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The chain capital of the world just keeps getting richer, doesn't it? In recent weeks, our privileged little hamlet has seen a string of chain restaurants, particularly of the swank-and-swagger variety, open their doors to diners with prosaic palates and bulging wallets. J. Alexander's, a Nashville-based chain, is one such restaurant, and along with the newly opened Ocean Prime (another upscale chain) anchors the Rialto, a 350,000-square-foot mixed-use development complex on the corner of Turkey Lake and Sand Lake roads. If you've dined at places like the Village Tavern, Houston's or Stonewood Grill, you'll be familiar with what J. Alexander's has to tender ' a consistent offering of quality fare dished up in comfortably modern environs. In fact, the décor is a notch above the others; not only does its minimalist, polished cherrywood interior fuse nicely with the hushed lighting, it also ties into the restaurant's credo of simplicity, that being a vow to serve 'straightforward American food.â?�

Sides feature prominently on their menu, and one can make a meal from small plates alone, as a group of friends and I did on one occasion. Glistening wedges of comforting iron-skillet cornbread ($4) will have you coming back for more. 'Not-your-ordinaryâ?� mac and cheese ($4), with gruyère and bacon, lives up to its name, as do the 'colossalâ?� buttermilk onion rings ($7) resembling deep-fried gaskets from an aircraft engine. Salads here are more than just an afterthought. I enjoyed Alex's salad ($9), a simple yet stimulating assemblage of field greens, grape tomatoes, cukes, cheese, bacon and croutons draped with an invigorating cilantro vinaigrette. Bursts of blue cheese in the Palm Beach salad ($10) were balanced out by a house-made basil vinaigrette, but if you're talking about 'straightforwardâ?� and 'American,â?� the old-fashioned cheeseburger ($10) with Tillamook cheddar best exemplifies the restaurant's motto. If you opt for the roti chicken dip ($12), don't expect any Indian flatbread. The 'rotiâ?� here refers to pulled rotisserie chicken stuffed in a baguette and served with a dunk-worthy chicken jus.

Mains place the focus on steak and seafood, and on this particular evening, the two specials proved irresistible. The peppery rub of the perfectly grilled Cajun grouper ($26) made it a little easier to digest the price tag, as did an attractive heaping of Israeli couscous (minuscule pasta orbs, not grains of semolina). Filet kebabs ($25) featured a fleshy foursome of melt-in-your-mouth morsels glazed in a Maui marinade of pineapple, garlic, brown sugar and soy. Jasmine rice and a variety of thick-cut veggies rounded out the meat-lover's feast.

The sugary finales won't astound you, but won't disappoint you either. The circle of hot fudge surrounding a scoop of vanilla ice cream was just eye candy compared to the enormous wedge of chocolate cake ($7), served warm with a molten chocolate center. A mascarpone cheese finish made mush of the crème brûlée's ($7) custardy filling, while carrot cake ($6) was a slice, rather than a slab, of life.

Service can't exactly be described as 'straightforwardâ?� when a cadre of white-shirted waiters serve, pick up, clean, refill and tend to your table. It's pretty clear that customer service is of the utmost importance here, though the wait staff's coordinated performance, while impressive, can be distracting at times.

J. Alexander's doesn't wholly segregate itself from the stigma associated with corporate eateries, but that doesn't warrant a negation of their efforts in the front and back of the house. What they do, they do well. Here in the city of chains, that's enough to set them apart from the rest.

It's a great temptation to spend too-much time describing the fun of J.B.'s Fish Camp or the pleasure of eating fresh seafood along the Indian River with boats docking and pelicans flying overhead. This is not exactly the type of place to reel in hordes of yuppies. This is a real fish camp, where you can buy bait and tackle. Look elsewhere for architectural monuments or fancy atmosphere.

The restaurant itself is simply a medium-sized wood shack with a tin roof. You park your car on a dirt road that may have a few hungry dogs hanging around. When you get inside J.B.'s, it gets a little spiffier; Tiffany-ish lamps hang from the ceiling -- but they're actually beer ads.

The restaurant itself is simply a medium-sized wood shack with a tin roof. You park your car on a dirt road that may have a few hungry dogs hanging around. When you get inside J.B.'s, it gets a little spiffier; Tiffany-ish lamps hang from the ceiling -- but they're actually beer ads.

Apparently the place is not too friendly to kids. A sign warns that "unattended children will be used as crab bait." Not likely, because you don't generally see a lot of children around J.B.'s. What you do see is a lot of locals and bikers and others who are fishing for fresh seafood, well-prepared and well-served.

Apparently the place is not too friendly to kids. A sign warns that "unattended children will be used as crab bait." Not likely, because you don't generally see a lot of children around J.B.'s. What you do see is a lot of locals and bikers and others who are fishing for fresh seafood, well-prepared and well-served.

On several visits, the lightly breaded crabcake sandwich ($5.25) has never disappointed me. The apparently home-made tartar sauce in large bottles is subtle enough not to overwhelm the tender crabmeat.

On several visits, the lightly breaded crabcake sandwich ($5.25) has never disappointed me. The apparently home-made tartar sauce in large bottles is subtle enough not to overwhelm the tender crabmeat.

One evening for dinner, I tried the pompano fillet ($14.95) which was a fine piece of perfectly grilled fish. Corn on the cob was not available, but sweet corn served as a side dish was fine, if not very unusual. The rice came with red peppers that gave it just the right sort of peppery taste. And the crunchy, slightly sweet hush puppies were among the best I've ever had.

One evening for dinner, I tried the pompano fillet ($14.95) which was a fine piece of perfectly grilled fish. Corn on the cob was not available, but sweet corn served as a side dish was fine, if not very unusual. The rice came with red peppers that gave it just the right sort of peppery taste. And the crunchy, slightly sweet hush puppies were among the best I've ever had.

One time, to test the waters you might say, I decided to try one of J.B.'s two steak offerings. The 8-ounce sirloin ($8.95) was a perfectly good piece of lean, juicy meat, well-cooked as ordered.

One time, to test the waters you might say, I decided to try one of J.B.'s two steak offerings. The 8-ounce sirloin ($8.95) was a perfectly good piece of lean, juicy meat, well-cooked as ordered.

The only criticism I had that night was that the "Cajun onion strings" ($2.50 as a side-order) were limp, flabby and unappetizing.

The only criticism I had that night was that the "Cajun onion strings" ($2.50 as a side-order) were limp, flabby and unappetizing.

The only dessert offered is Key lime pie ($3). This home-made pie was a pale yellow, had a great crust and wasn't sickeningly sweet.

The only dessert offered is Key lime pie ($3). This home-made pie was a pale yellow, had a great crust and wasn't sickeningly sweet.

Service here has always been brisk and efficient. Good Canadian Molson beer is on draft ($1.60 a glass or $6.50 a pitcher).

Service here has always been brisk and efficient. Good Canadian Molson beer is on draft ($1.60 a glass or $6.50 a pitcher).

Cold beer and simply prepared fish, briskly served in a fun atmosphere -- some may prefer something fancier and it's admittedly not to everyone's taste, but it's enough for me to take the bait anytime.

One of my favorite manhattan restaurants is Sardi's where celebrity caricatures on the walls are fun to study, and the food is good, too. On a recent visit to Jack's Place in the Clarion Plaza Hotel on International Drive, I discovered an establishment with a remarkably similar ambience.

Soft light from wrought-iron chandeliers enhance dark woods, marble room dividers and shadowy archways. Tables are draped with linen and feature brass oil lamps.

Soft light from wrought-iron chandeliers enhance dark woods, marble room dividers and shadowy archways. Tables are draped with linen and feature brass oil lamps.

Upon our arrival for dinner, we were promptly seated in a cozy corner surrounded by sketches of world-class luminaries, many of whom autographed the works. The art was created by Jack Rosen during his 30-year tenure with the Waldorf Astoria and is believed to be the largest collection of its kind. (Jack's son, Harris, owns the Clarion.)

Upon our arrival for dinner, we were promptly seated in a cozy corner surrounded by sketches of world-class luminaries, many of whom autographed the works. The art was created by Jack Rosen during his 30-year tenure with the Waldorf Astoria and is believed to be the largest collection of its kind. (Jack's son, Harris, owns the Clarion.)

Entrees range from steak and seafood to pasta and chicken. All come with baked potato, vegetable and a basket of garlic French bread, with whipped butter and "Texas caviar" -- a novel accoutrement of cold (and undercooked) black-eyed peas, cilantro, onion and bell peppers in a mild vinaigrette. Although the mixture was refreshing, we found it impossible to keep the concoction on the bread.

Entrees range from steak and seafood to pasta and chicken. All come with baked potato, vegetable and a basket of garlic French bread, with whipped butter and "Texas caviar" -- a novel accoutrement of cold (and undercooked) black-eyed peas, cilantro, onion and bell peppers in a mild vinaigrette. Although the mixture was refreshing, we found it impossible to keep the concoction on the bread.

The escargot ($6.95) ordered by my guest was served with angel-hair pasta and a delicious roasted-red pepper sauce.

The escargot ($6.95) ordered by my guest was served with angel-hair pasta and a delicious roasted-red pepper sauce.

I found the house salad ($2.95) of mixed greens to be nice and fresh; the lovely presentation included diced tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a nest of bean sprouts. The creamy peppercorn house dressing, however, was pretty bland.

I found the house salad ($2.95) of mixed greens to be nice and fresh; the lovely presentation included diced tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a nest of bean sprouts. The creamy peppercorn house dressing, however, was pretty bland.

The 10-ounce filet mignon ($18.95) that my guest chose was an excellent cut, perfectly prepared. It was delicately topped with a pat of seasoned butter (we suspected rosemary).

The 10-ounce filet mignon ($18.95) that my guest chose was an excellent cut, perfectly prepared. It was delicately topped with a pat of seasoned butter (we suspected rosemary).

My grilled yellowfin tuna ($14.95) was fresh, though disappointingly overcooked. The generous portion was crowned with an adequate béarnaise sauce, which helped mask the fillet's dryness.

My grilled yellowfin tuna ($14.95) was fresh, though disappointingly overcooked. The generous portion was crowned with an adequate béarnaise sauce, which helped mask the fillet's dryness.

Large baked potatoes came wrapped in gold foil, along with a lazy Susan bearing scallions, fresh bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese. Sour cream and butter were included. Generous squares of corn soufflé were flavorful, light and airy.

Large baked potatoes came wrapped in gold foil, along with a lazy Susan bearing scallions, fresh bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese. Sour cream and butter were included. Generous squares of corn soufflé were flavorful, light and airy.

The server promoted Jack's fried ice cream ($4.25) for dessert. A fried pastry jacket hid a relatively small scoop of ice cream that was just enough to share. Sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon, the dish was complemented by sliced strawberries and plenty of whipped cream.

The server promoted Jack's fried ice cream ($4.25) for dessert. A fried pastry jacket hid a relatively small scoop of ice cream that was just enough to share. Sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon, the dish was complemented by sliced strawberries and plenty of whipped cream.

Be forewarned that an 18 percent gratuity is included in the bill rather than allowing diners the right to tip in direct correlation to the service rendered. But, all in all, it was a pleasant evening that was worth the expense.

Franchised Mexican restaurants tend to have lots of thematic architecture, lots of young preppy servers and lots of boring food. I've had my fill of chimichangas and fried ice cream.

But I do like Jalapeño's, which advertises and delivers "home made" Mexican food. Here they offer traditional items like mole and menudo. The menu even includes lengua ("slices of beef tongue seasoned with our own spices") for $7.25.

But I do like Jalapeño's, which advertises and delivers "home made" Mexican food. Here they offer traditional items like mole and menudo. The menu even includes lengua ("slices of beef tongue seasoned with our own spices") for $7.25.

Of course they have tacos and fajitas, but the emphasis here seems to be on authenticity rather than marketing savvy.

Of course they have tacos and fajitas, but the emphasis here seems to be on authenticity rather than marketing savvy.

Great music more than made up for a modest interior decorated with bullfight ads, travel posters of Chichen Itza, glossy photos of Selena and other assorted art. Piñatas hang from the ceiling, and colorful blankets serve as tablecloths. We were quickly served chips and a fresh salsa with a pleasant hint of cilantro, and service remained good throughout.

Great music more than made up for a modest interior decorated with bullfight ads, travel posters of Chichen Itza, glossy photos of Selena and other assorted art. Piñatas hang from the ceiling, and colorful blankets serve as tablecloths. We were quickly served chips and a fresh salsa with a pleasant hint of cilantro, and service remained good throughout.

As an appetizer we enjoyed the sopes, three tortillalike shells -- half the size but twice as thick as usual -- topped with beans, beef, and chicken ( $4.25). There was plenty of food for two people to share. Among the other appetizers are nachos, melted cheese with pork sauce, and chicken or tortilla soup.

As an appetizer we enjoyed the sopes, three tortillalike shells -- half the size but twice as thick as usual -- topped with beans, beef, and chicken ( $4.25). There was plenty of food for two people to share. Among the other appetizers are nachos, melted cheese with pork sauce, and chicken or tortilla soup.

Our entrees were flautas de pollo ($5.50) and chile poblano ($7.95), which were both good. Each was served with refried beans, a scoop of mildly seasoned rice and shredded lettuce with dressing. The flautas were quite large, with shredded chicken wrapped in corn tortillas the texture of puff pastry. My large green chili was stuffed with cheese, battered, fried and served alongside an enchilada. Each item on our plates had a clear, fresh and distinct flavor.

Our entrees were flautas de pollo ($5.50) and chile poblano ($7.95), which were both good. Each was served with refried beans, a scoop of mildly seasoned rice and shredded lettuce with dressing. The flautas were quite large, with shredded chicken wrapped in corn tortillas the texture of puff pastry. My large green chili was stuffed with cheese, battered, fried and served alongside an enchilada. Each item on our plates had a clear, fresh and distinct flavor.

Other interesting options are carne asada a la Tampequina (grilled steak), camarones a la Veracruzana (sautéed shrimp with tomatoes) and Chicago-style burritos made with strips of steak. There are several combo platters as well as children's plates. Everything is affordable with the most expensive entree topping out at $8.95.

Other interesting options are carne asada a la Tampequina (grilled steak), camarones a la Veracruzana (sautéed shrimp with tomatoes) and Chicago-style burritos made with strips of steak. There are several combo platters as well as children's plates. Everything is affordable with the most expensive entree topping out at $8.95.

The menu includes margaritas, common Mexican beers and imported soft drinks. The prepared-to-order sangria ($1.95) was particularly good.

The menu includes margaritas, common Mexican beers and imported soft drinks. The prepared-to-order sangria ($1.95) was particularly good.

Jalapeño's is fun, cheap, and filling. It doesn't have the atmosphere and conviviality of the big chain restaurants, but it has a style of its own.

You can quibble and kvetch all you want about how Jason's isn't a real deli ' where's the matzo ball soup, you'll ask? The nova lox? Fair enough. I'll cede that this chain based out of Beaumont, Texas, doesn't conform to Delancey Street standards, but it's pretty much unrivaled on Colonial Drive. In fact, not since the days when Schlotzky's occupied a small space across from the Fashion Square Mall has there been a deli worth visiting in the area.

And no matter what time you go, you're sure to witness some sweaty gym-rat spillage from the L.A. Fitness next door. But you can't blame them, considering Jason's guarantee of a trans fat'free dining experience, highlighted by a section of the menu devoted to 'healthy heart slimwichesâ?� ' wraps and sandwiches low in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium. A decent salad bar ($6.59), properly attended to and always stocked with fresh vegetables, is another popular option for the health- conscious, not that the rest of the menu, with its paninis, wraps, salads, soups, po'boys, traditional sandwiches and muffulettas, is an artery-clogging affair. Muffulettas, by the way, are waggishly referred to as 'muffâ?� sandwiches, and those of you with enough gumption to order the 'whole muffâ?� ($10.99) with a straight face will be rewarded with an enormous 9-inch muffuletta filled with layers of provolone, olive mix and your choice of ham, salami or oven-roasted turkey (half- and quarter-muff sandwiches are also offered).

I opted for the slightly less obscene-sounding Reuben the Great ($7.29). The corned beef wasn't hot, as advertised, but it was warm and piled high on Swiss-laid, doughy rye. What I really liked was that the sauerkraut was still crunchy and not overly sharp, likely because of a shorter fermentation cycle. My only complaint, and it's a small one, is that the soft bread ultimately succumbed to the beefiness and tore. The cup of chili-thick vegetable soup ($2.59) felt particularly comforting on this rainy evening with its heart-healthy broth of plump lima beans, corn and carrot wedges. The Sergeant Pepper po'boy ($6.59), a Texas take on the French dip sandwich layered with thin slices of roast beef, sauteed onions, bell peppers and a provolone smother, had a surprising kick, and a dunk in the jus made it all the more mouthwatering. Again, the only complaint was the texture of the bread; it could've used a bit more toasting. The barbecue brisket sandwich ($6.99), one of their daily specials, wasn't anywhere near as enjoyable as the others, primarily because of the overwhelmingly sweet sauce. Of course, you're free to custom-build your own sandwich from the assortment of meats, breads, fillers and dressings available.

The gargantuan baked potatoes seem like byproducts of a nuclear accident, but the secret of their girth, I later found out, is the fusion of two large spuds to create an Atkins nightmare. Potatoes are baked for an hour, then microwaved when your order is placed. The spud au broc ($5.79), a meal in itself, is loaded with broccoli heads, green onions, bacon and gooey cheddar, though a petite half-size is available for $1 less.

The sizable dining space is accoutred with ceiling fans and photographs of European cityscapes (which I thought slightly odd), and is designed to handle large numbers of patrons. Their system ' place your order, take a number, have a seat and wait for your food to be brought out ' isn't without its flaws. My strawberry shortcake ($2.99) failed to materialize, so I had to retrieve it myself from the counter. And I'm glad I did. The two layers of cake filled with cream, flavored with vanilla and topped with strawberry slices was a light and not-too-sweet capper.

But there's no harm in saving your cash and settling for a cup or two of complimentary low-fat ice cream. Like most of the offerings here, it's a suitable antidote to guilty consciences.

How to describe Jeremiah's Original Italian Ice? It's like a sorbet only more slushy. It's not a snow cone, although it does come in a cup. And it's more fun than an Ice-ee, with not-too-sweet and refreshing flavors such as mango, kiwi, tangerine, watermelon, red raspberry and passion fruit. Whatever you call it, it's different and delicious.

Jeremiah's drive-through or walk-up stand usually has a dozen or so flavors on hand on any given day. Order them straight (85 cents to $1.65 per cup) or mix them into fruity combos. Better yet, boost the fat-gram quotient and the guilt-index by ordering a "gelati." That would be one of the above-mentioned non-fat Italian ices layered with vanilla soft-serve ice cream, parfait style.

Sometimes having unlimited resources is a good thing. Where else but at Disney can you stay in a hotel overlooking 33 acres of savannah filled with 200 African animals? The Animal Kingdom Lodge is an impressive feat of design, and within it is an equally impressive new culinary treat: Jiko-The Cooking Place.

Walking through the front door means emerging from a low-ceilinged entryway into the hotel's grand, six-story main lobby. The thatched, arched expanse above you is like a beautiful ancient grass cathedral. You can spend an hour appreciating details -- the giant mud chimney of the fireplace, the immense ostrich lamp framed by a wall-length picture window, the Zulu shield chandeliers -- and still miss things. Designer Peter Dominick calls it "an architecture of emotion," and he is quite correct.

In the restaurant, mosaic-covered columns are accented by large copper-colored rings echoing Yoruba neck rings. Suspended from the midnight-blue ceiling are metal-mesh "birds of fortune" flying toward a distant sunset (the sun sets every 20 minutes; watch the back wall change).

The staff, which comes from many African countries, is both courteous and gracious, wearing beautiful jalabas and kitenge dresses, clothing originally from Kenya and the berbers of Morocco. That Pan-African mix shows up on the menu in most delightful and surprising ways.

Breads come from the red, open ovens in the center of the room (the "jiko") and are superb, particularly flatbread with yogurt and onions ($6.25). The maize tamale appetizer ($5.50) may look like Mexican food, but unwrapping the corn husk reveals creamy corn-custard cubes spiced with caraway and truffle oil. You will sit in wonder at the flavors. Try the "One Soup," a sweet and spicy mixture of black beans, apples and celery ($6.50). The South African wine list may be unfamiliar but, according to Wine Spectator, can challenge any in the world.

Accompanying a generous beef tenderloin ($27.50) is what's listed as "macaroni and cheese." I heard every other table ask about it, which may be the idea, but to call oven-baked fusilli with three cheeses "mac and cheese" is grand understatement. "Baked chicken and mashed potatoes" is another misleading description for a slow-cooked Moroccan "tagine" (a stew of meat, fruit, vegetables and spices) that's presented in a mini enameled oven, crisp and delicious with a sauce of olives, grapefruit juice and garlic that's tart and sweet. The salmon ($20.50) comes perfectly seared on a bed of purple rice and orange dressing. It's one of the best fish dishes in town.

When you want to soak up the flavor of Key West -- the last link in the archipelago that reaches from south Miami to the open seas -- but don't want to travel, a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville might satisfy at least the drink-and-be-merry craving. Some tricky navigation is necessary, though, to find the way through the maze of parking garages and electronic people-movers at Universal Studios Escape. Just when you're ready to give up, you arrive in the heart of glitzy CityWalk, where the Jimmy Buffet-inspired party house fits right in.

For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

Our waiter was knowledgeable about the menu, and he had a casual, friendly efficiency without interfering. In the end, our trip to the theme-park Margaritaville was all flash with just a little substance. It was noisy. It was crowded. The food was OK. But there was an ocean of margarita varieties. What more could a Parrothead want?

To use the word "tacky" to describe the looks of Joe's Crab Shack is underkill. My friend summed it up as soon as we walked through the door of this wildly popular restaurant. "It looks like they have a toy store hanging from the ceiling in here," she said.

It was true. It looked like a decorating team with multiple-personality disorders had swept through. Every square inch was plastered with dangling skateboards, dolls, Frisbees, in-line skates, teddy bears, model airplanes, Barbies and toy trains. A life-size replica of Jaws was suspended over the middle of the restaurant. The theme carried through to loud top-40 music and an army of waiters who were trained to drop everything and do the Hustle every so often -- many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the mantra "Peace, Love and Crabs."

It was true. It looked like a decorating team with multiple-personality disorders had swept through. Every square inch was plastered with dangling skateboards, dolls, Frisbees, in-line skates, teddy bears, model airplanes, Barbies and toy trains. A life-size replica of Jaws was suspended over the middle of the restaurant. The theme carried through to loud top-40 music and an army of waiters who were trained to drop everything and do the Hustle every so often -- many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the mantra "Peace, Love and Crabs."

"Come on, folks, have a good time!" seemed to be the message they were screaming. And the capacity crowd -- packed into booths and lined up out the door and into the parking lot -- was eating it up.

"Come on, folks, have a good time!" seemed to be the message they were screaming. And the capacity crowd -- packed into booths and lined up out the door and into the parking lot -- was eating it up.

Despite the decorative disarray, the kitchen is focused when it comes to delivering moderately priced chow fests on the double. There are more hits than misses on the menu -- presented in such a rambling fashion that it's like reading the classifieds -- and Joe's Crab Shack is probably the best choice for seafood if you're in the South Semoran Boulevard area, considering they stock many sea species.

Despite the decorative disarray, the kitchen is focused when it comes to delivering moderately priced chow fests on the double. There are more hits than misses on the menu -- presented in such a rambling fashion that it's like reading the classifieds -- and Joe's Crab Shack is probably the best choice for seafood if you're in the South Semoran Boulevard area, considering they stock many sea species.

There's shrimp (popcorn, rock, jumbo) and yellowfin tuna, lobster tail, north Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, grouper, calamari and clams. And, as the menu reads, theres "crabs, crabs and more crabs" in the form of "crab balls," crab fingers, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. Then you got your crab legs: snow, Alaskan king, Dungeness. Despite the sheer volume, dining adventurers won't find much to explore. Everything is safely fried, steamed, grilled and broiled, with little in the way of funky sauces or presentations to mess things up.

There's shrimp (popcorn, rock, jumbo) and yellowfin tuna, lobster tail, north Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, grouper, calamari and clams. And, as the menu reads, theres "crabs, crabs and more crabs" in the form of "crab balls," crab fingers, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. Then you got your crab legs: snow, Alaskan king, Dungeness. Despite the sheer volume, dining adventurers won't find much to explore. Everything is safely fried, steamed, grilled and broiled, with little in the way of funky sauces or presentations to mess things up.

"Crab balls" fritters ($4.99) have potential, but the ones we were served were too heavily breaded. A much better appetizer is the jumbo crab cake ($6.99), packed with lump meat and a hint of spices.

"Crab balls" fritters ($4.99) have potential, but the ones we were served were too heavily breaded. A much better appetizer is the jumbo crab cake ($6.99), packed with lump meat and a hint of spices.

Seafood mixed grill ($13.99) offers an adequate skewer of grilled shrimp, but you can get perfectly adequate shrimp at a hundred other restaurants. The garlic-steamed snow crab legs were more alluring, packed with tender white meat and plenty of clean flavor. But the main thing this plate has going for it is a moist, delicate salmon fillet -- ask for it to be prepared with the lemon-pepper seasoning.

Seafood mixed grill ($13.99) offers an adequate skewer of grilled shrimp, but you can get perfectly adequate shrimp at a hundred other restaurants. The garlic-steamed snow crab legs were more alluring, packed with tender white meat and plenty of clean flavor. But the main thing this plate has going for it is a moist, delicate salmon fillet -- ask for it to be prepared with the lemon-pepper seasoning.

The shrimp platter ($12.99) offers a big, messy tumble of the staple, the best of which are jumbo sized, fried in a shredded-coconut batter and served with barely sweet plum sauce. The medium-size fried Gulf shrimp and popcorn shrimp are fine, but they pale in comparison. Skip the snoozy shrimp cocktail in favor of the coconut-shrimp dinner ($9.99), which is cheaper.

The shrimp platter ($12.99) offers a big, messy tumble of the staple, the best of which are jumbo sized, fried in a shredded-coconut batter and served with barely sweet plum sauce. The medium-size fried Gulf shrimp and popcorn shrimp are fine, but they pale in comparison. Skip the snoozy shrimp cocktail in favor of the coconut-shrimp dinner ($9.99), which is cheaper.

Service was friendly, but it was so sporadic that we finally resorted to flagging down a staff member who wasn't our waiter in order to ask for the check.

Service was friendly, but it was so sporadic that we finally resorted to flagging down a staff member who wasn't our waiter in order to ask for the check.

As we exited into the night, we knew our table wouldn't stay empty for long. Joe's Crab Shack may come up short in a couple of areas, but a lack of customers is definitely not one of them.

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