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Fish tacos, a staple of Florida’s coastal dining, can be maddeningly inconsistent. When made well, the fish is moist and toothsome; the flavors flow. You pick up the taco up with two hands, tilt your head slightly, and enjoy delicious bite after delicious bite.

When botched, the fish is dry, tough, or overly fishy — or all three; fragile tortillas fall apart because they’re over-sauced, causing juice to run down your wrist; and (a personal peeve) they’re covered with a cloying mango salsa that dominates the taste and renders the tacos too sweet.

Wanting to avoid the latter scenario, I went with two higher priced restaurants located on the waterfront in downtown St. Pete: Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro at the entrance of the Pier, and Paul’s Landing in the Vinoy. Still, no guarantees. Let’s see.


Cyclists roll by Fresco’s on Bayshore Drive.

Situated on the western end of the Pier, Fresco’s offers abundant outdoor seating with views of the boats clustered in St. Pete’s central yacht basin.

At 6:30 on Wednesday, though, such vistas required a 45-minute wait. We opted for an indoor table in the corner by a window. The dining room was also full, but to the restaurant’s credit, the ambient noise was not deafening. In fact, it wasn’t even irritating.

Bonnie and I waited for about 10 minutes for a server to appear. I approached a female staffer and (politely) told her about it. She replied, cheerfully, “I got ya.”

Brian appeared shortly after with apologies that weren’t necessary. I ordered Baja Fish Tacos with blackened grouper ($30). I generally avoid discussions of price in Friday Food Fight, but in this case I admit to some sticker shock.


A trio of ample-sized tacos were lined up in their little stalls, blackened fish peeking out from the toppings. A sensible helping of fries, ketchup and a thick lemon wedge made for an enticing presentation. I briefly lamented that I had to snap photos before digging in.

Texture and Taste

Let’s start with the grouper: The generous chunks were deftly blackened (not overpoweringly spicy), at once flaky and moist. Flavor-wise, they walked that fine line between bland and fishy.

The tortillas — a hybrid of flour and corn — proved an efficient delivery vehicle, hanging together well.

The topping was exemplary — a mixture of corn, lettuce, onions and a light amount of sauce that prevented the tacos from turning into an ungodly mess. A smattering of mild feta cheese added smooth texture and a smidgen of piquancy.

These flavors blended together elegantly. Kudos to the chef for including corn. I gathered the kernels that fell out and ate them with a fork.

The fries were terrific. Their rustic, crispy exteriors gave way to smooth insides with genuine potato taste. I ate them all — or should I say we. Bonnie poached a few, and I had to stop myself from slapping her hand away.


The patio at Paul’s Landing.

We came in through the Vinoy’s main entrance, then navigated a labyrinth of hallways, stairs and an elevator to reach Paul’s Landing at 2:30. Along our sojourn we passed well-dressed guests and staffers who unfailingly smiled and said hi.

The crisp morning had turned toasty when we grabbed a covered two-top on the vast patio. We were treated to lovely views of the St. Pete skyline and yachts in the basin.

As we sat down, a special surprise: Miles Davis’s 1961 ballad “I Thought About You” played at a moderate volume on the speakers above us.

I ordered Gulf Fish Tacos ($22).


It was hard not to notice that Paul’s Landing’s version had two tacos compared to Fresco’s’ three. They were also a tad smaller. A handful of tortilla chips and a mini-jar of salsa finished out the plate.

Texture and Taste

Starting with the fish: The blackened chunks of mahi mahi were comfortably moist and tender, but a bit short on flavor. The seasoning offered the slightest hint of spicy heat.

Beds of slaw brought welcome crunch, and the chopped tomato and onions added a brightness to the flavor. A smear of avocado puree on top was pretty, but I couldn’t taste it.

These tacos hung together well, and only a few drips of sauce fell onto my hand.

The chips and salsa were a drab accompaniment. How about offering a choice of one side?

And the Winner of Our Fish Taco Tussle Is …


Little surprise there, right?

While Paul’s Landing served a worthy fish taco meal, it didn’t approach the size and satisfaction level of Fresco’s. And even though Fresco’s charged $8 more, it ultimately provided better value.

Still, thirty bucks for a plate of fish tacos …

Times have changed.






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