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Monday, Aug 13, 2018
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Dining Review: Attentiveness, good food await at Ballyhoo

Two blondes walk into a restaurant with six kids in tow. Sounds like the opening of a bad joke, or a nightmare, depending on the kids' moods. But thanks to the fantastic service and relaxed vibe at Ballyhoo Grill, our energetic troupe enjoyed good food and a great time at the long-time Citrus Park eatery.

The popular restaurant on Ehrlich Road looks like a hurricane picked the ramshackle beach shack off a quaint coastal street and dropped it in the middle of suburbia. It's one of those places you walk into and want to stay awhile — cozy, a little dark, with wood floors an paper covered tables set far enough apart that you don't feel like you're intruding on other diners when you walk in with a rambunctious group of hungry kids. For my sister and I, whose children range in age from 8 months to 15 years, dining out on a Saturday night is not something we choose to do often. We were feeling brave, and thankfully we were not disappointed.

Ballyhoo Grill doesn't take reservations, which I found out when I called ahead to warn them we were on our way. They took down my name anyway and noted that we would need a high chair, but there were no guarantees our table would be ready when we arrived. I'd seen the parking lot overflowing in the past, so we opted to go a bit early to avoid the rush. We were greeted by several cheerful employees in the spacious and charming waiting area — a converted porch with wood paneling and plenty of seating — and seated a few minutes later.

Our server, Jenna, promptly and patiently took our drink order and brought everything out quickly. When my niece dropped her pacifier on the floor, she kindly offered to take it and wash it off for us. I've been to plenty of restaurants where I felt the kids were a hassle to the staff, so her helpfulness was much appreciated.

Her attentiveness continued through our stay. Our drinks stayed filled (and there were plenty of refills) without us ever asking, and she made sure we had everything we needed at all times. That kind of service is worth its weight in gold when you have a crew like ours.

We started with the Firecracker shrimp appetizer, which, like the drinks, was served quickly. The $9.99 dish was piled high enough that there was plenty to go around. The crispy shrimp, drizzled in a spicy but not overwhelming hot sauce, are served with a few sets of chopsticks. Chopsticks! Chopsticks are fun. My daughter enjoyed skewering her shrimp with them. Granted, if you're not amused by the endless possibilities for table entertainment such an unexpected treat provides, the chopsticks won't be a bonus to you. But, I say again, chopsticks!

I ordered the shrimp and oyster Po' Boy and a cup of gumbo, two of my all-time favorites anywhere I go. The New Orleans-style gumbo with shrimp, scallops and Andouille sausage in a brown butter roux will be my go-to when I return. Heavy on the sausage and not “fishy,” the cup was an ideal portion size as a side dish. And if I could have gotten a little privacy, I may have licked the bowl clean.

The Po' Boy ($8.99), which is available with shrimp, oysters or a combination, is served on a French roll with coleslaw, Jack cheese and remoulade. The sandwich is served open faced, and huge, so eating it is an adventure of its own, of sorts. I didn't ask for it pressed, so I don't know if that was an option, but I think it would have been better if I had. Not because it wasn't delicious, I just prefer my Po' Boys pressed. My sister ordered the Po' Boy, as well, and loved it.

The kids eschewed the children's selections and ordered from the main menu. Two chose the chicken Alfredo, two had burgers and one had the half rack of ribs. Oh, and my always hungry son ate all of my fries. The couple of them I had before he plundered them were the fabulous crispy seasoned kind — the kind you really want once they've been swiped.

Their take:

“The ribs had a lot of sauce. I had to scoop some off. They were good, though,” my daughter Riley, 11, said. “The food was pretty good, but the service was really good. And it's right by the mall so it's perfect for shopping!”

My son Hunter, 15, agreed.

“The food is good, but the atmosphere is great. I really like the chicken in the Alfredo,” he said.

The old beach shack décor — plenty of fish, sharks, gators and vintage scuba gear — gives the restaurant a fun, vacation destination feel. There are multiple televisions tuned to sports, too, if you're worried about missing a game. My teenage sons appreciated that, because it seems like there is always a game they can't miss.

“I really liked it,” Riley said. “It felt comfortable there. It was clean, but it wasn't fancy and snobby, and there were a lot of choices on the menu.”

From a kid-friendly standpoint, Ballyhoo hit it out of the park. It's important to note that we arrived at 6 p.m., so it was busy but not crowded. By the time we left, it was filling up. The restaurant features live music on the patio on Saturday nights beginning at 7:30 p.m., which draws a crowd.

The reasonably priced menu features everything from seafood and a raw bar to steak, pasta and salads; the children's menu ($6.99) includes burgers, chicken tenders, fried shrimp and mac and cheese. Grouper nuggets are available for $1.99 more. Curbside takeout is available.

And as an added bonus, kids eat free on Saturdays with a paying adult if they come in their Little League uniform, according to an on-screen announcement at the eatery.

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