By Kelly Fores

Assignment: “a hole in the wall with great food.” I love hole-in-the-wall restaurants because they’re where you find real food and real people with menu items that you can actually understand and pronounce. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excellent reasons to enjoy fine dining establishments, but in the heat of Florida, I prefer “come as you are” places where wearing a casual skirt will place me on the overdressed list rather than feeling like I should have worn my real pearls instead of the fake ones.

What I discovered when I entered Robbi’s Reef was not what I typically consider a hole in the wall. Though it is located in the strip-type Gulf Coast Plaza, Robbi’s is a casual, comfortable, attractive “seafood joint” decorated with aquariums, colorful fish art and nautical gear. Photos of people with their big catches cover the walls. Booths with black bench-style seats are lined up and down a wall, there is a bar that seats eight, and in between, wood top tables are neatly arranged. On the Tuesday night I visited, nearly every seat was taken, and even though the place is relatively small, I didn’t feel packed in like a sardine. I could tell there were repeat customers as well as people who just happened upon the place after a day at the beach. The staff was the friendliest I’ve ever encountered.

We were graciously served by Robbi Sierra herself, who owns Robbi’s Reef along with her husband Marcus. After surveying her menu, I asked if the fried calamari came out of a bag (hey, I want authentic!). She replied proudly that nothing at Robbi’s comes out of a plastic bag: the Gulf shrimp is peeled on premises and the calamari is hand-cut there as well. That sold me, so I ordered the Fried Calamari ($8.99) which promised to be lightly breaded and seasoned. It was served with marinara sauce and Greek peppers. The calamari had a nice crispness to it without being overdone, with good flavor not overpowered by the breading.

At the same time, we had a small bowl of Gulf Coast Gumbo ($4.99) delivered to our table and a fight nearly ensued. The bowl kept finding its way closer to my companion. Laden with shrimp, fish, clams, Cajun sausage, veggies, rice and topped with green onion, it’s no surprise that this is a Reef favorite. It was a delicious melding of flavors that wasn’t too spicy for my delicate palate, and I was going to get my fair share.

While we were practically arm wrestling over the gumbo, the calamari sat ignored. This turned out to be a good thing. I found that, if you can manage to let it sit for a bit, which may be difficult unless you’re devouring gumbo, the flavor gets even more delicious.

For my entrée, I wanted to go with something on the less-seasoned side, so I ordered the grilled Delta catfish dinner ($11.99), which can also be blackened or fried. I usually order my catfish fried so I found it a bit bland and decided that next time I’d order it blackened. I had my choice of two sides, so I opted for the cilantro potato salad and a Caesar salad (adding $1.00 to my tab). Neither disappointed, but the potato salad was exceptional. The chunks of white onion added a nice crunch to this flavorful side dish. If it were available in grocery stores, I’d buy it by the quart.

My companion selected Bayou Willy’s Pasta ($14.99) and when that was placed on the table I was immediately envious. Shrimp, blue crab meat and Cajun sausage tossed with penne pasta, green onions, diced tomatoes in a Cajun cream sauce topped with Asiago cheese—it was indecently delicious. Watch the spicy sausage in this—at first it might not seem that potent but it will sneak up on you. Served with garlic toast, this is one of the “priciest” items on the menu but well worth it.

As stuffed as we were at this point, we could not resist a slice of Key Lime Pie ($3.99). Made fresh in their kitchen, of course, this was the real deal and perfectly sweet-tart. Our food fight continued to the last piece of pie.

With 20 years of restaurant management experience on their resumes, Robbi’s Reef is the first independent venture for Robbi and Marcus—and it’s a delightful, charming, family-friendly winner. While I was there, I witnessed a waitress go out of her way to accommodate a specific request to feed an infant. Join the feeding frenzy and set sail to Robbi’s Reef for a most enjoyable outing.

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