ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Roll down the window when you drive along Pasadena Avenue, and most likely you won't have any trouble finding Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish restaurant.
Just sniff: When you catch the heady aroma of Gulf Coast seafood slow-cooking over burning wood, you will have found one of the Gulf Coast's extraordinarily fine places to have lunch or dinner.
Ted Peter's is not a fancy restaurant. Reservations are not accepted, nor are credit cards. The cozy little dining area (which does have a fireplace to provide warmth when the weather is cool) is the height of happy-go-lucky informality. Some folks like to eat at the shaded counter; some choose a picnic table outside, where seagulls loiter looking for scraps. Many customers come to Ted Peter's to take food home. There is even a loyal contingent who patronize the place not for fish, but for hefty hamburgers, which have helped make it a local favorite since 1950.
For us, it's smoke-flavored fish that puts Ted Peter's on the good-eats map. Every year more than 100,000 pounds of mackerel and mullet are smoked in the little shack adjacent to the dining area. Mullet is a Gulf of Mexico delicacy virtually unknown north of Florida. There are restaurants throughout the panhandle and along the Gulf Coast that specialize in it. Most of them, like Ted Peter's, are informal places that serve it on disposable plates with plastic forks, and bottled longneck beer on the side to wash it down.
One of the most delicious things Ted Peter's does with mullet is to mash it into smoked fish spread, which many customers buy in bulk to take home and serve as a hors d'oeuvre. If we had a way of keeping it cool in the car for weeks on the road, we would have a pantryful every time we return from Florida. The way most people want to enjoy mullet when they come here for lunch or dinner is portioned out in big hunks on a plate. It is a lush fish, and during the hours it spends over smoldering red oak wood, its oily meat absorbs the sharp tang of fire, creating an unimprovable confluence of succulence and smoke.
Fish dinners are accompanied by a slab of sweet onion and an imposing portion of German-style potato salad made from an old family recipe. We were assured by owner Mike Lathrop, whose grandmother first made the salad, that its formula is top-secret; but we think our version of the warm delicacy comes pretty close, and makes a great companion not only for smoked or grilled fish, but for just about any summertime meal.
German potato salad
Serves four to six.
1/2 pound bacon
1 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced scallions, including tops
6 cups boiled red potatoes with skins on, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 teaspoons fresh dill
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup warm water
Fry bacon until crisp. Remove, drain, crumble and reserve. Braise celery and scallions in bacon fat. Remove with slotted spoon and add to potatoes. Add parsley and dill.
Heat remaining bacon drippings (about 1/2 cup). Sprinkle in flour and mix well over medium-low heat. Stir in sugar, salt and pepper, then wine and warm water. Continue to heat and stir until as thick as salad dressing. Add to potatoes and stir well. Add crumbled bacon and place in heat-proof casserole. Warm at 300 degrees until ready to serve.
Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish, 1350 Pasadena Ave. South, South Pasadena (St. Petersburg), Fla.; (813) 381-7931.