I admit it. For approximately one month, every time I have driven by the new Dallas Saltwater Willy's Seafood & Steakhouse location I've laughed...for two reasons. For one, it's the name. Another, I like to imagine Willie Nelson replacing the "shotgun" of his iconic "Shotgun Willie" with "saltwater." This was before I ever entered the restaurant. After completing my visits for this review, however, I'm fairly certain that instead of driving by and laughing, I'll drive by and breathe a sigh of relief since I'll never have to go back there.
The first sign of a good dining experience could come from a packed house, a bustle of diners leaving obviously satisfied or, even simpler, a great host/hostess to greet guests. My first visit to Willy's had none of these things. Our party of four walked, on a Friday evening, into a near-empty restaurant. A manager-type approached the host's stand, looked at us, grunted, made some sort of percussive action against the stand and walked away. Another employee quickly grabbed some menus and seated us in an area near the bar.
Our server was a happy, energetic up-seller with a good attitude and even better grasp of the fact that we'd just been grunted at. He was all smiles and jokes, offering suggestions on appetizers—even going so far as to turn us away from the crab fingers. We obeyed. (If the guy depending on my tip tells me to steer clear of the crab, I'm not going there.) Instead, he suggested the calamari, as he felt that night's crop wasn't too chewy. Mmm, mmm. We couldn't wait. And, oddly, we didn't have to.
Even before we got our requisite Saltwater Willy's hot skillet of sweet cornbread (the star of my Willy's experiences), our intrepid server returned with both hands full of dishes we hadn't ordered. He informed us that one of the tables had left before their food came (good sign, no?) and asked if we might want one of their appetizers. Matching the seemingly laid-back nature of the place, the table chimed a communal "why not?" and we opted for the crab-stuffed mushrooms based on sight, since menus were long gone.
Now, in order to explain the flavor of the stuffed cap—which was approximately the size of a morbidly obese golf ball—I need to take a bit of a side trip: Whenever my family would head to the beach for a vacation, we were always advised to use bottled water for drinking and cooking since filtration and pipes used only seasonally just weren't top-notch. At least once per trip, someone would forget and end up using the tap water to cook something. We'd get a mouthful of food with a creepy and unwelcome metallic essence. My point? Stuffed mushrooms, crabby or not, shouldn't hark back to accidental beach-water cooking. Besides, crab flavor in the stuffing was a no-show, and the texture was a bit like gruel. Halfway through one and I wished the waitstaff had eaten them instead of giving them to us for free. Perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing.
What we actually ordered, the calamari, arrived hot and crispy, piled high on the plate with marinara and apricot marmalade. As far as the armed and tentacled portions, our waiter had it right; they weren't too chewy. The lightly battered feelers were quite crisp and light with an appropriate firmness near the head area. But when I tucked into the rings, they were so rubbery I could barely mash through the flesh.
Port Isabel crab cakes claimed to contain lump crabmeat but instead appeared and felt more like a larger, seared slab of the mushrooms' stuffing. The roasted red pepper sauce, however, had a nice flavor—robust, not bitter and worthy of much more than the cakes paired with it. The menu boasted "'cheesy' smashed potatoes," and the potatoes did have that tell-tale cheddar hue...as well as that suspicious metallic taste and an abundance of garlic flavor.
Offered fried or broiled, the Cozumel fish tacos caught my eye, but it was at this point that our waiter officially failed me. He suggested the fried, lauding the cornmeal batter and tender mahi-mahi. I should have chosen broiled. The sweet corn relish was pert, slightly tangy and a delight on the tongue. The shredded cabbage offered a refreshing crunch. The fried fingers of fish, however, were thin and extremely tough. They were simply too small to hold up to the harsh conditions of a Frialator and sadly were left to wallow, inedible, amidst more vibrant accessories atop soft corn tortillas. I ended up eating around the fish.
The blackened Atlantic salmon was the most flavorful item of the evening. The moist fillet was firm but not tough and had a mildly piquant seasoning (which held up well to the very spicy side of dirty rice). Many times, with "blackened" items, one risks masking the meat's or fish's flavor, but Saltwater Willy's actually got this part right. The spice mixture wasn't too zesty, though the exterior of the salmon was not all that blackened. Perhaps this salmon got lucky.
I walked out gladly empty-handed that night, and on my next visit, I would almost walk out.
As my dining partner and I nibbled at an inoffensive and nondescript artichoke dip recommended by the server (they would do well to use crisps instead of soft and bland pita slices), I noted a table card guaranteeing a quick lunch for the workday crowd: Basically, the diners give their full order after they receive their drinks, and Willy's aims to get the food out in 12 minutes. The check is dropped during the meal (no rush intended), and customers can get back to work on time. Hell, the menu even says, "Where busy people come for a quick lunch!" I found lunchtime was not that easy.
The first transgression was in my co-diner's fried jumbo shrimp. They were somewhat puny for so-called jumbos, and they were overcooked, but worse, they had not been deveined. True, some people have no problem with the little black tract of digested material running down the back of a shrimp, and I suppose if the shrimp hadn't been scored to begin with it wouldn't have been as noticeable. But they had, so the black line was seemingly highlighted through the airy batter and, in several cases, hanging loose into and even out of the coating. While deveining may be a personal choice, depending largely on the size of the shrimp and possible grittiness that may come from leaving the vein in, this was just a case of good ol' didn't-give-a-shit laziness.
I opted to correct my fried mahi-mahi mistake and ordered the fish as a broiled fillet. This was a better selection (and one of which our server approved after having replied with "Um, I'm not gonna lie to you, I wouldn't" when I inquired about the broiled sea scallops). The white fish flaked to my fork with ease and was simply seasoned with garlic in white wine but was uninspired overall. The fresh vegetables were warmed, almost raw carrot sticks, broccoli florets and one slice of yellow squash.
And then we sat there. For a long time. We had not received our check or even seen our server (or the roving manager) in about 20 minutes when the couple to our left decided to leave their table to inquire why it was taking so long to ladle soup. It would be 10 more before we ever saw an employee. The restaurant was, once again, near-empty, so this was alarming, not to mention a long way off from the quick lunch experience we were promised.
As we sat, waiting, mocked by the Willy's trademark happy crustacean and promises of "great food...and old-fashioned good time," the wailing guitar solo of "Freebird" blared overhead (I'm not kidding). It was then that—and I think this sums up Saltwater Willy's effectively—I actually thought, "I just want to get as far away from here as I can. But I'm stuck here. Listening to this. Looking at plates of B-grade, picked-over food. And, great, my glass is fucking empty."
8442 Walnut Hill Lane, 214-265-1708.Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday,11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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