Winner Winner Seafood Dinner: Rusty Bellies

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.

Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill

Usually, each Winner Winner Seafood Dinner post features two different seafood dinners prepared at two different Florida restaurants, but this time I am dedicating an entire post to  Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill. This popular Tarpon Springs seafood restaurant catches and prepares their own shrimp and fish. Pelicans, sea gulls, locals, and tourists all congregate here for a fresh seafood feast.

While we waited for our table, I walked around the restaurant taking photos. The back of Rusty Bellies opens up onto the Anclote River, a winding pathway into the Gulf of Mexico. At sunset, the sun dips behind the mangroves as people munch on their seafood dinners outside at the Tiki Bar. Behind the adjacent seafood market, a crowd of Pelicans and sea gulls compete for whatever scraps are thrown out. It’s the perfect backdrop for a Florida evening out.

The restaurant is ridiculously popular on Saturday nights near sunset. The sun set during the hour that we waited for our table, and we ended up sitting inside. Thankfully, we were able to order an appetizer at the bar while we were waiting. I opted for the Bellie Banger Shrimp, marked as one of the preferred menu items. The shrimp were served lightly fried and tossed in a mild honey mustard sauce that complimented the shrimp without overpowering it. This was the first time I’ve ever dipped a piece of seafood into a honey mustard sauce, a condiment typically reserved for chicken fingers or chicken nuggets. The combination was surprisingly good. I was equally surprised when the appetizer was hand delivered to us in the courtyard where we were waiting.

Bellie Banger shrimp

Inside the restaurant, the waitress quickly took our drink order and brought us a brown paper bag full of fresh warm hush puppies. Crispy on the outside, while soft and slightly-sweet on the inside, these hush puppies were absolute perfection.

The food menu was full of interesting options, and we all found it hard to choose. We were particularly enthralled by all of the combo options. We ended up ordering two of the restaurant specialties: the E. Sea Rider and the shrimp trio.

E. Sea Rider

The E. Sea Rider was an exercise in subtlety. When you have a fresh piece of fish or shellfish, you really don’t want to overdo it with the seasoning and sauces. A splash of citrus here and a dash of pepper there, and you have all the seasoning you need. Rusty Bellies has really mastered this minimalist technique with their E. Sea Rider platter. The dish comes with a grilled fish filet, 1 skewer of grilled scallops, and 2 skewers or grilled shrimp arranged on top of a heaping pile of yellow rice. Just in case you like something a little saucier, it is served with a cup of lemon dill sauce on the side, which is best used sparingly. The grilled shrimp had the ideal texture and crunch, and just the right amount of flavor.  The grilled Grouper was similarly pleasing in its flavor and flake; it was even more lovely when topped with the lemon dill sauce and paired with rice. The scallops, although perfectly cooked to melt in your mouth, were my least favorite item on the plate. Scallops, in general, can be a little potent for my taste. I prefer them with a more intense preparation, like wrapped in bacon or smothered in garlic butter. Despite this, the E. Sea Rider is an altogether excellent menu item.

Jack’s Shrimp Trio

My dining companions ordered the shrimp trio, a combination of broiled rock shrimp, Peel-and-Eat steamed shrimp, and Bellie Banger shrimp served with one cup of cocktail sauce and one cup of melted butter. Rock shrimp are more of a novelty item, even in the state of Florida. They used to be considered throw away shrimp until someone found a new way to crack into their rock-hard shells. Ever since my friend introduced me to Dixie Crossroads and their broiled rock shrimp last month, I’ve been looking for more restaurants with rock shrimp on the menu. These shrimp are similar to lobster in flavor and texture, and are typically served like a lobster tail – broiled with shells cracked open, to be dipped in melted butter. You can order them by the dozen at Rusty Bellies, or enjoy them as a part of the shrimp trio. The shrimp trio was a real crowd pleaser at my table – everyone loved the variety of shrimp that could be enjoyed with a single meal.

For dessert, we ordered a slice of Key Lime Pie and a slice of chocolate cake. I sampled them both and I give them each an enthusiastic thumbs up. The key lime pie had that tartness and loose graham crust that I love, and the chocolate cake was surprisingly moist. It was the perfect ending to our seafood feast.

We have a lot of seafood restaurants in Florida, but Rusty Bellies stands out from the crowd in a few ways:

  1. They have amazing scenery on the Anclote River.
  2. They have a very extensive menu – you can get almost any seafood item you could imagine here – oysters, mussels, calamari, shrimp, scallops, tuna, grouper, mahi, mullet, amberjack, clam strips, snow crabs, stone crabs, crab cakes…They have it all here.
  3. They have their own boats and catch their own seafood, so you can be sure what you are getting is fresh.
  4. They have exemplary service. The wait staff is extremely attentive, the meals are well-paced, and they don’t rush you out at the end.

Although Tarpon Springs is known mainly for their Greek restaurants, Rusty Bellies adds a welcome slice of variety to the community’s dining options. If you are ever in the Tarpon Springs area and in the mood for seafood, I suggest you try it.

More Seafood Dinners

Grouper del Sol at Marina Cantina

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: Dining & Nightlife, Tarpon SpringsTags:

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