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A hot little dive

By William Fox - City Link

On one level, The Shuck-N-Dive Cajun Sports Cafe is the kind of friendly, neighborhood place "where everybody knows your name," and even tourists are made welcome. On another, it exceeds its humble roots because it takes its Cajun and Creole food seriously. And though the limited menu is appropriate to the genre, many dishes would make Paul Prudhomme proud.

Nearly every inch of wall space in the small, former convenience store is lined with sports memorabilia documenting the accomplishments of the LSU Tigers (many) and the New Orleans Saints (few and far between). Above four comfortably upholstered booths hang some garish-looking paintings seemingly done while the artist was chewing high-octane mushrooms. About a dozen high-backed stools surround the blue Formica bar, and four wood tables provide additional seating. The café’s demeanor was so unpretentious, the service so attentive and intuitive, it was more like being at a friend’s vacation home than a commercial enterprise.

The Shuck-N-Dive Cajun Sports Cafe
2985 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954/390-0191. Open noon-midnight Tuesday through Sunday; till 1 a.m. Fridays and 10 p.m. Sundays. Smoking permitted. Major credit cards accepted, reservations are not. Wheelchair accessible. Dinner tab for two: $55.
RATING: **.5
HOW TO GET THERE: Exit I-95 at Oakland Park Boulevard. East to A1A, then south.

As you’d expect from the name, oysters are a featured attraction — raw on the half-shell, fried and broiled (all priced to the market). Except in rare instances, they are harvested at, and shipped directly from, Christmas Camp Lake in Louisiana. Each case has a lot number and shipping date to authenticate freshness and point of origin. Raw oysters were simply excellent, so why people bother with cocktail sauce, horseradish, Tabasco and other fiery spices is beyond me, especially when fresh oysters are prized just for what they truly are — ugly, slimy mollusks whose nearly universal appeal is one more example of a civilization in serious decline. A little heat, however, makes a big difference. Lightly fried, they were as delicate as popovers. Broiled oysters were topped with bacon and Parmesan cheese, then placed in a mouth-watering cream sauce that begged to be slurped.

For additional starters, there’s Louisiana crawfish (in season only) and chicken wings prepared mild, "ragin’ Cajun" or voodoo. The last two should only be attempted with a bucket of beer alongside, lest your tongue dial the Broward Fire Department in response. For soup, there’s gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice ($2.95-$7.95). Jambalaya was a thick and earthy mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions and fish, and was satisfyingly hot and spicy. A listless gumbo, which was mostly rice, needed a boost so we grabbed whatever was within easy reach, like "Cajun Power" garlic sauce, and it made a difference.

If you’re not up to a full meal, order blackened chicken, blackened Mississippi farm-raised catfish ($7.95), fried catfish filets ($7.95), fried oysters ($9.95) or andouille sausage ($8.95) in a basket or as a po' boy sandwich. Baskets also contain fries, slaw, hush puppies and fried okra. Regular beef cheeseburgers ($6.95), and a very lean buffalo burger ($8.95) are featured.

We have mixed feelings about the chef’s daily specials ($14.95), the contents of which are revealed only when served, which is fine if you like surprises. But for nutritional reasons only, one guest wanted to know from which food groups the chef was selecting. The waiter refused to divulge that or any other information regarding the specials, claiming even he didn’t know what the chef was making until the deed was done and the food brought to the table. One special elicited smiles all around. This was a platter containing a succulent grilled lamb chop, buffalo bits in a wine demi-glace, hush puppies and fried okra. The other, Cajun-flavored pasta, disappointed, mostly because one guest specifically requested nothing fried, so the chef did what he thought was proper given his instructions. As the man says, "You pays your money and you takes your chances."

Mahi Mardi Gras ($15.95) was absolutely delicious. A thick, moist and tender slab of fish was liberally spiced and blackened, then topped with tender crawfish of the frozen variety swimming in a mouth-watering cream sauce. A sizable grilled pork chop ($15.95) was stuffed with chopped andouille sausage pieces and garnished with mashed sweet potatoes and apple butter, a likable assortment of disparate flavors on one plate. Blackened catfish ($11.95) was a mild disappointment. Spices were all in place but the fish was a tad overcooked, so it tasted more burnt than blackened, and the highly sensitive bottom fish was barely, but noticeably, overcooked.

It’s smart to have a gimmick, and the café’s surprise specials are certainly that. But despite some hit-and-miss items, its greatest asset (oysters aside) is its infectious charm, patently obvious to all who darken their doorway.