Casting long lines

The waiting is the hardest part at this superior seafood shack


It appears that queuing up outside Winter Park restaurants has become de rigueur, what with lines snaking out the door at Four Rivers Smokehouse (a brisket paradise), Black Bean Deli (oh, those medianoches!) and, now, the Winter Park Fish Company. Okay, they all qualify as shacks more than restaurants, but if folks are willing to brave the elements and wait upward of 30 minutes just to make it to the order counter, then clearly they're all doing something right. This joint prides itself on its fish-friendly practices and commitment to sustainability ' I just wish their commitment to inventory were as superior, at least on the one Friday I visited. They seemed to be out of quite a few dishes by early evening: conch fritters, lobster bisque, salmon burgers, wild coho, Caribbean mahi and, the one dish I was really looking forward to eating, grouper cheeks wrapped in parchment.

Still, there were plenty of dishes from which to choose, and on this particularly cool night, the fish chowder ($4) sounded perfect, but what we were expecting ' a hearty soup thickened with flour and cream ' wound up having a consistency akin to a traditional bouillabaisse. That didn't negate the soup's heartiness, however, thanks to a just-right ratio of veggies (carrots, celery and potatoes) to fish (cod and mahi). Items labeled 'conesâ?� were intriguing, but that was before we learned they were wraps or, rather, hand rolls. The tuna salad cone ($9.50) had plenty of yellowfin tuna lathered in a creamy mango cole slaw, but it didn't exactly wow us, even if the accompanying thick-cut fries were worthy. What did wow were the addictive hush puppies ($1.50 for four), fresh-out-of-the-fryer'crisp and dusted with powdered sugar. While the price was a bit steep, the lightly fried grouper in the Key West style sandwich ($15) was a sizable cut and undoubtedly fresh. Mild Alaskan ling cod ($14), another fried wonder, was made all the better by sides of crisp green beans and pearl couscous.

I did manage to sample the grouper cheeks ($12) a few days later. While they're widely considered to be the best part of the fish, I found the chunky morsels cooked with onions and peppers to be properly meaty, but also a tad chewy. The 'Bruce Goreâ?� wild coho ($22), named after the noted fisherman known for providing the finest Alaskan salmon, was the menu's highlight. Caught by hook and line, then stunned, bled and cleaned immediately, Gore's coho embody unparalleled flavor, and that certainly parlayed to the plate. The fish was juicy, fork-tender and simply outstanding, whether grilled or Cajun-seasoned.

Decor at the Winter Park Fish Company has just the right amount of kitsch (love the canopy of inverted dinghies) and the few picnic-style tables inside lend to communal dining, though there's plenty of seating in the partly covered patio outside. The wait staff, including owner George Vogelbacher (previous owner of Le Cordon Bleu and Nicole St. Pierre), is pleasant, friendly and always willing to stop and chat, which can help pass time when you're standing in line waiting to order. And while parking can be a real pain here, the food is good enough to get you hooked. Consider this one a keeper.


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