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Dining out on Shell Point Road

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Outdoor eateries old and new along Shell Point Road are an opportunity for good times and great food.

By Mitch Traphagen

RUSKIN — As realtors know, location matters when it comes to finding a home. That was certainly the case when my wife and I were searching for a new home in Ruskin. We found a few homes that fit our criteria, but one thing pushed the one we chose to the top of the list: it was just a short bike ride away from Ruskin’s iconic Fish House on Shell Point Road.

Shell Point Road has an odd sort of mystique about it. It is a narrow road that floods even in moderate summer thunderstorms. It is a mismatched collection of eclectic businesses and homes in various states of repair. It is a slender artery from the heated pavement of U.S. Highway 41, I-75 and Sun City Center leading to an entirely different world of waterfront paradise. It is bordered by orange groves, weeded vacant lots, mobile home parks and intersections bearing “No Outlet” signs along with the street names, signs that discourage exploration into the transcendental, “Old Florida” neighborhoods that lie beyond its intersections.

Over the years, Shell Point Road has offered sustenance to everything from somewhat-past-the-expiration-date convenience store packaged snacks to homemade pies and intimate waterfront dining in the backyards of what were once homes. Today it remains a place to dine out on some of the best seafood around.

Two months ago, Lisa Csiki and Scott Curtis opened the Dog House and More at 204 W. Shell Point Road. The black trailer that serves as kitchen and counter does little to suggest the outstanding fare served by Csiki — and the fare is so much more than hotdogs.

Csiki owned a similar business for seven years in Connecticut and a life change brought her to Florida a few years ago. After working in other restaurants around the bay area, she made the decision to strike out on her own once again.

“I looked around in Lakeland and in other areas,” she said. “Someone told us about Bahia Beach so I decided to check it out. This all came together in less than a month.”
Although Angus beef hot dogs are prominent on the menu, the lobster rolls were what caught my attention.

“The lobster rolls are served just as they would be in New England,” Csiki said.

Real, fresh lobster smothered in hot butter and served on a toasted bun is just shy of heaven. That it is available for a reasonable price makes a very good thing even better. And there is more — from burgers and subs to real New England clam chowder.

“I make a lot of stuff myself — from the hamburgers and turkey burgers, chili, even the tartar sauce — all homemade,” Csiki said.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoAnd still there is more. “We have ice cream and shakes for dessert,” she added.

While the Dog House and More may be the name they chose, the emphasis is definitely on the “More” as far as I’m concerned.

Csiki and Curtis are also planning to host Saturday night events around their establishment. “Maybe an old fashioned car show or a bike night,” she said. “We have plenty of land here for that.”

Opening a small restaurant in the middle of summer in Florida is no easy feat, but everything fell into place for the friendly couple. They have used the months before tourist season to get their footing along Shell Point Road.

“We are hoping the locals get to know us so they’ll tell the snowbirds to come out,” Csiki said.

If the chili or kraut dogs don’t bring them out, the lobster rolls most certainly will. I know I’ll be back for one on a regular basis.

The economic slowdown in Florida isn’t evident in the long lines that form at the Fish House, located at 1902 W. Shell Point Road. Open Thursday through Saturday each week, the lines at lunch and dinner times are always long — and for good reason. Not only is the food outstanding, it is served with a smile as though from an old friend.

Indeed, for many customers, they are old friends. The lines, however, serve a good purpose for the many visitors staying at Little Harbor Resort just down the road, without them it would be easy enough to miss the place, a small A-frame building with a peaked canopy over a cluster of picnic tables. The Fish House harkens back to the days of old in Florida, the days before the ubiquity of chain restaurants turned dining out into a fast experience.

“I think a lot of our success is due to both good food and customer service,” said Fish House owner Julie Cockerham. “I think a lot of people like it because it reminds them of the old-time fish fries.”

Cockerham has owned the Fish House for the past three years. She purchased it from the founding owners, a charter boat captain and his wife who moved to Virginia and the change in ownership has only increased the popularity of the restaurant. From the peak of tourist season in winter to the overheated dog days of summer, the line forms for the fresh fish, fried shrimp, bay scallops, clams and, when in season, the ever-popular smoked and fried mullet. The food is fresh, the portions large and the prices are more than reasonable. And above all, it is served with a smile.

The Fish House has the feel of a local secret, an oasis of calm and happiness in an otherwise all-too-rushed life. Written up extensively in blogs and popular travel review sites such as Tripadvisor.com, the secret may be getting out, but that hasn’t changed the atmosphere. It is like stepping back into a time when things were simpler and the food was magically more delicious.

Shell Point Road is home to another mobile eatery named Tiki Time, and there are plans for even more restaurants. And just off Shell Point on Destiny Drive is the Sunset Grill and Lounge at Little Harbor Resort. There is no better place in South Hillsborough to enjoy great food, beverages and conversation while watching the sunset on another perfect day.

My wife and I spent the week packing up to move with a goal of being settled into our new house in time to ride our bikes to the Fish House by Friday night. At a few minutes before 5 p.m., we accomplished our goal. Naturally, even at that relatively early hour a line had already formed.

With a platter of fresh, steaming shrimp and scallops before us, we knew that it was well worth the wait. Location does matter — and Shell Point Road is the location that matters for dining out — literally — in South Hillsborough.

The Dog House and More is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Call 813-419-4325 to place an order over the phone.

The Fish House is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 813-641-9451 to place an order over the phone.

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