You cannot escape it. The phrase is emblazoned on everything in Northeast Florida: Salt Life. What started out as an utterance on a fishing trip among friends has become a popular brand in our area. Salt Life went from a saying, to a retail shop, and then a restaurant. The original food shack opened in Jacksonville Beach, specializing in casual Floridian fare with an emphasis on local seafood. The brand expanded to St. Augustine Beach in 2014 with a beautiful, two story building right across from the pier. The second floor has a substantial open deck, as well as a large bar, which offers outstanding views of the Atlantic. The first floor has a large patio and indoor dinning room, if you care to stay out of the blazing sun. There is also an impressive aquarium built by the team from the television showed Tanked.
We visited the St. Augustine Beach location a few months after it was built. I have a good friend who frequents the Jacksonville Beach location and swears by their soft-shell crab sandwich. We were looking for a casual lunch, bathing suits and wet hair casual, after a family trip to the beach. I remember enjoying our food but the heat of the day and the noon sun overwhelmed my memory of that lunch.
So, we decided to try Salt Life Food Shack again when we had some relatives visiting from Ohio. The location is the perfect opportunity to show off our beautiful beach without having to get sandy. The menu, unlike some beach or intercostal restaurants in the area, offers a good selection of non-seafood dishes as well as seafood. We were seated on the first floor patio, under a shaded table by a very accommodating hostess. Our waiter was very knowledgeable and patient as he guided our guests through the menu. He was the real star of our experience.
We ordered a range of dishes: Southern fried shrimp, the chicken taco, the Tropical Yardbird sandwich, the Shack Burger, chicken fingers, and, of course, the soft-shell crab BLT. Not all the entrees come with a side, so if you want something with your main course, you can choose from their side items. We ordered fries, black bean orzo, and grilled vegetables.
As the dishes were delivered by runners, I noticed that my picky eater immediately recoiled when her food was set before her. For the first time (this happens more often then I care to admit) I could see why: her chicken fingers were burnt. Instead of being a golden brown, they were dark brown and hard. Our waiter, after seeing her reaction, apologized profusely and offered to put in a fresh order of tenders and fries for her. I greatly appreciated his excellent customer service, but it is a little concerning that the cook and runner did not notice that the food was burnt before it made it to our table. When her food was brought out again, it was cooked appropriately.
The Shack Burger was a decent size and good – what you would expect for a standard burger. My husband was greatly impressed with his Tropical Yardbird sandwich. The Tropical Yardbird is a grilled chicken breast drizzled with a maple-soy glaze, and topped with pineapple, provolone, lettuce, tomato, and honey mustard. He said he would order it again; his highest compliment. My mother-in-law enjoyed her chicken taco, but keep in mind when ordering tacos that you will only get one. If you would like more, you can mix and match from their selection. Her taco was a cornflake and almond encrusted chicken tender topped with slaw, pico, and cheese. The fried shrimp were very good – lightly breaded and seasoned. The soft-shelled crab BLT, however, was a completely different story.
My sandwich arrived and I was completely underwhelmed. My family comes from the Chesapeake area and I have grown up eating blue crabs in all shapes and forms. In fact, I have heard my father and uncles talking about their mother preparing soft-shelled crabs in their childhood kitchen. The crab on my sandwich was sadly undersized, making the sandwich more topping and bread than anything else. Unfortunately, it was severely over salted. Once I could get past the saltiness, the crab tasted like burnt cooking oil. It even looked slightly over cooked. I took my sandwich apart so that I could at least eat something. Even the bacon was ridiculously salty. I ended up eating the bread – the rest of the sandwich was completely inedible. For my side, I ordered the grilled vegetables which were flavored with garlic infused oil. They were also overcooked, and overcooked, soft, slimy vegetables are terrible. The black bean orzo, unfortunately, was also salty, overcooked, and mushy.
I would like to report that our second visit to Salt Life Food Shack was excellent, but instead, we have decided to not give the restaurant a third chance. After talking to local friends, they have had similar experiences at this location, especially recently. In fact, the locals now stay away from this location and most of the patrons are tourists. There is so much potential for this restaurant to really be outstanding. It is so disappointing that out of five entrees, two were inedible. Salt Life Food Shack was once know for good food, hopefully they will refocus and earn their reputation back. For now, if you are looking for a beer and a view, the bar upstairs will fit the bill, but I would not order any food.
Writer Cassie Oborne grew up in the beautiful Gulf Coast city of Naples, Florida. She graduated from Flagler College, where she studied English and Secondary Education. After graduation, she and her husband made St. Augustine their permanent home. She has spent the last 16 years exploring and eating her way around the ancient city.