The scene: The Gulf of Mexico is America’s breadbasket for many types of seafood, especially oysters and shrimp, for which it is arguably the world’s premier supplier of the sweet, wild caught white variety. Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, with its 26 miles of continuous broad sandy beach, casinos, museums, restaurants, fishing and golf courses, is among the top vacation destinations on this body of water. Beach Blvd Steamer, a local seafood-oriented eatery at the Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport, Miss., combines several of the area’s top appeals: one of the finest casino hotels (complete with golf course), Gulf views and ultra-fresh seafood prepared in regional styles.
While there are several other restaurants within the two-tower casino hotel complex, Beach Blvd Steamer occupies a free-standing building in the parking lot, just across the coastal thoroughfare from the beach, and does not have the feel of a hotel restaurant. For about 30 years it was a wildly popular fine dining French eatery, a special occasion spot for locals, and when the owner retired, the casino bought the building and re-opened it as this more casual but still full service, sit down seafood spot in 2014. The Island View is a family-owned rarity amongst a group of bigger name corporate chain casinos, and has always excelled at a personal touch that surprises visitors and woos locals, and this is the approach at homey Beach Blvd Steamer.
The building has wraparound picture windows covering most of its angled exterior, with many “corner” views. There is a small brick patio on one side for al fresco dining, and while the restaurant features simple bare wood floors, exposed brick walls, dark wood tables and a neon logo sign with a cartoonish curled up shrimp, à la Bubba Gump, it still boasts elegant touches of its past like the large ornate chandeliers dangling from high ceilings. The result is a casual but still night out feel, midway between fine dining and the many seafood beach shack-type places in the area. It has one of the deepest seafood menus on the Gulf Coast, with myriad styles of preparation, and consistently earns very high marks on travel sites like TripAdvisor (Certificate of Excellence, top 5%).
Reason to visit: Royal Red Shrimp, grilled oysters, red fish, house-made desserts
The food: Seafood, mainly local Gulf seafood, is definitely the attraction here, but for those with other cravings, Southern specialties like slow smoked baby back ribs, and steaks or chicken grilled over pecan wood are also available. Wood-fired grilling is a signature, for the fish as well, and interestingly it opened with no fried options on the menu at all, a big anomaly in the fry-happy region, but customer demand forced the restaurant to add some hand-breaded Southern favorites such as fried shrimp, oysters, flounder, red fish and softshell crab, as well as New Orleans-style po’ boy sandwiches (the Big Easy is just 80 miles away and the region shares many flavors). But as the name suggests, the focus is still on steaming, along with pecan wood grilling and some baked, sautéed and raw options.
“Steamers” are full dinners with your choice of steamed seafood, a cooking method which retains all the fresh-from-the-salt-water flavor in a light healthy way, and each includes warm house baked bread, the delicious signature chopped salad (or gumbo or corn chowder if you prefer), and a choice of two sides, which range from steamed seafood staples like corn and red skin potatoes to Southern faves such as fried okra, turnip greens with ham hock, and of course, macaroni and cheese. The soups are quite good but the chopped salad is excellent, a favorite of regulars, made with very ripe red and yellow tomatoes, cucumber, bacon, candied pecans, parmesan cheese and green onions, all combined for just the right amount of crunch, meatiness, garden fresh taste and creaminess.
If there is one must-try dish here, it is Royal Red Shrimp, described on the menu as “the Coast’s Succulent Secret,” and that is no exaggeration. The FDA lists 41 species of shellfish that can be labeled as simply “shrimp,” but only one, pleoticus robustus, can be sold as Royal Red. Living at unusually extreme depths of 1,000-3,000 feet, it is known as the King of Shrimp, and is the world’s rarest, most prized, and arguably most delicious kind. It is only fished commercially in three spots on earth, all in the Gulf or off the Florida coast (though there is a similar shrimp in Argentina). They are unusually red when raw, hence their name, and sweet, salty, rich and silky when cooked — in a way they taste more like lobster than competing shrimp.
Royal Red Shrimp are also soft shelled, fragile and rarely shipped, making the Gulf Coast the best place to try the delicacy, but most places run it as a special, and only a handful, including Beach Blvd Steamer, feature it regularly. Here it is offered as a steamer dinner, a shrimp sampler dinner (with Gulf white shrimp and crabmeat stuffed shrimp), as part of a surf and turf steak dinner, or as a special (I had them wrapped in bacon). Despite the large portion, the Royal Red steamer dinner is just 20 bucks, making it one of best tasting bargains food lovers will find.
“I haven’t ever found any shrimp better in the world,” says Ed Layton, the casino’s vice president overseeing Food & Beverage. “It’s delicate, tender, sweet, more like scallop or crab. Steaming is best but you can grill them quickly. It doesn’t lend itself to cocktail or tartar sauce — I like mine with a drop of butter and lemon juice.”
The Royal Reds are reason enough to visit, but other great dishes here include the fresh Gulf oysters, served raw, Rockefeller (with spinach cream sauce), Bienville (with spicy shrimp cream sauce), or my favorite and the most interesting, grilled over pecan wood, topped with garlic and cheese and served sizzling in the shell. Crab cakes are also excellent, loosely packed together chunks of big meat, almost no filler. Red fish is the Gulf’s signature fin fish, and is very popular here and in New Orleans, and if you haven’t tried it before, it's the fish to sample, grilled, Cajun blackened or fried.
Given all the sides, extras and generous portions, it is hard to leave room for dessert, but the options are all made from scratch daily, and attached to the restaurant is the casino’s standalone candy shop making fresh New Orleans-style pralines. The selections all look great and regulars rave about them. We try Key Lime Pie, a riff on Red Velvet cake with cheesecake layers, and the stunning Chocolate Bomb, with white and dark chocolate mousse, and all are standouts.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you like seafood, Royal Red shrimp is one of the world’s best and rarest options, and you can always find it here.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 3206 West Beach Boulevard, Gulfport, MS; 228-314-1530; islandviewcasino.com/diningBeachBlvdSteamerMenu
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.