Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish

When Chicago food writer Michael Gebert came to visit the Tampa Bay area earlier this year, he had just a handful of restaurants on his list to visit and ultimately designated only one of them as a "must-stop" destination; that is, Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, located out on the further reaches of the St. Petersburg peninsula (1350 Pasadena Avenue S. in South Pasadena, which reads a bit like a palindrome). The "famous" moniker in the name is earned, by the way - there aren't a lot of dining establishments in this town that can be considered institutions, but Ted Peters is definitely one of them. Open since 1951 in its current location, its namesake founder capitalized on the postwar wave of prosperity and tourism by offering up a slice of Floridicana to hungry beach visitors in the form of smoked fish, using techniques he'd learned while working at a nearby fish camp in the 30s. The 4th and 5th generation of family members is now running the place and, 60+ years in, their fare is still popular as ever. TPFSF has been near the top of my own to-dine list ever since we moved here, and the perfect opportunity to stop in finally presented itself as we were passing through the area at dinnertime on the way home from a weekend in Ft. Myers Beach.

The Gulf of Mexico isn't far away (maybe a mile?), but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the parcel of property on which TPFSF is perched - it's all pavement and squat buildings on a heavy retail strip of Pasadena Avenue. If waterside dining is what you're after, I'd say check back in about 100 years when sea levels have risen accordingly. Anyway, other than a fresh coat of chocolate brown paint and some new blacktop over the years, the family compound appears to be largely unchanged since its inception. Patrons can eat inside a small dining room (featuring refrigerated air "during the warmer summer months" as they say) or take advantage of the temperate climate and eat outside under canopy (we chose the latter).

As I stated before, smoked fish is the house specialty (in fact, there's not much else on the menu). The placemats helpfully describe the smoking process, which takes place in wooden cabinets housed next door in a smokehouse. Raw fish are butterflied lengthwise and laid flat into the cabinets, where they're cooked for 4 to 6 hours over smoldering red oak coals.

We'd have been remiss if we didn't begin the meal with a hearty helping of the house fish spread and we weren't disappointed. A giant scoop of the spread (think of the meatiest tuna salad you've ever tried and you'll be in the ballpark) was served in a bowl with enough crackers to feed an army. The kids ate the crackers while the adults did their best to polish off the spread (a cold mug of Miller High Life helped to wash it down). When the Smithsonian is ready to open its national food court (hmmm...that's an idea), there should be a Congressional inquiry if the fish spread doesn't come from here.

For entrees, Mrs. Hackknife ordered the mackerel dinner and I tried the mullet (the progeny ordered burgers and hot dogs - I was actually surprised at the number of customers with burgers). What arrived at the table was two massive plates of ruddy fish (bones included, by the way) with healthy-portioned sides of German potato salad, Cole slaw, pickle, tomato slice, and lemon, probably more food than we could eat in two sittings. I enjoyed both of the fishes (Mrs. H let me sample hers), which were surprisingly mild and subtly smoky, if not a little on the dry side (next time, I think I'll go for the fattier salmon). The slightly warm potato salad (family recipe, of course) was terrific and the Cole slaw wasn't bad, either. All told, the grub here isn't exactly the most highfalutin in town, but the combination of retro-ambiance and unique seafood make it a quintessential Florida experience...

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