Winner Winner Seafood Dinner: Mexican Flavors at the Marina Cantina

About Winner Winner Seafood Dinner

“Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: The legend tells that years ago every casino in Las Vegas had a three-piece chicken dinner with a potato and a veggie for $1.79. A standard bet back then was $2, hence when you won a bet you had enough for a chicken dinner.”  – Urban Dictionary

“Winner Winner Seafood Dinner” is a spin off of the phrase, “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner,” used in Vegas to celebrate a win. More recently, the phrase has been used to celebrate any win. In Florida, a big win is best celebrated with a seafood dinner. I started the “Winner Winner Seafood Dinner” series on Florida Illustrated back in May 2016 as a way to feature some of the outstanding seafood we have here in Florida.

Marina Cantina

One of the best purveyors of restaurant-quality seafood  in the state is the Tampa Bay area’s Bay Star Restaurant Group, including The Island Way Grill, Salt Rock Grille, Salt Rock Tavern, Rumba’s, Marlin Darlin, and more recently, Salt Cracker Fish Camp and Marina Cantina. Although the Marina Cantina is billed as a Mexican restaurant, the Cantina has about a dozen seafood items on its menu: an ahi tuna tostada, 3 different ceviches, octopus tacos, grouper tacos, and 6 different seafood entrées. In addition to serving excellent traditional Mexican food, Marina Cantina is a great place to enjoy Mexican-inspired seafood dishes.

I went to the Marina Cantina this weekend for my birthday, and I am so enamored with my entire visit, I almost don’t know where to start. I had already made my birthday dinner reservation at Marina Cantina when I opened the envelope reminding me it was time to renew my vehicle registration. Normally, I’m not a big fan of this particular mailing, but this year was different. Tucked within my annual green-and-white envelope, there was a birthday coupon for Bay Star Restaurants. “Buy any entrée for $18 or more, and your birthday girl/boy can get a free grouper entrée at any Bay Star restaurant,” the coupon promised. My entire face lit up when I realized I had already made a reservation for the new Bay Star restaurant, Marina Cantina, on my birthday. Free grouper! Other people might struggle to chose in the face of such stellar culinary options, but I knew exactly what I was having for dinner on my birthday.

The only question remaining was what appetizers should precede the main dish. The group consensus was that we order the empanadas and the caprese mexicana. But before either of these came, it was house margaritas and complimentary chips and salsa. The salsa was nice and garlicky, as I like it, with just the right amount of spice and a hint of cilantro. I probably could have sat their all night drinking margaritas and eating chips and salsa – that’s how pleased I was with the initial offering. But that would have been silly with all the other available menu options, so I forced myself to eat my chips and salsa in moderation so I would have room for appetizers, dinner, and dessert.

The empanadas and caprese mexicana formed our second course. The trio of empanadas came with 6 empanadas – 2 chicken empanadas, 2 carnitas empanadas, and 2 short rib empanadas. All the empanadas look the same on the outside, making each one a delightful surprise on the inside. Is it a chicken empanada? A short rib empanada? A carnitas empanada? You don’t know until you bite into it. I ended up selecting one chicken empanada and one carnitas empanada. Both were top tier empanadas, with fresh, thin crust and generous, flavorful fillings. I’ve tasted empanadas as good as these before, but I’ve never tasted better.

The creative caprese salad was a revelation. Who knew a caprese salad could be so good without those big fat slices of mozzarella cheese? At Marina Cantina, each tomato slice is instead topped with a perfectly-formed scoop of chunky guacamole and sprinkled with crumbles of queso fresco. The result is delightful. In addition to being unique, the dish is composed of the best available ingredients – check out the redness of the tomatoes and the thickness of the balsamic drizzle.

The artful presentation of my Grouper del Sol was enough to make me smile before I even took my first bite. A 1.5″ thick panko-crusted grouper filet sat atop a bed of rice, covered in a citrus cream sauce, and topped with fried leeks. The grouper was as fresh as you can get – fished locally by the Bay Star Restaurant Group fleet and delivered straight to the Marina Cantina. The sauce imparted a slight citrus flavor to the grouper and rice which, together with the mild onion flavor of the leeks, were the predominate flavors of the dish. Everything was perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. I am trying to think of the last grouper dinner I had that matched this high level of quality, and only one other comes to mind – a grouper parmesan I had on special years ago at the Mystic Fish.

Normally my family gets a cake for my birthday, but after reading Jon Palmer Claridge’s review, I knew I had to have the chocolate-on-chocolate cake with piped avocado mousse and mole at Marina Cantina. The restaurant manager hunted down a candle and delivered my cake to our table himself. The rounds of chocolate cake reminded me of warm fudgy brownies, and the creamy center delivered a refreshing citrus punch. The chocolate-citrus combination, although relatively rare, is one of my all-time favorites. I almost couldn’t believe they gave me this slice of heaven for free just because it was my birthday. Both our waitress and the manager sincerely wished me a happy birthday, confirming in my mind that I had selected the perfect place to celebrate my special occasion.

The food by itself would have been special enough, but it was delivered in an amazing setting as well. Up on the second floor with no roof above our heads, we looked out onto the Clearwater marina as the sun set over Clearwater Harbor.

In addition to patio tables like the one we were sitting at, the Cantina also had reserved a section of the 2nd floor patio for loungers. After dark, the row of patio loveseats filled with friends enjoying cocktails around fire pit tables. One of the things that impressed me the most was the versatility of this restaurant. Whether you are going for a nice dinner, a special occasion, or just drinks and snacks, you can easily have a good experience here. This was one of those rare meals that was great from start to finish. From my experience, the drinks, the scenery, the service, the ambience, the appetizers, the entrées, and the desserts are all top notch. I can’t wait to introduce my friends to this place.

More Seafood Dinners

Stone Crab Claws from the Thirsty Marlin and Swordfish from the Bonefish Grill

Blackened Triggerfish from Café Alfresco and Just Caught Grouper from the Salt Rock Tavern

Categories: Clearwater, Dining & NightlifeTags: ,

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