The island of Hilton Head attracts more than tourists to its sugary sands and lush links. This idyllic beachfront nook, with its lack of neon and fortitude of natural beauty, beckons the American retiree to its shores, and thousands have answered the call.
The members of this year-round population have a taste for the finer life and an appetite for the sea, though many also find themselves living off of pensions and fixed incomes that put a check on high-life expenditures.
Enter the Sea Shack, an unassuming blowhole of a restaurant with an address in an aging office park well off the main drag. The dull blue textured walls smack of an institution of a different sort, while the chipped formica tabletops and yellowed wall mural lend each patron a compelling reason or two to pay twice as much for their seafood.
I seem to be the only tourist in the packed room of blue-haired locals, all tucked into their white platters of this, that, and a side of the other. A nearly-toothless lady (a term used in the clinical sense only) greets me in a nicotine-induced baritone. “What’ll ya have?”
I offer my customary retort, “What do you recommend?”
Eye roll. “That’s way too broad sonny, I mean… It all depends on what you like.”
She points a gnarled index finger toward an oversized whiteboard scrawled to the edges with blue scribbles. I sense the growing disapproval of the snaking line behind me, and I order the first legible item I come across.
“I’ll take the shrimp poboy.”
The dialogue eases into a series of simpler choices. Blackened please. Light mayo. Ice water. To go. All good, until the sides come into question.
“You can pick any two.” says our patron saint of sea cuisine. I peruse the list perched by the register, and I dare to inquire again for a recommendation.
“Get the lima beans,” she chortles. I think about how I hate lima beans with passion and vehemence.
“Okay.” I shiver. “And I’ll have the sweet potato cornbread also.
I wait by the door and am surprised how quickly my order is delivered to me in a white plastic sack. And I high-tail it out of there for the nearest picnic table to devour the feast while it is still piping hot.
The sandwich is loaded with plump shrimp, each coated with the simple tang of New Orleans spice and pressed into sizzling inferno of the Sea House griddle. The tomato is sweet, the lettuce crisp, and the roll a perfect balance of crunch and chew. It is a masterpiece of textures, at once soft and crunchy, gooey and thick, meaty and delicate, and it all comes whirling to life as I smear horseradish-flecked cocktail and sweet-salty tarter sauces atop each bite with my plastic knife.
Cornbread is a word that invokes a nosh, a muffin, a mere crumbly carbohydrate morsel that adds a fleck of sweetness to an otherwise salty array of barbecue something-or-other. Not so at the Sea Shack. My gargantuan slice nearly dwarfs a football, and its moist, sweet sponge is as much a dessert as a side item. Hunks of warm, soft sweet potato are stewed throughout the filling concoction. Though I wish I could go on, I only finish half.
And the lima beans? Those hellish legumes that countless times left me a dessert-less youth? Scrumptious. Divine. Buttery. Smoky. Savory. Melty. Slightly Sweet. The Sea Shack clearly is able to bend reality to their will. And I dare say, the green dish might just have been the highlight of the meal.
An epicurean feast of the senses, the Sea Shack is not. But if you are craving local fare at rock-bottom pricing, it will not disappoint. Next time you find yourself on Hilton Head Island, skip the overpriced bistros and head over to Executive Park Road for a pile of homemade goodness that is as the locals say, “Not Fancy, Just Good.” It will knock your flip-flops off.