The unpretentious Aruba is located directly on the beach a few feet away from the Commercial Pier in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. A wall of windows provides a view of the sand, palms and rippling ocean, and when the sun goes down, glowing sculptures of enormous fish cast colorful light on the crowd. On the week’s slowest night, Aruba Beach Café is still more crowded than many bars, and it’s easy to see why: men and women in business suits, guys in T-shirts and shorts, women in medical scrubs and anyone in bathing suits mix happily around the bar, where you’ll find live music nightly.
But wait. You can be in Aruba without packing so much as a party hat. Aruba in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, that is. All it takes is the right attitude -- and a few of those pina coladas -- to feel like you've taken an island hiatus. One of the few seaside restaurants truly by the sea, the Aruba Beach Cafe juts out onto the sand with an unfettered ocean view and has live music two days a week -- with a party atmosphere suitable for the escapist as well as the entire family.
When you enter the bar area, you'll be greeted by so many balloons you'll think you've died and gone to Chuck E. Cheese. But this is just part of the decor at Aruba, along with walls painted tropical blues, sea greens and corals. It can get pretty noisy, so sit in the back if you plan to actually converse.
The menu has tropical influences, with Bahamian conch fritters and Jamaican jerk wings and an emphasis on seafood, but it also strays into typical beach fare -- burgers, pizza and pasta -- as well as more global territory like chicken quesadilla, pot stickers and New York strip. You can think of it as lacking identity -- or trying to offer something for everybody. Seafood does dominate, though.
Open nearly seven years, Aruba is best appreciated for its locale, but the food, while not spectacular, is decent. Some dishes are even seafood festival winners, like an appetizer of rainbow sashimi, which snagged first place this year at the Fort Lauderdale event, the management boasts, but it's not cheap at $8.95 (tuna sashimi only is $7.95). Starters can be a little high-priced, like $4.95 for onion soup or $6.95 for mozzarella and tomatoes, so choose wisely.
Conch fritters are more reasonable -- you get seven for $4.95 -- and they're good, not the overdone version so often served north of the Keys. "Conch-Off" winners (of 1990), these fat fritters possess good-size bites of onion, green and red sweet peppers, a healthy dose of spices and fairly tender conch. Dip them into a basic cocktail sauce or tequila lime remoulade.
Happy with our conch fix, we bypassed the conch chowder in favor of the clam ($2.95, $3.95), which was rich and creamy, not overly thick, clams well-represented. We preferred it to the Spanish onion soup, which looks like the French except the caramelized, sliced onions are in a chicken broth spiked by Port wine. The top is sealed by a thick mass of melted Romano, Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses. It's satisfying but would be more so if the mercury (and price) took a dive.
No complimentary bread here, so we ordered a loaf of Bimini bread ($2; $1 for half) and devoured it. It's brushed with a light apricot glaze and has a fresh, homemade taste. While good, the honey butter served on the side might be too sweet for some tastes.
Among entree choices, Asian-style hibachi chicken ($9.95) excelled. It's an attractive serving with slices of boneless white chicken, marinated in teriyaki and grilled, arranged on a plate groaning with food -- fluffy steamed white rice, colorful vegetables (including snow peas, sweet peppers and carrots) and pineapple, served with chopsticks. Everything is fresh-tasting, the vegetables crisp and chicken tender and moist.
The seafood quesadilla ($10.95), also a past seafood fest winner, packs in a lot of shrimp, scallops and swordfish, sandwiched between flour tortillas, and is not at all greasy, served with the usual sour cream, guacamole, lettuce and salsa.
Bay scallops and linguine ($11.95) in a light white wine sauce was less successful. Broiled scallops are plentiful, but we would have liked more spinach and spicing to add oomph to this otherwise bland dish.
A better bet is the fettuccine fruta de mare marinara ($12.95), with scallops, shrimp and swordfish atop linguine that benefits from a more assertive tomato sauce.
Fat and sassy burger
The kitchen turns out a good burger: the Aruba, fat and sassy, marinated in teriyaki sauce, topped with melted Monterey Jack, grilled pineapple slice, all the trimmings and pudgy fries.
If you want just a taste of dessert, you can order a sliver instead of a slice, then boldly sample the "24 karat" cake ($2/ $4), light and moist, with lots of shredded carrot and not cloyingly sweet. The Key lime ($2/$4), though, wasn't tart enough to summon the slightest pucker.
Aside from lunch and dinner, Aruba offers a popular Sunday breakfast buffet (from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) for $7.95. Frolic at the beach, then come back for live jazz from 3 to 7 p.m. You'll go home feeling like you spent a day in -- where else? -- Aruba.