At Aruba Beach Cafe in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, sunburned tourists routinely pose for photos next to a life-size statue of what appears to be the Gorton's Fish Sticks fisherman, who's holding a giant mackerel by the tail.
The sculpture is just one element in the borderline-kitschy charm at Aruba, a 24-year-old, beachside Broward County classic that serves consistently excellent seafood from the kitchen of longtime chef Chris Nealon.
The fish-bearing, poncho-clad greeter at the restaurant's entrance is just an appetizer to a large interior tricked out with floral upholstery, fish-themed glass lighting installations, pink-hued overhead lamps, ocean-themed wallpaper and, most impressive, a gorgeous view of the beach and Anglin's Fishing Pier. Despite the tropical theme, the dim lighting tones down the bright colors to give the restaurant a relaxed, professional feel.
There are three ideal spots to sit at Aruba, depending on the experience you want: outside to enjoy the seaside air and view; at a table along the eastern glass wall for an air-conditioned view of the beach; or at one of the three bars on the southern side of the restaurant, where you can knock back drinks while listening to musicians perform classic rock. Despite the location and music selection, the crowd is varied in age, but most of all, everyone looks happy, relaxed and not the least bit pretentious. While you can get a fantastic lobster at Aruba, you can also go for sandwiches, which cost from $11.99 to $14.99.
The first thing you'll want to do after you've been seated is ask for an enormous loaf of Bimini bread ($3 for a loaf, $2 for a half loaf), featuring a warm, thick center and a sticky, semisweet glaze. You shouldn't expect much in the way of chicken at a seafood restaurant, but take a chance on Aruba's excellent grilled Jamaican jerk wings ($8.99), which are generously seasoned. Bacon-wrapped scallops ($8.99) are another must, with a salty sweetness coating the juicy scallops. The Maryland crab cake ($13.99) is solid if you like yours mildly seasoned, though the accompanying creamy pepper sauce barely adds flavor. Fried coconut shrimp ($11.99), with a lime-yogurt dipping sauce, boasts a crunchy, airy exterior. Conch fritters ($7.99) are an offbeat but accessible treat for out-of-towners.
Crab and lobster bisque ($8.99) is heavily creamed. It makes for an excellent dip if you saved any of that Bimini bread. Conch chowder ($5.99) is solid, tomatoey with a pleasing, semi-pureed texture.
The dish I keep going back to here is the excellent seafood trio ($23.99), a fun, shareable platter that's high on value and featuring a large piece of perfectly seared mahi rich with Cajun seasoning, three excellently prepared scallops and three shrimp. It comes with a small cup of black-bean soup, white rice and a pile of stir-fried snow peas, carrots and onions.
Another favorite is the surf and turf ($26.99, plus market price for the lobster tail), featuring a perfectly grilled, 6-ounce lobster tail topped with a decadent sauce made of cream, paprika, cayenne pepper and butter. The 10-ounce New York strip was decent if unexceptional, though we're not going to quibble, given the price. The spicy seafood fra diavolo ($28.99) is on target, with an enormous whole lobster and a nice mix of scallops, mussels and fish. Jumbo shrimp scampi ($22.95) offers a relatively mild yet pleasant sauce and expertly prepared shrimp, all complemented by Aruba's recurring pile of vegetables.
While there's something to be said for restaurants that experiment with the latest exotic-fruit-fusion-dessert concoction, I'm still a sucker for the tried and true desserts at spots such as Aruba (all $6.99). The Key lime pie is as mouth-puckeringly sour as it is sweet. The chocolate mousse cake was delicious, with a smooth, rich interior and a bold, crumbly chocolate exterior. You'll also find crowd-pleasers such as Reese's peanut butter pie, chocolate lava cake and coconut-rum cheesecake.
When I think of the reasons I live on the east side of Broward County, restaurants such as Aruba often come to mind. Given the light of the sky brightening our table, perfectly cooked fish that doesn't fail to please and a soul-soothing vibe that would make Jimmy Buffett proud, it's a sure bet I'll be a frequent visitor, especially when I'm trying to convince friends from out of town to move here.
1 Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Loud inside, moderate outside
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Kids' menu and highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes