Lord of the Onion Rings
My first inkling that Sandbar Grill didn't take itself too seriously came when I called to find out the hours. A recorded message clicked off a lengthy recital of each day's unique allure, as in Barefood Sundays (half-price drinks), Taco Mondays (half-price tacos), and Booby Wednesdays (half-price drinks for women, a raffle, and free breast enlargement for the winner -- or something to that effect). That the female voice on the recording was attempting to imitate Adam Sandler's baby talk proved so disconcerting that it took awhile for me to realize it ended without forwarding the information I had dialed for. Maybe this Coconut Grove sports bar and snack shack uses this goofy phone message to lower the bar of expectations. If so it works, as I was genuinely surprised to find Sandbar anchored by solid food, decent service, and a cordially tended bar (serving a wide range of draft beer, 28 types of tequila, and rum-splashed "hurricanes," the price and potency of which get upgraded as they move from categories one through five).
It looks as if it's been a neighborhood hangout for decades, but the San Diego-based Sandbar opened just one year ago (a third is slated for Orlando). The ramshackle, located-by-a-beach ambiance is achieved via tried-and-true tiki-hut touches, meaning weathered wood, straw-covered lamps, and lots of stuff hanging from a corrugated tin roof: a shark, surfboards that light up, industrial pipes, and so on. These aren't as obvious to the eye as you might suppose, as attention is diverted somewhat by twenty television screens (feeding off eight satellite dishes) that also are suspended from the rafters and form a border of kinetic video images around the entire room. This doesn't have to destroy the tropical Jimmy Buffett vibe of the place -- sit back, close your eyes, sip your margarita (or hurricane), and imagine yourself on a mellow, paradisaical island, surrounded by nothing but the booming sound of NCAA basketball and the shrieks of sports fanatics (like, say, Jimmy Buffett).
The menu is a quasi-Mexican mix of tortilla soup, tostada salad, nachos, quesadillas, and burritos integrated with shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, cheeseburgers, and teriyaki steak or chicken sandwiches. (I suspect these non-Mexican items were added as a flimsy rationale for not offering free chips and salsa.) The restaurant proudly touts itself as "Miami's Home of the Fish Taco," which is nothing but a soft white tortilla filled with mahi-mahi, shreds of cabbage and cheddar cheese, and just enough pico de gallo to make things mushy. If I were Sandbar, this is not what I'd be touting; a better self-praising phrase would be Lord of the Onion Rings. They were darn near perfect: Olympian in breadth, greaselessly golden brown with crisply breaded crust adhering like faith to the soft onion within. A mayo-based ancho-chili dip came on the side, though I prefer ketchup, which sat on the table beside a batch of other bottled sauces. A smaller portion of rings comes stacked on a sampler starter next to meaty Buffalo wings, spicy conch fritters, and "shrimp poppers," a crunchy/creamy trio of breaded and fried jalapeño peppers stuffed with shrimp and soft white cheese. The combo platter is $10.95; other appetizers, which are across-the-board agreeable, run from $5.95 to $8.95 but, along with drinks, are available half-price every weekday from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m.
Salads and main course specialties cost about the same as starters. Baja fish and chips ($7.95) featured five thinly coated, beer-battered cod fingers that were cleanly fried and paired with lemon wedge and tartar sauce, but the chips were just boring, frozen, crinkle-cut French fries. Tequila-marinated steak fajitas ($9.95) weren't sizzling on a steel platter, though they contained enough of a grill-and-spice flavor to mildly satisfy; sour cream, guacamole, yellow rice, black beans, and steamed flour tortillas were served on the side. Cabo chopped salad ($8.95), a generous mélange of grilled chicken bits; black beans; tomatoes; lettuce; corn; red pepper; red onion; and red, white, and blue tortilla strips came heavily drenched in light cilantro-lime dressing.
If you savor the seriouslessness of life, and your list of favorite frivolities includes watching sports, drinking alcohol, and eating better-than-average bar food (or you just enjoy entering contests where first prize involves surgical procedures), Sandbar Grill could be just what you're looking for.
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