If you’ve ever had any doubts about the validity of the old “location, location, location” adage, try to get a table at Saltwater Cowboys on Shem Creek. Be sure to bring a light snack, some correspondence you’ve been meaning to address, and a deck of cards, because the wait is likely to be at least two hours.
While seated on the dog-friendly outdoor deck, the water views cannot be beat. Kayakers, shrimp boats, and even dolphins pass by as you relish the feeling of your butt finally resting on a chair. Inside, the space is bright and airy, with large floor-to-ceiling windows and — somewhat inexplicably — giant TVs silently tuned to ESPN.
The menu is vast and reminiscent of the surrounding establishments with starters like smoked wings ($9.99) and nachos ($10.99+). If the wait has rendered you peckish, the platter of hand-breaded onion rings ($8.99) will still be more than you can eat. The massive portion arrives crisply fried and well seasoned, but how much decadence your digestive system can handle is on you.
Although I like pineapples, I am rarely enthused to see them crop up unexpectedly. Considering the menu in no way mentions pineapple, imagine my surprise at their appearance in the ahi tuna poke ($12.99). Further considering the 1:1 fish to fruit ratio, it’s hard to consider their inclusion as anything other than deceptive tropical filler. Eat around it and the remaining combination of fuero wakame seaweed, black and white sesame seeds, and ripe avocado is light and balanced against the raw fish.
In contrast, the fried grouper fingers ($10.99) were far better than expected. These ain’t no fish sticks. Rather, the five chubby “fingers” — firm and fresh — are lightly breaded and perfectly fried. They’re accompanied by an excellent tartar sauce, but the white, flaky grouper is so lovely it seems a shame to drown it in mayo, no matter how fine.
Should you ever be informed that for just $6 you can experience the pleasures of the afterlife, proceed with cynicism. Billed as “five halves of heaven,” the deviled eggs ($5.99) are a smidge over-hyped. At the same time, if you’re trapped in a two-hour limbo waiting for a table, this would not be a bad way to stave off some hunger pangs. Filled with a traditional mayo-based yolk filling, topped with fresh dill, and served chilled, they’re homey and satisfying, just maybe not rapture-worthy.
Despite the huge crowds, service is extremely laid-back and even a bit pokey. There are signs in the parking lot announcing open positions, so that’s likely just a symptom of growing pains. Similarly, things are slow to come out of the kitchen, which is probably more of the same. Time will tell.
The menu features a variety of sandwiches, as well as fried seafood platters and barbecue. Although I would walk a mile barefoot for a good po’ boy, the oyster bacon po’ boy ($12.99) was saddening. Served on a large hoagie roll with the top third cut away, the bread is airy, yet bone dry. With a texture reminiscent of angel food cake, I found it hard to get past the strange, stale feel. Filled with three bacon strips, shredded lettuce, and a large tomato slice, it’s essentially a BLT topped with fried seafood. However, as the roll lacks a top half, the minute you attempt to lift it, the seven fried oysters slide off in all directions. The menu indicates the sandwich contains the same lemon dill tartar from the grouper fingers, but alas, it must have disappeared into the parched abyss of the baguette.
Unfortunately, the shrimp salad roll ($10.99) also suffers from bread-related disabilities. Made with roughly six large local shrimp, cut into thirds, the salad itself is lovely. Tossed with diced celery, red onion, and a bit of a light mayo-based dressing, it’s light and incredibly fresh. In lieu of the traditional buttered hot dog bun, Saltwater Cowboys gives a brioche bun a similar treatment. With its sliced-off edges and slightly burned, buttered exterior, it certainly looks the part. However, one bite reveals it’s quite dense and dry, overpowering the delicate shrimp. Get a fork and cut your losses.
Sides are one of Saltwater Cowboy’s strengths, and the mac and cheese ($2.99) is a prime example. Topped with a layer of melted cheddar so thick as to require a knife, it’s comforting decadence at its best.
Similarly, the corn pudding ($2.99) will likely bring back childhood memories. Inaccurately named, this is creamed corn if ever there were. Filled with soft, cooked onions and plump white corn kernels, there’s a familiar tinny flavor that indicates the yellow corn may have come from a can. For some people — like my dining companion — this may induce a nostalgia-based hunger that makes it hard to share.
The Geechie Boy house grits ($2.99) are a fine example of the genre. Creamy and buttery, yet not ridiculously so, they’re another solid offering. Same can be said of the collards ($2.99), which are neither too sweet nor too vinegary, and still retain a bit of their verdant vegetable-ness.
Compared with its neighbors and presumably in reference to the second half of its name, what makes Saltwater Cowboys unique is its house-smoked barbecue, and the whole smoker ($29.99) offers a chance to sample a portion of each of the four meats.
Although I applaud the effort to make it in-house, the smoked sausage was overly pureed and ultimately mealy. “I think they set the grinder for coffee, not sausage,” noted my dining companion. Served with sautéed onions and seared red and green bell peppers, there’s a lingering fiery heat to each bite.
The pulled pork fares better. Although it was hard to discern any real smoke flavor, the shredded meat comes fairly juicy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are mummies more hydrated than the baby back ribs. Black like the devil’s soul, the three chunks may have spent some time roasting over the fires of eternal damnation. Likely made days before and warmed up for lunch service, the meat itself was as tough as jerky. If that’s not enough, they arrived coated in a thick barbecue sauce so tortured, it had the consistency of hard candy in spots. Abysmal.
Now that you know how I really feel, trust that the smoked turkey breast was absolutely sublime. I don’t know how two such divergent meats wound up on the same plate — not to mention came out of the same kitchen — but thank the stars they did. In addition to great flavor, the two thick slices are tender and succulent, not always an easy feat with turkey.
Still, at the end of the day, the inconsistencies may not matter. From the looks of things, most notably the two-hour wait, the people have voted. As waterside fried fare goes, Saltwater Cowboys offers some definite highlights, but if it’s barbecue you crave, stick with the bird.