Local Is Served: Star Fish Company

Not many restaurants in the area can boast of a packed house on a Thursday night in the off-season, but I can tell you about one: Star Fish Company. Not only were all the tables packed on a recent Thursday evening, but there was also an endless stream of diners picking up take-out orders. Once my friend and dining companion, Sally, and I finished eating, we understood the filled seats and expectant home-bound diners.

Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant is located dockside in the historic fishing village of Cortez, on the outskirts of Bradenton and Anna Maria Island. As soon as you pull into the neighborhood, you are transported to Old Florida, where life moves at a slower pace and Starbucks is nowhere to be found.

Casual, casual, causal is the name of the game in this workingman’s village – or should I say workingman and woman since both Star Fish and the A.P. Bell Fish Company are owned and operated by Karen Bell – so if you go, be sure to dress in your most comfy shorts and flip-flops and be ready to sit at picnic tables and enjoy the relaxing, scenic views of Sarasota Bay and its palm-studded shoreline.

You should also plan to stay a while since there will be a longer wait for your food than you are probably accustomed to – but trust me, the dining experience will be worth it (their regular customers expect it and their staff actually wanted me to tell you about it). Their kitchen is tiny – and I mean tiny, as in smaller than your own kitchen at home – but they still crank out 500 dinners on a good day. The cozy restaurant serves only local, fresh Florida seafood prepared in the most simple and satisfying ways.

As soon as we settled into our seats at the bar and started perusing the menu, a nice man sitting next to us – a self-proclaimed regular – began raving about the Fish Chowder ($2.82). Once he left, another man who cozied up to the bar suggested the Florida Pompano ($13.95). I had been there before so I already knew their Grouper Sandwich with fries ($11.95) was delicious. I also remembered their coleslaw being super-yummy, so I couldn’t wait to get that.

Since the menu proclaimed mullet ($7.50 or $10.50, light or hearty, depending on portion size) is “what put Cortez on the map,” we figured we couldn’t get more local than that, so we ordered both it and the pompano – both of which neither of us had ever eaten before.

Each meal at Star Fish is served with hush puppies and a choice of sides. We decided on cheese grits, coleslaw, and French fries. Sally, who is a fan of cheese grits, said they were really good, and I can’t say enough good things about the coleslaw and French fries. The fries were perfectly crispy, as were the hush puppies, and the slaw had that perfect, hard-to-achieve blend of creamy crunchiness.

As for the fish, they were both winners. I must admit I had always been a bit leary of mullet since I had always heard it was “fishy” tasting, but in the end, it was much better than I would have imagined. Fried perfectly with a nice crunch, it was quite tasty. And yes, it is a bit “fishier” than some fish, but it was nowhere near what I had imagined. So if you are like me and have always been afraid to try it, don’t be. According to owner Bell, fish are at their peak right now since they are “fattening up for the winter season,” so it’s a perfect time to branch out and try local seafood you’ve never had before.

The pompano, described by Bell as “one of southwest Florida’s culinary treats,” came from the A.P. Bell Fish Company and was exactly as she described: flavorful and cooked perfectly, a real local treat.

In the spirit of enjoying local, Bell also asks all of you readers to remember to thank your fishermen – theirs is surely a tough job! So hats off and a big “thank you” to Rick Gullett, Kirt Aylward, and Johnny Guthrie who are among the local anglers that supply A.P. Bell and Star Fish with their local seafood fare. Like many of us know our farmers thanks to thriving local markets, Cortez is a great spot to get to know your fisherman.

One more fun recommendation: Debbie, our bartender shared a few Fried Oysters ($9.50-$13.50) with us, proclaiming them to be “the best you ever had,” and darn it if she wasn’t right! (As an oyster fan since the age of 3, when my mother had to cut me off because I was eating so many, I am very confident in my ability to judge!) Fried perfectly – Star Fish has definitely mastered the art of deep-frying – with a crisp outside and a moist, juicy jewel of an oyster inside, I will definitely be ordering them the next time I go.

If you’re in the cooking mood rather than the dining-out mood, Star Fish also has a market section that features fresh seafood like grouper, snapper, mullet, and stone crab, caught in local waters by local fisherman!

Star Fish Company Seafood Market and Dockside Restaurant, located at 12306 46th Avenue West, is open 7 days a week: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday and 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. You can call (941) 794-1243 for more information.