Sunday, June 1, 2014

It Doesn’t Look Like Much…

on the outside. And it doesn’t look like much on the inside either. In fact, Taranto’s has raised the concept of “no frills” to new heights.
You walk through the doors and see the mismatched booths and the cement floor that has been painted multiple times and the paint has been worn by years of diners into a colorful mosaic pattern.
And amidst the nautical geegaws
proudly hangs what I take to be an electrical junction box.
So what do you do? I’ll tell you what you don’t do. You don’t drive past. You don’t turn around and walk out. For in this nondescript building you will find some of the finest fish and seafood (especially if, like us, you like it deep fat fried) and the friendliest service around. It’s the kind of place where, when a large and do-ragged man walks through the doors, a server calls out “Haven’t seen ya’ in a while.” To which he responds “Haven’t been here in a while.”
“You might not think much of the…building on the north side of John Ross road as you drive by, but I had it from a pretty good source that I should check it out. ‘Go to Toronto’s’ is what he said. I later realized he was talking about a place called ‘Taranto’s’ and that he was right, it was really great food…. Everyone wants to say their place is a legitimate dive. This one, in my opinion is a dive. It’s off the beaten path, you’d have to be looking for it, but it’s great. Not overly decorated, but there are cool things like old 45′s on the wall and a real home owned feel to the joint” (eat228.com).
Taranto’s came highly recommended as a local “mom and pop” restaurant by our Biloxi RV park owner. And to my amazement, it is listed as the Number One restaurant in Biloxi at tripadvisor.com. And here are just a smattering of comments left at various websites.

“Taranto & Sons is out of the way, but worth the drive. This is one of those things that Mississippi does best: a simple, little dive of a place out in the middle of nowhere, serving great, equally simple food…. (T)his place was like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow….” “…I rated the atmosphere as great, but this is a distinctly local place with its own charm that I just love. It's not luxurious so if you want fine dining, go elsewhere—you won't be happy here.” “Don't judge the book by its cover. Doesn't look like a 5 star restaurant, but based on food and service, it is. While driving back to Michigan from New Orleans, we stopped here for lunch based on Tripadvisor recommendations. Everything about Taranto's was great….” “Off the beaten path but worth finding. Not a fancy dining place for sure, but best seafood we ate during our vacation here.”
Taranto’s was founded by the late Arnie Taranto and is now run by his son and daughter-in-law. Nick Cary, in a 2009 article posted at blogs.reuters.com, gives us the history of Arnie. “Arnie Taranto spent 18 years working in far-flung parts of the world, but returned here to cook good food, simply. ‘I felt like coming home and this was what I wanted to do,’ said the owner of Taranto Crawfish, located just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico and its bountiful supply of seafood.

“Taranto opened his restaurant in 2002 after working as a chef in places like Singapore and Dubai. His seafood looks as simple as the plain, basic furniture in the restaurant. ‘They pretty much pull those shrimp straight out of the water and boil them,’ said George Schloegel, (former) mayor of neighboring Gulfport. “Taranto said that none of his staff know the recipe for the secret spice blend he uses to cook the shellfish, potatoes and corn. The spices generate a mild heat in your mouth that steadily grows until it plateaus at a just manageable burn. ‘You could kidnap my staff, but you couldn’t get them to give you the recipe because I’m the only one who knows it,’ he said…. The food he serves is popular among locals, ‘but then half of them are our kin folks,’ he said with an easy laugh. Speaking of which, Taranto said he buys most of his shrimp from family or friends. ‘We’ve all known each other since we were kids,’ he said.”
As you’d expect, the menu is heavy with fish and seafood items. But the female side of the RV park ownership highly praised Taranto’s steaks. There was one item that intrigued us—the Dungeness Crab Boil. When we inquired of our server, we learned that they were not currently available due to a Dungeness shortage. It seems that the wholesale price was so high that the owner couldn’t justify the price he would need to charge.

So we opted to order the mixed seafood platter with catfish, oysters, shrimp, a crab cake, and fries.
And, if that wasn’t enough, we added a side of crawfish and a side of cole slaw.
And, up front, there is no way we ate all of this. After surveying the overabundance of food, I decided that the best “to-go” option was the crawfish which could be gently reheated and served in a poor boy that evening.

Let me start with the least satisfying part of the plate—the crab cake. After the amazing crab cake I recently ate and Steve and Pat’s Bon Temps Grill in Lafayette, the cake that followed it was bound to be disappointing. Taranto’s was representative of the genre in this part of the country—heavy on filler and light on crab with a decidedly peppery flavor.

The slaw was excellent. So good that Chuck, on whose side of the table the bowl was set, never moved it closer to my reach. It was cold and crisp with a light slightly sweet dressing, one that I have come to believe is a Southern take on slaw. And the fries were piping hot, crisp, and coated.
But now for the main events. There seemed to be three distinct coatings—on the catfish a coating that was primarily cornmeal, on the shrimp and crawfish one that was a mix of flour and cornmeal, and on the oysters one that was flour only. Each coating was appropriate for the item(s) covered.

The catfish was so fresh and flakey that it needed the more substantial coating just to hold it together. The shrimp and crawfish needed more texture and the plump oysters needed less lest their juicy softness be compromised. And it was the fried oysters that were the star on the plate. “You can taste the Gulf in every bite” remarked Chuck.

We so enjoyed Taranto’s that we returned the following day. Since I had read that this is where the locals go for their “boil,” I came for the boiled crawfish. And I knew from reading that this boil is different from that found in Louisiana. One reviewer speculated that while a Louisiana boil gets its heat from cayenne, Taranto’s uses jalapenos. I’m not sure that this is an accurate assessment, but the crawfish at Taranto’s wasn’t as spicy as those I have eaten just across the border. But my lips still had a mild tingle by the time I was finished.
At Taranto’s you order by the pound so I went with two pounds and a side of sweet corn. Again, like at Crawfish Town U.S.A., the corn was a bit on the starchy side. One thing Chuck wants when we are back Pennsylvania this summer is some New Jersey Silver Queen corn. It wasn’t unheard of for us to make an entire meal of sweet corn in the summer.

Now here is a concrete example of my influence on Chuck’s food choices. A few years ago, he wouldn’t have eaten a fried oyster. Just recently, he will—as long as they are the smaller and less juicy ones. But today, having enjoyed the oysters on our sampler plate yesterday, he ordered the a la carte oyster appetizer and rapidly devoured them all—large and small ones alike.
To go with the oysters, Chuck ordered a side of the excellent cole slaw and a side of potato salad. This latter had an interesting flavor that we learned came from boiling the potatoes in the same boil mix that had flavored my crawfish.
Before ending this blog, I must commend our servers. On our initial visit, we had the smiling Gabbie
and on the second the equally pleasant Cindy, shown her with her daughter “Shug” (as in “sugar”), who also works at the restaurant.
Both were open and friendly while being totally professional.

My head tells me that I should deduct a half an Addie for the less than perfect crab cake. But I am going with my heart and awarding the full 5.0 Addies. Taranto’s is the kind of place that makes traveling—and dining—so interesting.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.