The Gulf Coast is my paradise. Even while my feet were nestled in the warm Hawaiian sands of Maui, I found myself daydreaming of my beloved dune-covered wonderland. People aren’t drawn to our beaches for the great surf, which many of us know is nonexistent until a tropical disturbance threatens. They don’t come for the luxurious accommodations or world-class shopping. Instead, travelers are drawn to the natural beauty of our great coast—that, and the food.  Now, I could wax poetic on reasons why this stretch of coastline can rival the best the world has to offer, but for purposes of brevity and in an effort to stay on subject we will stop at the eatables—more specifically my favorite haunt, Rusty Bellies.

Rusty Bellies is in a small town just outside Tampa, called Tarpon Springs. It’s located on one of the Gulf’s glorious bayous. Tarpon Springs is known for its historic sponge docks. Up and down the waterside street of Dodecanese (it’s also known for its Greek influence) you will find little shops with sponges overflowing in wire baskets and hanging around doors and windows like garland. At the end of this street you will come upon the crown jewel of this little coastal town, Rusty Bellies.

Once you arrive, grab a cold brew or a sweet iced tea and prepare for hush puppies served piping hot in brown paper bags. They are so delicious that you might just have to ask for more, although only the first round is on the house. Next, order a bucket (yes, a bucket) of Peel & Eat Gulf Shrimp cooked in a divine combination of lemon, olive oil, and spices.  I have nearly burned my fingerprints off by hastily diving into the steaming hot crustaceans, and on more than one occasion at that. For the main course I stick with my favorite plate at Rusty Bellies—the Johnny O blackened grouper. My sides of choice? A southern girl’s favorites: cheese grits and cole slaw. Me oh my, my mouth is watering! For dessert either hang around for key lime pie or walk down to Hellas Bakery for some of the most extraordinary Greek confections you will ever taste—unless your mama is Greek of course.

One more thing, if wondering just how fresh the seafood is at Rusty Bellies, ask your waiter and I am sure he or she will be able to point you toward the owning family’s boats out back, bringing in the latest catch.