Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
South Pasadena, Florida
The words “Ted Peters” don’t readily roll off the tongue when asked to name a renowned destination for seafood; “smoked fish” is probably not one’s first guess for a culinary treatment to base a restaurant on – so what gives Pasadena, Florida’s Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish the gumption to bestow upon themselves such a boastful title? It certainly isn’t the location; Ted Peters isn’t on the beach or on some seafood-laden stretch of busy highway. It’s not the architecture or the decor; with the roll-up corrugated garage doors down, the “outdoor” dining area looks like an old storage facility furnished with picnic tables and the counter and walls are festooned with hand painted (or handwritten) signs describing the menu items. What gives the late Mr. Peters bragging rights is the popularity of their simple yet astoundingly delicious menu of smoked fish which went from word-of-mouth after their 1951 opening to being featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives as well as being recommended on the Travel Channel’s web site.
The concept is simple – prepare and serve thick slabs of fish smoked in-house in a rustic, no-frills, laid-back atmosphere. For years Ted Peters smoked only Spanish mackerel and their specialty, the mullet. You’re not to be faulted if you heard “mullet” and imagined the “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle popularized by cultural icons such as MacGyver and Billy Ray Cyrus, as the mullet is not likely to be the Catch of the Day at Le Grand Véfour. The fish is typically regarded as a garbage-eater and viewed with disdain by exclusive high-end eateries, but has been an important food source for millennia. If the thought of eating aquatic sanitation engineers such as the carp or catfish bother you, you may have an aversion to giving the mullet a try, but the smoking process takes a disreputable denizen of the deep and kicks it about five rungs up the ladder of piscatorial cuisine.
The more aesthetically pleasing structure set apart from the dining shed is the smokehouse, which also serves as a to-go only counter. According to the restaurant, the fish is placed raw over racks in the smokehouse suspended above burning local red oak for 4 to 6 hours. Since most people wouldn’t recognize a mullet if they were slapped upside the head with one, we’ll talk about the metamorphosis that takes place to its upscale cousin, the salmon so that you can appreciate the miraculous culinary transformation. What arrives at your table on well-worn plastic ware bears little similarity to the familiar pinkish-orange smoked salmon you might find prominently displayed on your local deli counter or in the glass case at a seafood market. The flesh takes on a dull, tobacco-brown color almost looking like the wood used to smoke it. A light press of a fork side is enough to reveal that what appears to be fuel is actually moist and tender; as you bring the impaled flesh up to your eager mouth, the aroma of wood smoke permeates the nostrils. As the fish dissolves on the tongue, the woody flavor complements the natural taste of the fish, neither overpowering each other in a cacophony of flavors.
Getting back to our poor neglected outcast mullet, since this may be your first experience with the fish you may never want to order it any other way. Especially in comparison to the salmon in a side-by-side taste test, the mullet is a fish of a different color. The meat is lighter and flaky, but the unique flavor finds its way through the dense smoke to remind you that you’re swimming down a less-traveled path. Describing subtleties in the differences in taste between fishes can be a difficult-to-acquire skill (much like being a wine connoisseur), but even the layman pescatorian will ask himself what took him so long to enjoy the mullet.
Perhaps it simply a result of Florida being more laid-back than other American geographic regions, but patience is in order at Ted Peters. It seems to take some time before someone comes around to answer questions you have about the menu; more time ticks away between getting utensils, drinks, and finally your selection. The staff is not rude, they just seem to take the day in stride – a visit to Ted Peters is best executed outside of regular working hours. The prices are reasonably moderate, probably leaning towards expensive when considering the ambience and it is cash only so come prepared. The lunch plate does not come with their trademark German potato salad, but the fish is the main event and with the generous portion you probably won’t miss it.
Ted Peter’s smoked fish spread sandwich is popular, but if you’ve never eaten mullet before I recommend getting just the plain fish unadulterated by bread or the additives to the spread. Besides the fish, there are other menu items such as Manhattan clam chowder (the red one), hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hot dogs, but if that’s your fare of choice you have no business in a restaurant called Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, and quite frankly you can probably find a cheaper, better burger elsewhere. A visit to Ted Peters is not to be missed, and it may be one of the few times in your life when you won’t regret requesting, “I’d like a mullet, please.”
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Avenue South
South Pasadena, FL 33707
GPS Coordinates: 27°45’21.62″N 82°44’13.19″W