy’s).
My favorite raw fish dish wasn’t a roll though, it was the incredible caliche’s poke bowl, the poke is served Costa Rician-style. It’s fresh, sushi-grade tuna briefly marinaded in a sweet and savory sauce with steamed spinach, fresh avocado and sticky rice. It’s understandable that this dish is ordered frequently. It sang together nicely and the sticky rice was authentic (some places simply soak regular rice that was never meant to be “sticky.”)
I’ve also got to mention the delectable mahi-mahi fresh Shack fish special. Wisely, they let the flavors of the fish speak for itself, so they didn’t pile on strong flavor. Instead, they kept it light. An airy dusting of panko on the mahi topped with avocado and tomato was the right choice. The island rice paired with it (which comes with a number of entrees) hit just the right contrast without being overwhelming. The sweet island rice, by the way, is their own blend of flavored rice, finely chopped fruit and veggies–including silvers of almonds. It’s a definite yum!
As the food began to pile up I was getting looks from the big group of guys at the next table. Since I was alone I guess they figured I was either a food critic or a binge eater. So they asked. I extolled the virtues of the island ribs and my main interrogator eyed them hungrily. He asked to try one, and soon they were passed down his table, where they were quickly devoured to the bone. If you enjoy Mongolian-style barbecue you’ll like these ribs as much as I did.
On a previous visit, when I was more incognito, I fell in love with their soft-shell crab sandwich. Their soft-shell BLT includes a whole soft crab, two slices of crispy bacon, tomato slices, some shredded lettuce and a po’ boy type, lightly spicy remoulade sauce between ciabatta. It was the prep of the crab, the quality of the bread and the sauce that launched the sandwich into awesome.
If you’re into charity, eat at Salt Life on a Wednesday. They donate a portion of their sales to the Never Quit Foundation. As for myself, I may be making the trek beachward on a regular basis. I may even buy a t-shirt.