One of the first places many beach town visitors go is a seaside seafood restaurant. Even before you check in to your hotel room you may want to drop by a low-key local eatery like Palm Street Pier Bar & Grill (204 W. Palm St., 956/772-7256, $5–16), known for its tantalizing seafood and sunsets. Overlooking the scenic Laguna Madre Bay, Palm Street Pier specializes in tasty shrimp dishes, including admiral shrimp (sautéed in a sweet potato–jalapeno puree), honey chipotle shrimp, and the standard crispy fried variety. Other popular dishes include the tilapia filet and rib-eye steak. Don’t miss the cheap margaritas and summertime Friday night fireworks over the bay. Another bonus: The “you hook it we’ll cook it” policy, allowing diners to bring in their own fresh catch and have it expertly prepared—blackened, grilled, or fried with two sides—for $6.
Also drawing regular return customers is the venerable and well-regarded Blackbeard’s (103 E. Saturn Ln., 956/761-2962, $6–19), a swashbuckling-themed spot with surprisingly refined food. Fresh gulf catches are the main draw here, including flounder and tilapia, but the landlubber options are equally commendable, including the charbroiled steaks and grilled chicken. Incidentally, the burgers here are the best on the island.
For the ultimate sampling of seafood, belly up to the buffet at Louie’s Backyard (2305 Laguna Dr., 956/761-6406, www.lbyspi.com , $9–26). Choose from boiled shrimp, crab legs, fish, and scallops along with ribs, pasta, and salad. The full menu has even better options, including a buttery and flaky red snapper filet and crispy, flavorful fried shrimp. Top off your experience with a stunning view of the sunset over the bay while sipping Louie’s signature cocktail, the multi-liquored and aptly named Whammy.
South Padre  also has a couple highly recommended seafood restaurants that are more upscale in nature. In a casual town like this, however, that simply means the quality and prices are higher—you can still wear shorts and sandals. One of the most popular is the remarkable Sea Ranch Restaurant (1 Padre Blvd., 956/761-1314, www.searanchrestaurant.com , $8–39), the kind of place where you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, be it “from the sea” or “from the grill.” The options change regularly, but the mantra of the Sea Ranch remains constant: serving quality “local wild-caught” seafood directly from the gulf. Signature dishes include grilled red snapper, boiled king crab legs, gulf shrimp and bay oysters, and an amazing ahi tuna served rare with soy sauce and wasabi. Topping it all off is an exceptional view of the sea. Reservations are suggested.
Another popular semi-upscale seafood spot is Scampi’s Restaurant & Bar (206 W. Aires Dr., 956/761-1755, www.scampisspi.com , $7–38, open for dinner only), an old-school seafood and steak restaurant that’s been around for decades thanks to its consistent high-quality food and service. Scampi’s proves that venerable doesn’t have to mean boring, with several innovative and unexpected dishes on the menu. The best of the bunch is the shrimp Marco Antonio, featuring sautéed shrimp with coconut milk, mango, apples, and a touch of habanero pepper. Locals love the peanut-butter shrimp, an Asian-inspired recipe with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and peanut butter. Other featured entrées include pecan redfish, crawfish penne, and local flounder, pompano, and amberjack.
If you’ve somehow exhausted your craving for seafood, your next best bet is some standard beach fare—burgers, pizzas, fried stuff, and in South Padre, Tex-Mex. One of the best places in town to combine all these things with a cold glass of quality suds is South Padre Island Brewing Company (3400 Padre Blvd., 956/761-9585, $5–15). Not surprisingly, beer is the main theme here, with home-brew supplies such as kettles, burlap sacks, and vintage bottles serving as surrounding scenery. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the ubiquitous corporate light beer signs in most beach establishments. Fortunately, the handcrafted beer is commendable, particularly the Tailing Red Amber. There’s food, too, including traditional bar fare like burgers, nachos, ribs, and sandwiches. Look for a seat on the second-floor outdoor deck.
Slightly more upscale yet equally inviting is Amberjack’s Bayside Bar & Grill (209 W. Amberjack St., 956/761-6500, $7–31), offering incredible views of Laguna Madre and a wide range of delectable menu items. Choose from oysters Rockefeller to chicken-fried chicken to rasta shrimp (prawns sautéed in curry sauce) to pecan-crusted chicken. Pull up directly to the restaurant in your boat and take advantage of Amberjack’s “we’ll cook your catch” policy.
For a tasty burger and cold beer, head to Tom & Jerry’s Beach Bar & Grill (3212 Padre Blvd., 956/761-8999, $5–16). The seafood dishes here are commendable, but the beach grub is the main draw, from the burgers to the chicken plates to the chicken-fried steak and club sandwich. After your meal, head to the raised bar, where friendly staffers will gladly pour you a cold draft beer or expertly mix a frozen concoction.
Finally, if you’re in the mood for some traditional Tex-Mex, head to the extremely popular and immensely satisfying Jesse’s Cantina & Restaurant (2700 Padre Blvd., 956/761-4500, $6–13). Jesse’s is famous for its potent margaritas and top-notch traditional dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, carnitas, and quesadillas. Naturally, they serve fried shrimp here, too, and it’s some of the best on the island.