P.J.'s Seafood passes Todd's Rule of Fish test

By todd krainin/tkrainin@vicad.com
Aug. 17, 2011 at 3:17 a.m.
Updated Aug. 18, 2011 at 3:18 a.m.

Just say "no" to tartar sauce. When deep-fried oysters are this fresh, it's best to let the flavor speak for itself.

Just say "no" to tartar sauce. When deep-fried oysters are this fresh, it's best to let the flavor speak for itself.

Ten years ago, while pacing the Atlantic piers of Key West, I noticed a small crowd of vacationers had gathered around a fisherman. The fisherman held a tuna by the tail, aloft for everyone to see. It was a scaly, iridescent blue and silver Blackfin - a beautiful, but alien looking creature when it confronts you suddenly on land - about three feet in length and quite heavy, judging by the effort it took the man to hold it up. The fish was still alive; it was disoriented, trying to breathe, gasping for its life.

In his other hand, the fisherman held a long blade. He quickly, expertly, sank the blade deep into the fish's flesh, letting the viscera and slimy stuff drain for a minute, to reveal a skeleton that held layers of glistening, crimson muscle.

What he did next shocked me, because I'd never seen anything like it before. He plunged his hand into the muscle, ripped off a chunk of tuna meat, and - to my horror - he ate it.

Aside from the barbaric theater of it all, I envisioned a terrible future for the fisherman. Disease and suffering could not be far away, followed by certain painful death. Who knew what lethal microbes and fishy diseases (Mercury poisoning? Salmon-ella?) lay in wait, like a culinary landmine, hidden underneath the scales of that blackfin?

Seeing the alarm on my face, the fisherman shrugged as he chewed. He caught my eye and said one word that forever changed the way I thought about seafood.


The truth of the fisherman's one-word pronouncement struck me immediately. I loved sashimi and I couldn't think of a meaningful difference between it, and the upsetting scene I'd just witnessed on the pier. As the years went by, I thought of this fisherman with every seafood dinner I ate, and a principle gradually began to form in my mind. I call it Todd's Rule of Fish.

It goes like this: The flavor and freshness of a fish is inversely proportional to the amount of tartar sauce/malt vinegar/cocktail sauce/whatever you need to slather on top in order make it taste good. With seafood, less is more. Lemon, butter, olive oil, and a spot of heat should be all that's needed to bring out flavor in seafood. And as the Japanese have discovered, the freshest fish doesn't even need to be cooked at all.

Which brings me to the oysters ($11.95) at P.J.'s Seafood, a dish that happily adheres to Todd's Rule of Fish. Recently plucked from Matagorda Bay, all they need is a touch of batter, oil and a flash of boiling heat. So simple. Push the tartar sauce aside and pop these deep-fried chunks into your mouth just as they are. Each buttery, crispy bite stands on its own. Sauce actually diminishes the flavor, masking the tenderness of the meat.

At the complex end of the seafood spectrum is P.J.'s excellent seafood gumbo ($4.95). Gumbo is all about stock, thick roux, and lots of time to congeal in the stew pot. Hunks of fish swim in a salty, peppery, zingy, edible sea. This meal-in-itself is available on Thursdays and Fridays only, so I always plan my visits for these days.

As for the atmosphere at P.J.'s, less is definitely less. It's a cinderblock hut with a few maritime ornaments to remind you that you're in a seafood restaurant.

Service is mostly DIY, though staff is attentive with things like soda refills, which you'll need after consuming all that briny goodness.

Good marks for cleanliness, too, as the rooms are clean and its most recent city inspection was equally sparkling.

Go to P.J.'s, try the oysters sans condiments, and experience Todd's Rule of Fish. With seafood this fresh, the T.R.F. will set you free.



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