Written by Eric Taubert Tuesday, 04 May 2010 15:24
Ask for seafood restaurant recommendations among Southwest Florida foodies and, invariably, you will hear tell of Red's Fresh Seafood House and Tavern in Bokeelia on Pine Island. Owners Bud and Mary Locicero have been in the restaurant business since the early 1970's. They are the original proprietors of McT's Shrimp House on Sanibel Island. Culinary tales from those long-ago days are the raw materials of legends still circulating and reverberating all across our Gulf Coast barrier islands. Bud and Mary opened Red's in late 2005, reminding us of what life and dining used to be like on Sanibel and Captiva before the rampant tourism took hold. This restaurant affords glimpses of the quality, variety, and spirit our local seafood eateries should be known for.
Getting there is easy. Follow Pine Island Road through Cape Coral. Take a right at the four way stop sign onto Stringfellow Road. In less than a mile, you'll happen upon a mermaid emblazoned sign beckoning you into the unpaved parking lot of this siren red restaurant -- which looks promising, by Pine Island standards.
During season, you'll notice a long line of plastic chairs outside the entrance to Red's Fresh Seafood House. If you get there around 7pm - those chairs will be full of people patiently waiting for their chance to get in and eat some of the super-fresh seafood bounty being served up nightly at this legendary eating outpost. Do yourself a favor and get there on the early side. Did I mention the Early Bird Menu they offer if you're seated before 5:00 PM.
The inside is rustic, awash in deep reds, and larger than you'd expect it to be -- with three self-contained dining areas and a comfortable bar. There's a cozy charm and infectious energy to this restaurant. The host staff is always gracious, often thanking you for visiting, even in the middle of a crowded wait. They'll walk you past a display case, filled to the gills with iced-down fresh catch and raw bar profusion. They'll seat you at a comfy padded booth. The kitchen din and jovial coastal conversation fills the air. Within moments, a member of the ridiculously efficient and knowledgeable wait staff will appear table-side for your drink order and an explanation of the nightly specials. As you settle in to the appreciation of food and time spent with your dining companions, you'll become part of the atmosphere for those seated after you. This is the magic of celebrated restaurants; each night of dining becomes a single unbroken moment contributed to by everyone in attendance. Immerse yourself in the experience. Savor the sensations. This is being alive.
The menu at Red's is all-encompassing. This is a "huge menu" type of place with, literally, something for everyone. Their specialty is fresh seafood, and there is an emphasis on locally caught species. Oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops, calamari, crab cakes, grouper, salmon, tripletail (a local delicacy), tuna, tilapia, snapper, lobster, king crab, and snow crab are all on the regular menu. They also feature ribs, steak, chicken, salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, burritos and more. Those of you who know me are well-acquainted with my hatred of "huge-menus". I find them gimmicky -- a quantity over quality distraction by restaurants which would usually be better served by concentrating on the four or five things they do well. BUT...every rule has an exception -- and let me state loud and clear that this restaurant is the exception. Initially, I was a skeptic...but I've personally challenged this menu. I've plunged into its abyss-like depths, ordered all across it, and have yet to find a dish done poorly. Chef Victoria Wenning, who trained in the Northeast and worked at the Tarpon Lodge before joining the Red's team, has done an excellent job executing. Thank you, Chef Vicki, for proving me wrong.
To be a little more precise, this isn't cutting edge cuisine. It's fish-house fare. This isn't fine dining. It's fun dining. In example, one of their signature dishes is the Red's Steamer. This is a plenitude of shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels, Alaskan snow crab, Alaskan king crab and Cajun sausage steamed in garlic, sweet onion, white wine and butter; then poured onto platters at your table out of steaming beer pitchers. Understand?
I recently took two dining companions to Red's. We all started with Caesar Salads (as one of the two sides included with every Red's Dinner selection). For entrees we selected the Mermaid Platter (a signature dish), Linguini with White Clam Sauce (a pasta dish), and Sauteed Corvina (a special chef creation).
The Caesar salads were simple and traditional. Fresh chopped romaine lettuce and croutons tossed with a tasty example of a creamy Caesar dressing. A little fresh ground pepper finished the salads off with the necessary dimension of balanced flavor they needed. Including the salads in the price of the meal added a layer of perceived value to the dining experience.
Red's Fried Mermaid Platter is comprised of precisely the type of unadorned seafood that this restaurant excels in the preparation of. Shrimp, scallops, calamari, oysters and grouper deep fried in a thin, crisp, and unobtrusive batter. As a native New Englander, deep fried seafood is part of my heritage, a guilty pleasure of mine. Red's does it right: pile it high and let the honest flavors of the seafood itself shine through. Most restaurants nowadays place precious-few pieces of seafood atop a mountain of French fries to create the illusion of value. At Red's, the perfectly-fried seafood is stacked to impressive heights on the main plate...the fries are delivered on a side plate. They've instantly exceeded our expectations and outdone just about every other restaurant in the area through this simple arrangement. Bravo
The Linguini with White Clam Sauce also arrives looking good. Fresh Pine Island clams in the shell are supplemented by a ton of high-quality baby clams over al dente linguini splashed with a white wine sauce, which I'm happy to report was not drowning in olive oil. Fresh ground Parmesan cheese offered a superb finish to this dish.
The chef's special was Sauteed Corvina in a Wild Mushroom Basil Cream Sauce. Presentation was lacking here...but the flavors of the dish saved the day. The flaky, mild, and white corvina served as the perfect blank canvas for a rich mushroom and basil sauce brimming with flavor. Definitely tasted better than it originally looked.
Service was attentive and impeccable throughout the entire meal and we were thanked again on the way out the door.
My bottom line: I'm granting Red's Fresh Seafood House and Tavern a rating of Highly Recommended. Red's is the physical manifestation of what people hopefully imagine rustic South Florida Seafood House dining to be. How often does reality stand up to our expectations? Red's renews my faith in the local dining scene. Now, next time you've got out of state visitors in town you know where to go to give them a dose of authentic Southwest Florida. Enjoy!
-- writing, photography, and video by Eric Taubert
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