Stay Out of the Kitchen
St. Pete's Pasta Diablo is one big bowl of noodles. The mountain of linguine is higher than the rim of the bowl. I think it's supposed to look like a volcano with a lava of tomato sauce and jalapeño slices running down the slopes. The waiter puts a carton of chocolate milk on the table beside my beer.
"What's that for?" I ask.
"Every order of Diablo comes with chocolate milk," he says with a smile.
I take this as a warning. The shrimp are plump and juicy; the pasta is cooked al dente; and while the tomato sauce may not have all the complexity of a San Francisco cioppino, it's pleasant enough. I keep waiting for the eruption of pepper pain, but it never comes. While the pasta is spicy, it's nothing that would faze your average Houstonian. The waiter told us that the next step up, the Diablo Tempestuous, is made with habanero extract, so I'm sure that one would necessitate chocolate milk. But why torture yourself?
You shouldn't go to St. Pete's Dancing Marlin for the cooking; you should go for the lack of it. The oysters on the half shell are bluepoints, cultured oysters grown in Northern waters. Not only are they superbly briny little specimens, they are also a great deal at $5.95 a dozen. For lunch one day, my editor ordered a half-dozen of what the menu calls Clem's Colossal Shrimp. Six shrimp may not sound like much of a meal, but he could barely finish them. They turned out to be six- to eight-count shrimp from the Pacific, which means that six or eight of them weigh a pound. They were served cold with cocktail sauce. Not very imaginative, maybe, but so what? You aren't looking for a lot of creativity at the oyster bar.
The fried calamari appetizer we had at lunch that day was nothing innovative either, just your average large tender rings of fried squid with a tasty Parmesan-flavored breading and a warm marinara sauce on the side. I had the Dancing Tuna Sandwich, a rosy-centered square of fresh grilled tuna on a hamburger bun with a little lettuce and tomato. It was delightful, thanks largely to the fact that the kitchen left the fish alone. No grill rub, no special sauce -- just good tuna, perfectly underdone. A larger tuna steak is also available as an entrée, and I have every confidence it's just as good.
John and Pete Zotos built the original St. Pete's Dancing Marlin on Commerce Street in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas. When John Zotos moved to Houston, he convinced his brother to build another St. Pete's in the same sort of hip neighborhood here. The Houston restaurant occupies a huge double-sided space at the end of the 300 block of Main Street. It looks like a trophy fisherman's hangout in Fort Lauderdale. A huge shellacked wooden bar dominates each side of the place. The walls are decorated with mounted swordfish and framed nautical charts.
I asked Zotos where the name came from. "St. Pete is the patron saint of fishermen, and a dancing marlin is what we like to see on the end of our reel," he told me. "We love blue water." So why didn't he and Pete put their place on the water in Clear Lake or down by the Kemah Boardwalk? I asked him. He said they never even considered it, because their fishing boat is docked in Florida, and they do all their big-game fishing in the Bahamas.
They probably didn't consider how unhip their sunny marina bar was going to look alongside the funky urban architecture downtown, either. Next to The Hub, No tsu oH and Dean's Home of Easy Credit, St. Pete's Dancing Marlin sticks out like a white elephant at the fatstock show. But this is Houston -- we don't discriminate against architectural white elephants or people from Dallas. (Well, not against architectural white elephants, anyway.) Once you get over the petty aesthetic quibbles, St. Pete's is a pleasant place. Especially during the daytime, when the mounted fish and the sailing memorabilia are exquisitely sunlit.
Herb and Carol are visiting from Fort Worth, and I meet them at St. Pete's for dinner. The three of us get a table looking out on Main Street. St. Pete's wine list is a joke, but the beer selection is excellent. So we start our meal splendidly with a plate of raw oysters and some top-shelf brews. Carol gets a Tucher wheat beer, which comes in a special oversize glass with a wedge of lemon. I have a Pilsener Urquel, and Herb opts for a Fat Tire. We couldn't be any happier at our window table with our briny bluepoints and quality suds.
Unfortunately, things go downhill from there. Even though I should know better, I order the clam pizza. I have a definite idea of what clam pizza should be. I like it with fresh-shucked clams, olive oil, garlic and fresh oregano, with no tomato sauce and no cheese. At St. Pete's, they use next to no tomato sauce and lots of clams, but they load it up with mozzarella. This makes the crust soggy in the middle. It's still pretty good, but I know I could have ordered better. The waiter suggests that next time I try the Greco pizza with feta and olives.
Determined to stick with the simple stuff, I suggest we get a fried seafood platter, which is listed on the menu as the BF Combo.
"What's the 'BF' stand for?" Herb asks the waiter.
"Um, 'full belly combo' would be the polite version," the waiter says, with a respectful eye toward Carol.
"And what would the impolite version be?" I ask.
"Big fucking combo," the waiter says, giggling.
You'd think it would be hard to mess up a fried seafood platter, but St. Pete's makes it look easy. The large piece of deep-fried catfish is a little warm, but the oysters, fried shrimp and french fries are all stone cold. Our table may have a nice view of Main Street, but it's blocked from the waiter's sight line by the bar, so after a few minutes of arm-waving, we flag down a passing employee and send the platter back to the kitchen for reheating. Our waiter returns with it promptly, apologizing profusely. "No problem," I assure him. But even when we try the fried food piping hot, we are underwhelmed. The gritty cornmeal breading tastes fine on the catfish, but it's too coarse for the tiny juiceless oysters and now overcooked shrimp. The twice-cooked french fries are no thrill either.
The food seemed so much better at lunchtime, I marvel. I guess simplicity is easier to appreciate earlier in the day. By now I am also getting annoyed by the little plastic cups piling up all over the table. The oysters come with cocktail sauce in a little plastic cup; the salad comes with the dressing of your choice in a little plastic cup; and the fried platter comes with tartar sauce in a little plastic cup. Real chefs don't serve sauces in little plastic cups, I fume.
Half the pizza goes uneaten, and nobody wants the fried stuff. But luckily, there is enough linguine in the pasta volcano to feed three people easily. So we pass the bowl around the table and take turns eating dinner. No one finds it particularly spicy, but the chocolate milk comes in handy after all. I have it for dessert.
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