Sunlight, soil and water. That's what it takes to grow something. But the devil's in the details. Some confluence of these three makes one setting conducive to growth and another, not so much. Brandon was in the right place at the right time to grow one of the area's healthiest crops of chain restaurants. • Why? • According to Rob Regan, general manager of Brandon's GrillSmith, conditions were ideal. • "When I was growing up, it was all cow pasture out here. Then, in the 1990s, people knew that you could build residential in Brandon for cheap. It coincided with lots of the big chains starting up, chains that did their research and knew where to build." • Still, a healthy restaurant culture depends on a delicate mix of those dependable chains (Olive Garden, Chili's, etc.), independent restaurants and new concepts. We took a peek at three Brandon spots that bring something essential to the table.
Shrimp just the start
Al Paone and his son, Albert, opened Shrimp Boat Grill eight years ago. It doesn't look like much, tucked in a strip mall with several other restaurants, its decor a comfortable stew that says "mid-priced seafood restaurant." But this place gets cranking, maybe in part due to its drink specials ($3 house wine! $1 drafts!) but more likely because the namesake crustacean dishes are excellent.
We started one evening with a shrimp duo ($8.99), wonton-wrapped and fried shrimp and not-overly-breaded coconut shrimp, both so tasty they hardly required their sweet dipping sauce. From there, either the grilled shrimp ($13.99), served simply with drawn butter and a choice of side (broccoli, cole slaw, etc., with a salad option for an additional $2.49), or a garlicky, buttery shrimp scampi ($14.99) served over spaghettini are welcome choices. This is honest, fairly straightforward American food, served at fair prices.
But if that's all you eat, you miss half the story. The junior Paone, with a master's degree in statistics and no early intention to get in the restaurant business, is something of a daredevil. He pays attention to what's happening around the country — molecular gastronomy and ethnic flavor mash-ups — and on Saturday nights he pulls out all the stops. You can order off the regular menu, or for a very reasonable $25, you can opt for his four-course tasting menu, which recently started with a pickled jumbo oyster with cucumber "cappellini," then segued into a lettuce wrap of crispy braised pork belly and a Sriracha aioli, on to a paupiette of rainbow trout with a blue crab-rock shrimp stuffing and finished with a warm coconut tapioca. Each of these courses had fillips and doodads that would have been appropriate in many fancier restaurants.
Oh, and Paone's clear joy is making ice cream. Do not depart until you've sampled either the salted caramel, the chocolate malted or the Guinness ice cream.
Willie's no-fuss fare
Brandon longtimers won't need an introduction to Willie's, the Place for Seafood (formerly called Fat Willie's — no word on whether this coincided with a change at the scales). Sitting all by itself, the little 1915 building was once a general store, then a post office and finally a classic "fish camp" restaurant. It has gone through some ownership changes in recent years, but its essential character is the same: honest, down-home, faintly New Orleans-tinged, seafood-centric, rib-sticking fare that is unlikely to move anyone's cholesterol in the right direction.
Take a business card out of the hollowed-out alligator foot and slide into a seat at one of the no-fuss tables. If you're looking for a green vegetable you'll have to content yourself with the house salad (dressing choices: blue cheese, ranch or honey mustard, all of the fat-grams-be-damned category) before wading into the fried fish. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are all-you-can-eat nights, a dangerous prospect when considering fried softshell crabs ($14.99) or catfish Ponchartrain ($15.99) with its crawfish Creole cream sauce. I opted for a fried combo of mahi mahi, catfish and shrimp ($18.99), a mammoth pile canoodling with fried hush puppies and serviceable french fries.
The kitchen knows the tricks: clean oil, hot enough to leave batter crisp and greaseless, and a little tangy tartar sauce and scoop of simple cole slaw to contrast all the crunchy lushness. No wonder this quirky bird has managed to weather rough restaurant times.
A new chop house
In many ways, Saladworks is the antithesis. A New Jersey chain that has been around for 26 years, the Brandon franchise, opened at the end of March, is the first in Florida. As I said, new concepts contribute to keeping a restaurant culture vital, and this qualifies: It's a fresh spin on the customizable craze. It's like Sweet Tomatoes meets Subway, salad "technicians" poised to construct your own point-and-pick salad scenario, or with a baker's dozen of salad recipes (Greek, "Nuevo" nicoise, fire-roasted Cabo jack) as a starting point.
What makes this different from, and better than, many other salad options is ingredients. Everything is chopped fresh daily in house, the spring mix springy, the bacon crunchy, the red onion with none of the second-day bitterness prechopping yields.
These are entree-sized salads (all between $7.99 and $8.29), certainly big enough for a dinner, with corresponding dressings you can have packed on the side for takeout orders, or tossed while you watch if you're eating in the small, spare dining room. As with many new restaurants, service is still figuring itself out, the salad constructers squinting at their cheat sheets as they put together the romaine, sliced chicken, grape tomatoes and banana peppers with blue cheese crumbles, tortilla strips and spicy Buffalo dressing for the "Buffalo bleu" salad. It's all packed into stylish black-and-clear plastic to-go containers, very spill-proof, with heavy plastic cutlery. In all, a concept certain to give other Brandon salad options a run for their money.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.