"I feel like I'm on vacation!" exclaimed one of my three workaholic dining companions, looking slightly puzzled. Perhaps vacations had been so few and far between recently that she'd merely forgotten what they feel like. But in fact a few things make a meal at Snappers Seafood Restaurant feel more like an out-of-town road trip than a mere Miami dinner break.
The down-home décor, which features walls and windows plastered with hand-scribbled daily specials (including a kid meal deal where two eat free per paying adult), has that rustic motel-dining-room look everyone has encountered during some vacation. Which is understandable, since Snappers is indeed attached to a motel. And it's far enough south to at least hint, to alpha types who haven't ventured more than a city block from their computers in months, "lost weekend in the Keys."
The service was personable and personal, not in that self-aggrandizing South Beach actor/waiter way, but that kind of sassy southern U.S./Caribbean way, with lots of amusing interchange involving, for a change, the key reason why you're at a restaurant: the food. And the food is also pretty typical American beach-vacation fare, simple but satisfying stuff with relatively few downers and a few surprising ups.
14501 S Dixie Hwy, Miami
305-235-3701. Open for breakfast Monday to Friday 7:00 to 11:00 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.; lunch Monday to Friday 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 4:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday 4:00 to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 1:00 to 10:00 p.m.
One of those ups, possibly my unexpectedly favorite single item at Snappers, was a fried oyster appetizer. The type of oysters used, according to our waitress (but also easily intuited from their dirt-cheap 50-cents-apiece price), are Gulf virginicas, from different locales depending on the season, summer being "northern" oyster time. Meaning Apalachicolas, from the bay fronting the Florida panhandle town of the same name. Which, as regular readers know, is a good 1500 miles too far south for me as a raw oyster fan. Eaten unembellished (or with just a little lemon or vinegar mignonette) on the half-shell, warm-water oysters lack both the crisp, briny firmness and the sweet creaminess demonstrated by varied Pacific Coast cold-water oysters; all raw Apalachicolas have going for them, in my opinion, is mellowness, density, and size. Cooked, though, they come into their own. Where northern oysters lose character cooked, the homies' density enables them to hold up beautifully to deep-frying, retaining virtually the same texture and taste, and Snappers' crunchy batter provided a perfect counterpoint. Only salt and a squeeze of lemon were necessary adds, not tartar sauce, fortunately, since none was provided and the red cocktail sauce that did come with the mild-flavored bivalves would've totally overwhelmed them.
Onion rings were another super starter. Although I knew the rings were house-made, I feared they'd be coated with that faddish fritter-type batter (whose fifteen minutes of fame has lasted way too long; it's near impossible to even find the onion in all that poofed-out spongy stuff). But Snappers' thick onion circles came covered with an appealingly thin, crunchy old-fashioned flour coating.
Crabcakes (also available as an entrée) rated a mixed review. The rather unnaturally bright red-tipped white seafood strands in Snappers' patties were, in fairness, bound with a rich but pleasantly light mayo-type substance (similar to sushi-bar "dynamite" sauce) and minimal heavy starches. But the lack of crab lumps, even small ones, and of any crab flavor whatsoever was off-putting.
Among entrées Snappers' "pasta combination platters" are the most interesting dinner deals for lobster lovers. Though the price of the lobster combo was recently raised from $22 to $27 (other combos remain priced at $9 to $14), it was a lot of bang for the bucks. Along with a one-and-a-half-pound lobster -- a quarter-pound heftier than usual lobster specials -- sides included a standard but satisfactory mixed salad; cheddar cheese biscuits that were texturally a cross between regular floury biscuits and springy fry bread (and tasty enough to make Snappers' breakfasts, which feature Old South specialties like biscuits with homemade sausage gravy); and a big bowl of pasta with choice of three sauces: marinara, pink, or garlic cream.
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Since so many all-American restaurants favor overcooked spaghetti with underspiced sauces, I had low expectations. But the pasta was, while not al dente, medium and not mushy; the marinara tasted fresh and had visible pieces of tomato, peppers, and onions; and the pink sauce, so often just an excuse for cholesterol overload, had heat and no more than a mellowing touch of cream. What's especially fun about all Snappers' lobsters, whether served as single entrées or in pasta combos, is that diners get to choose the cooking method (grilling or steaming) and sauce (lemon butter, creamy garlic butter, or spicy Thai). Though the latter tasted neither notably spicy nor Thai, the creamy garlic sauce -- not so much a sauce as a simple unthickened combination of cream and melted butter plus lots of garlic -- was a lighter yet rich-enough take on the usual melted butter. And the lemon butter sauce was really just the usual, with lemon wedges on the side -- but a good lobster needs no more. Unfortunately our grilled lobster wasn't very good. As is common with lobster cooked any ways but boiled or steamed, the meat was dreadfully dry.
Since it was a good bet the steamed version would be better, we tried to test it out, but Snappers had only one lobster left by our 7:30 dinner. Happily our server offered to substitute Alaskan king crab for the same price despite a higher market cost. But since the Alaskans were frozen, as they almost always are on the East Coast, we opted, among Snappers' many other crab choices (including blue and snow), for a Dungeness. Which actually had almost undoubtedly come frozen, too; it's a strictly West Coast species and as our waitress waffled cheerfully, "I'm gonna be honest with you: Sometimes it has to be frozen to be fresh, ya know?" Well, no. But Dungeness is Julia Child's favorite crab and very hard to find in any form in Miami, so it was irresistible. And it was incomparably sweeter than other crabs.
Two other entrées, balsamic honey-glazed salmon and whole snapper in spicy Thai sauce, were so-so, the salmon fillet nicely glazed outside but overcooked inside, the snapper juicy but fairly flavorless.
Snappers also has lighter lunch fare, some of it available during dinner hours. A fried dolphin sandwich I got to go was especially good -- my first hint being when this picky eater in my car, my cat, who in her 21 years has never touched one morsel of anything (including caviar) on road trips, began ripping the sandwich's Styrofoam container with her few remaining teeth to get at the succulent, crisply breaded mahi-mahi fillets. Fortunately the huge tomato/onion/lettuce-garnished sandwich, like most Snappers portions, was sized to share.