I was invited this week to sample the new menu at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, which is located in CityWalk just steps from Islands of Adventure. I have to confess this restaurant wasn't much on my radar before, but it certainly is now, and we'll be back for sure.
The restaurant is crowded-chic. Expect a lot of props jumbled on the ceiling and crowded around the sides. Much of the decorations play up the beach/islands locale, and overall it "works". Every half hour the screens come alive with images of volcanoes erupting, the speakers rumble ominously, and the entertainers on stilts (!) get everyone into the act of arm waving and yelling to ward off the evil spirits. It works, and Buffett's landmark song "Margaritaville" plays as a music video, before everything dies back down to background noise. It's a bit like the rainstorm and asteroid strikes in the Landry restaurants (Rainforest Cafe, T-Rex), in that it provides some action every so often.
Balloon makers roamed the tables, making small balloon animals as hats or props. There is a stage for live bands; they play on weekend nights.
Given the name of the establishment, you'd expect the margaritas to be up to snuff, and you'd be right. We liked the Last Mango in Paris for its fruity blend, but really appreciated the Living It Up margarita, with its substitution of Grand Marnier for triple sec in the traditional recipe.
We tried numerous appetizers and concluded we could just fill up on these next time. The white cheddar cheese curds ($11) were fried, served with marinara and BBQ sauces, and were the kind of filling comfort food you'd expect.
The asiago crab dip ($13) revealed a complex series of flavors--very much an adult mixture, actually. Kids would be better off with a more familiar choice.
The beach tacos ($10) were extremely large and overstuffed with pico, cilantro, and salsa. We had the steak (tender, passable) and the shredded pork (extremely flavorful).
The drunken shrimp skillet ($14) looked like a bare essentials collection of shrimp and three colors of bell peppers, but the incredible flavor of the butter sauce (heavy on garlic, mild on key lime, and a hint of tequila) was a hit for sure. It comes with four heavy pieces of bread for dipping, and the combination with the sauce quite good.
The standout appetizer star, though, was the grilled shrimp skewers ($6). The ingredients sound simple enough (jerk sauce as a glaze, and a coating of sugared coconut, all served with pineapple), but the whole is way more than the sum of the parts in this case.
For entrees, we sampled the fish tacos ($17), which we found to be light and flaky in texture, but very meaty as a mouthful. These were also hefty tacos. It came with basic rice and a dish that surprised us: black beans seasoned to impossible perfection. I couldn't put my finger on the flavors, but they were irresistible. Next time I'm there I intend to find out what they did, because this side dish will never be the same.
The kids' macaroni and cheese ($8) was an extremely large bowl full of pasta; more than enough to satisfy any appetite. It may look like the kind you'd make in a box at home, but it doesn't taste that way. They must use a white cheese, giving it a more refined taste (it also tasted a lot more like butter than cheese). Parents of picky kids may actually find that the dish tasting unlike the home version has drawbacks.
The chimichurri flat iron steak ($20) is a popular choice, we were told, and it was a well-crafted 10 oz. steak grilled just right, seared to seal in flavor and juices. The cilantro and onion heavy chimichurri tasted authentic and very fresh.
The buttermilk fried chicken ($17) may sound like a routine dish and therefore something to pass up, but you'd be missing out. These are boneless fried breasts served with white gravy, and the whole thing screamed "home style" (and "Southern") to me, in the best way. It came with mashed potatoes that may have had heavy cream added; they were delightful. Even the side of green beans stood out as extremely fresh.
For dessert, we tried the key lime pie, which exceeded expectations. Tart and sweet, light on the palate, and creamy in texture.
There is nothing like finishing with a "chocolate hurricane" shared dessert. Here's the official menu description: "vanilla bean ice cream served with brownies, Kit Kat and Heath bars, pirouette and mini shortbread cookies, sliced banana, whipped cream and chopped macadamia nuts. Swirled tableside with chocolate and caramel sauces." They actually bring out a Lazy Susan to do the swirling, and this sucker is built for sharing (six people could share it, it's so big!) What may not be obvious from this description is how the confection shines with its contrasts: cold and warm, sweet and salty/toffee, soft and crunchy. It's much more effective than just a pile of different flavored ice creams.
Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.