“Who is Salty Papa?” “
It’s a question that Vallee Arnett cultivates almost daily as a co-owner of Salty Papa’s Shrimp House in South Fort Myers.
Salty Papa is indeed a real person. Dad is the nickname for Russ Bradt, the stepfather of VallÃ©e’s partner, Marc Arnett. On a trip to Key West, she was struck by Bradt’s resemblance to the island’s most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway, also known as Papa.
VallÃ©e and Marc bought the old Pinchers restaurant in Iona in 2014 and chose to name it the Hemingway lookalike in their lives. While it was shut down during the pandemic, Salty Papa’s team set to work on a vast remodel.
The most noticeable change is the glossy blue epoxy floors, meant to look like you’re walking on water. The chair cushions match the color of the ocean, and the walls are painted in calming shades of gray and light blue.
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VallÃ©e grew up in Sanibel and has been in the restaurant industry most of his life.
âI wanted to go back to old Florida and what the restaurants in Sanibel were like in the 60s, 70s and 80s when everything was fresh and local,â she said. âThe restaurants did not serve pre-cooked meals. They were made to order.
At Salty Papa’s, if she can’t get fresh clams for her popular hand-breaded clam strips, rather than replacing frozen meat, she just won’t serve them until the stock returns.
The restaurant’s motto, âWhere the Bayou meets the beachâ, suits the cuisine. Local seafood takes center stage, with a nod to the south. Here you’ll find everything from fried Louisiana alligator tail nuggets to Kentucky bourbon-glazed Gulf shrimp and Georgia peaches.
Gulf shrimp take up a lot of space, both on the menu and in the kitchen. VallÃ©e estimates that it plows 13 tonnes of crustaceans per year. So big is the bulk that Salty Papa’s has an unofficial Shrimp Queen, an employee whose only job is to shell and devein shrimp.
Charleston Shrimp and Oatmeal is one of Salty Papa’s most popular dishes.
âNo one was making shrimp and grits when I opened,â VallÃ©e said. “People are obsessed with this.”
She started with a traditional Lowcountry recipe, polishing it up with her own blend of spices.
âThe oatmeal is so creamy and full of chunks of meat,â she said. “There’s a little smoke and a little heat from the andouille sausage, and it pairs beautifully.”
While seafood receives the lion’s share of attention on this menu, Salty Papa’s earthy options aren’t an afterthought.
âWe put the same love on them,â VallÃ©e said.
The Bayou Burger, for example, is half a pound of beef with chili cheese, jalapenos, bacon, and a stack of hand-breaded onion rings. It’s so big that guests have to crush it to put their mouths around. This chili cheese, another southern specialty made on site, is also served as an aperitif.
Salty Papa’s takes gluten-free meals seriously, reserving a separate deep fryer for these items to avoid contamination of the wheat.
âI’ve seen people with celiac disease come in and literally burst into tears when they realize they can actually eat French fries,â VallÃ©e said.
Salty Papa’s Mud Puppy is a gluten-free dessert loved by all customers. VallÃ©e called it âchocolate ganache on steroidsâ. Her homemade hot fudge ganache is layered in a jar with peanut butter-cream-cheese mousse, Reese’s peanut butter cups and whipped cream.
And then there’s the Florida classic: lime pie.
âIt’s super light, nice and tangy, but not so sour that it makes you puke,â VallÃ©e said.
As you walk through the doors of Salty Papa, the bar is one of the first things customers see. It is designed to look like an old cabin on the bayou with a tin roof. The bar top has been repainted to match the floors, and its seating offers a bird’s eye view of the action in Salty Papa’s open kitchen.
The bar is stocked with Florida craft beers and plenty of Kentucky bourbons. The golden margaritas are the specialty of Salty Papa, made with Grand Marnier, fresh fruit juice and without pre-made mixes.
The spacious front patio serves not only people but also their well behaved dogs. The Puppy menu features burgers, chicken breast, steamed rice, fresh vegetables, and the occasional puppy ice cream.
VallÃ©e is passionate about many things: animals, quality food and taking care of those who have supported her. She publishes exclusive promotions for locals on the Salty Papa Facebook page. The waiters don’t share the special when they greet the tables. Guests should ask them, which they do, with a knowing nod. It’s like being a member of a special club, where the locals have a secret.
âIt’s a way of saying thank you,â said VallÃ©e. “I like you.”
Gina Birch writes about food and wine for The News-Press and on thebirchbeat.blogspot.com. Follow her like @ginabierch on Twitter and find her on Facebook.
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Salty Papa Shrimp House
15271, boul. McGregor, south of Fort Myers
Hours: 11.30am-8pm every day
To call: 239-482-7272