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Second Helping: No frills, lots of good food

Now more restaurant than market, Mid Peninsula Seafood continues to turn its fresh fish into yummy meals at bargain prices.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published June 26, 2003

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[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
The fresh fish in a glass case isn’t just for show at Mid Peninsula Seafood Market & Restaurant in St. Petersburg.
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Spicy Cajun grilled salmon is served on rice with hush puppies and a side of colesaw. Diners who eat in the restaurant can sit at a table with fishy artwork by owner Don Leak’s wife, Joan.

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The staff at Mid Peninsula includes, clockwise from top left, owner Don Leak, kitchen supervisor Malo Blackshear, manager Kiko Agli and cook Fred Lumpkin.

ST. PETERSBURG - In some restaurants, the glass case of fish up front is clever showmanship, and sometimes you'd rather see models of plastic food from Japan.

But at Mid Peninsula Seafood Market & Restaurant, the case is the real thing, full of fresh, ready-to-be-sliced-up seafood sold by the pound or the half. If you'd rather skip the kitchen detail, get it steamed or grilled to take home, or fried up in a $2.99 sandwich if you just can't wait.

Eating in a fish market is like eating in a bakery or a butcher shop, which I love to do, and maybe it's even better, not because a fish market smells, but because a good market doesn't smell like fish at all. (That's worth remembering whether you're shopping or eating; look for lots of ice, too.)

Mid Peninsula Seafood's doesn't smell at all, and it's been a market and restaurant for a couple of decades. Owner Don Leak grants that "we used to be a market that did a little cooking; now it's gone the other way." But all the fish and shellfish are for sale for those who can still cook at home.

The closeness to the supply, and the no-frills nature of the place, keeps fish and seafood fresh and at real-people prices.

Most customers prefer to leave the cooking to the store's crew, which does fish every which way, the best of which is fried, the same as it was when I first ate there years ago.

Usually the batter has a touch of cornmeal, but on cracked conch, a heavier breading is fired up with pepper that confirms Mid Peninsula's tendency toward Cajun spicing. Despite the heavy batter, the conch comes through as the veal of the Caribbean, as good as you'll find it hereabouts.

A beer garlic batter on the onion rings puts them in a crispy class of their own, beating conch fritters and even hush puppies (Mid Peninsula's are dry and could use more onion or veggies).

What's inside most of the edible gold is finfish. Not just sea bass, salmon and local grouper, but catfish, flounder, trout and whiting, and on some days snapper and marlin. That's a bigger variety than you'll find in any chain restaurant and most white tablecloth joints. Shame, shame.

Fish doesn't have to be fried. My grilled snapper at lunch came out fine. And the fish spread made from amberjack smoked out back was great.

There's shellfish, too, but some of it seems out of place in fried-fish heaven. Oysters freshly fried make a fine sandwich, and U-peel medium shrimp are a good idea. Pricier stuff such as a handmade crab cake disappointed, as did snow crab and jumbo shrimp I took home to try.

But smart folks go there for bargains, not splurges, because Mid Peninsula is one of those rare places that believes in serving food, even seafood, that's affordable and plentiful. The chalkboard menu overflows with sandwiches, dinners and baskets between $4 and $8.

The specials are cheaper, from the $1.49 guppy sandwich (Monday through Wednesday) to embarrassments of fishes for three or more. There's a bucket of a dozen fried fillets for $8.99 and 30 popcorn shrimp, eight pieces of fish, a half-pound of clam strips, fries and corn puppies for $17.99. Counter folks seem to enjoy popping open the boxes or bags to show you, and everyone else, what you're getting for your money.

This may sound like "the Colonel does fish," but signs insist "This ain't fast food," and it ain't. The fish is cooked to order, which requires standing around for 10 minutes or so. One clever diner took a paper Florida place mat home to pretend it was dinner out.

Lunch draws more of an eat-in crowd, which sits in an oddball dining room with an upright piano and picnic tables and chairs that could have been spray-painted by Rootie Kazootie after his first Mardi Gras.

Because everyone orders at the counter, the dining area is a waitress-free zone, and the cashiers often handle the delivery to the table. But it's still real service, friendly, proud and quick to make good.

You could say that this kind of old-fashioned restauranting and prices ought to be in a glass case. The locals are happier to get it in a paper basket or a box to go.

Mid Peninsula Seafood Market & Restaurant

400 49th St. S, St. Petersburg

Phone: (727) 327-8309.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Details: Dine in, takeout; beer, wine; credit cards accepted.

Prices: $1.99 to $12.99.

[Last modified June 25, 2003, 10:30:22]


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