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This food is worth the drive // View and brew rule at Sam's

I have a soft spot in my heart for tiny, sometimes smelly Hudson Beach, mainly because it's five minutes from my home, but, more because some of my happiest moments have been spent there watching sensational sunsets with the people I love most in the whole wide world.

That love doesn't necessarily translate to adoration for the food at Sam's Hudson Beach Restaurant, where the great big menu is long on choices, but short on really good stuff. After several visits, I'm still looking for that one singular sensational choice that will make me shout, "Hey, gang, let's all go out to Sam's for the great _ uh, whatever???!"

Wings that even the server told us were "mediocre" ($4.95 for 10, $8.95 for 20), nachos buried in unremarkable liquid cheese and (arrrgh!) in chili with beans ($4.95), and unimpressive, often drippy burgers ($2.60 to $4.95) haven't met that test. Neither has the pizza, which looked and felt as though it came out of the freezer, nor the steak hoagie with stringy meat.

The little cup of cole slaw that came with the breaded grouper sandwich ($4.95) was the best thing I've ever had at Sam's, quite fresh and not too sweet, not too tart.

But a cup of slaw does not a banquet make.

The best thing about Sam's is the selection of beers _ 17 in all, from an everyday domestic at $2, to the 16-ounce Grolsch at $3.25, plus four on tap _ the inexpensive wine ($2.75 a glass; $12 a bottle) and the mixed drinks, though the frozen drinks have that unmistakable blandness of a big dispenser, not the blender-prepared, into which the barkeep can slip in little extras that will make it special.

Best of all, of course, is the view, a straight shot of the Gulf of Mexico, where shrimp boats bobbing along the channel just a few feet from shore just before sunset make any evening look like a scene from a postcard.

The new covered pavilion at Sam's increases the number of days when you can eat, drink and sit there in comfort. BP (Before Pavilion), a hot day trying to follow the shadow of the little umbrellas over each table could ruin the joy of even the coldest suds.

The wading area right by the restaurant is tiny, but a short stroll on the boardwalk takes you to minuscule Hudson Beach nearby. Perhaps because it's on a raised pavilion, I've never suffered flying insects at Sam's.

There is a blaring sound system at Sam's, but the bar atmosphere makes it seem more appropriate and less annoying than the one at otherwise peaceful Willy's on Pine Island in Hernando County. Ask for a table in the center, and perhaps the music won't be so obtrusive.

At a glance

Sam's Hudson Beach Restaurant at Hudson Beach (take Clark Street west off U.S. 19 in Hudson). Open 10 a.m. to midnight daily. Sandwiches, pizza, burgers and platters $1.75 to $7.95; beer, wine, mixed drinks, $1.75 to $3.25; specialty drinks.