I'm so glad I gave this place a shot when I went with some longtime friends. The birthday girl is a huge seafood lover and I didn't want to take her to a Red Lobster. I wanted her to try something different, something unique, something small-business minded… this something ended up being this wonderful place called TJ’s seafood shack!
I called ahead to make reservations only to find out that they are very low-key and relaxed which was perfect for the company and ambience that I was looking for. Matter of fact, the decor at this place has upside down buckets as lampshades. It’s not like the cookie cutter feel that you get when you walk in from one restaurant to the next. I believe the owners were trying to create an ambience that is very reminiscent of some mom and pop fish shacks that you would see along the Florida coast. It had a good warm and welcoming vibe.
That being said, we all know that there is no substitute for good food! It was especially important for me this time as I was taking a special friend for her birthday lunch- and she is a self-described picky seafood connoisseur. Her food cannot be too greasy nor too dry, neither raw nor too overly cooked, and neither heavily battered nor too simple looking. Basically, you can say that I was taking Goldilocks to lunch and she wanted her porridge juuuuuust right.
For appetizers, we ordered Sweet Platains ($3.75), Sweet Potato Fries with Honey Mustard ($4.99), and TJ's signature Smoked Mahi Fish Dip ($4.99). The appetizers really kicked off the lunch experience beautifully. The sweet fries weren't greasy at all which received rave reviews from the entire table. One of my friends commented on how beautifully the smoked Mahi fish that was done- delicately balanced with not too much cream cheese and just the right amount of sweet cornichons. The dip fish was so finely minced that you could actually use it as a perfect substitute for cream cheese on bagels (think of it as an clever riff on lox and bagels).
I particularly liked the sweet plantains, however- tender, perfectly brown and crispy on the outside, without the trailing grease slick that most people are accustomed to with plantains.
For the main course we had a Haddock Platter ($9.95), a variation of the three gator tacos ($10.50) where each taco was different, the Salmon platter ($9.50), and TJ's Seafood Shack's signature Po Boy Sandwich ($8.75). While ordering, we heard that the gumbo ($3.99) was made in-house and from scratch everyday. So, we ordered some of that as well! As they say in New Orleans, ‘laissez le bon temps rouler!' (let the good times roll).
The Haddock platter showcased how and why this place takes it's fresh fish seriously- a long, well-proportioned fillet (they buy their fish whole) which was coated with the right amount of pecans and breading. The fish was light and flaky and not overcooked. Just perfect. It's always good when restaurant knows not too coat the star with too much blah blah blah and let the protein do all the talking- if you know what I mean.
The Shrimp Po Boy was good but nothing to write home about. I have to confess, I've had quite a few Shrimp Po Boys in my lifetime and this ranked in the middle of the pack. That being said, the shrimp were perfectly cooked, the batter on the shrimp was crispy just like you would expect, and the remoulade sauce had all the right notes for the chorus. Additionally, it was at a very reasonable price point. What more could you ask?
The favorite entrée on the table was the combination tacos- a Salmon taco, a Gator taco, and another fish taco (which I gave away to share with the birthday girl- who, might I add, was very happy with her food). The salmon was well done but not dry- good blackening seasoning which reminded me of Cajun seasonings (garlic powder, paprika, onion powder, cayenne pepper, oregano, and thyme). The crumbled bacon was a good topping option not because well, bacon is a gift from the gods, but because it actually lifted the taco to another textural stratosphere. I only wished the bacon bits were served sizzling hot.
I really found myself digging at the beans and rice- the bean gravy was not too soupy and not too thick and the rice was cooked without any spices. The creamy cilantro sauce that topped it gave the side dish an extra zing. The sauce was in-house (as most of their stuff is) and you can find it in many of their dishes where it's a good ‘as needed’ option for binding, flavor, and textural nuances.
My favorite dish, however, was the humble looking gumbo- hands down! Delicately spiced, probably simmered for hours, non-slimy okra marrying with tomatoes and other vegetables topped with a generous scoop of plain white rice. You can't go wrong with this dish. Matter fact, I might just come back for a big ol’ bowl of this delicious gumbo whenever I'm feeling the blues. There's few things in this world that make a man happy than good soul food done right. I really could taste the love in this side item.
IN A NUTSHELL: Good restaurant with a laid-back attitude (they serve food with plasticware). A wonderful find in Orlando where fresh fish joints are desperately needed to expand local tastebuds. This is a family run business- and they take great pride in their product by continually improving on it. They have two locations towards the east side of Orlando. If you like fish and want to stay away from the chains, you’ve got to give TJ's seafood shack a try! Tell them Goldilocks sent you ;)