Paul's Shrimp House
530 Athens St
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
(All photos borrowed from the Paul's Shrimp House website.)
Mmm, Paul's. Whenever I visit Florida, my grandfather inevitably packs myself and any other lingering relatives into his Cadillac for one purpose: to get us some boiled shrimp in Tarpon Springs, the small and touristfied Greek community close to Tampa. Not that we mind.
Paul's is a typical Florida seafood shack, full of miscellaneous plastic aquatic critters on the inside, and lots of geriatric snowbirds on their weekly outings. The middle-aged waitresses wear uncomfortable looking shorts but bustle with heart-warming efficiency, slinging beer (which comes in pitchers), squid parts and cocktail sauce with fluent skill. You may not be able to tell from the sign, but the shrimp mascot emblazoned on it is holding a beer mug and is obviously piss-drunk. That's the kind of place we're talking about here.
The menu reflects the Greek roots of Tarpon Springs, including such Mediterrenean delights as pickled octopus, Greek salad, and baklava. Fried seafood all sorts is also amply represented, along with a decent variety of sandwiches and even a few land-based animals, although you really shouldn't be going there unless you want people to laugh at you.
In my family, we are convention bound to order the same thing every time we visit this fine establishment, spirit of adventure be damned. We begin with at least three orders of the Greek salad for 1 ($2.75) with a healthy scoop of potato salad ($2.00) on top. This might sound strange to you gentrified California weenies, but let me assure you, the combination is both unique to Tampa and utterly delicious, as the starchy potato salad absorbs the oily and tangy Greek dressing. And the salad itself doesn't disappoint - bristling with sharp, tangy feta chunks and plenty of anchovies, peppers, and olives, it's a pungent beginning to any meal.
We move on entrees, which are generally left open to the individual (gasp.) On my most recent visit, I ordered the simply but delicious broiled grouper ($12.95), which came in a very considerable portion, served alongside buttery vegetables and some expertly prepare coleslaw. The meat was flaky, tender, and cooked just long enough - I wolfed it down. My cousin went with the broiled scallops ($10.95), which were tiny and tender little pearls of tastiness - everyone at the table sniped a few.
But you can't pass up the fried food, can you? Paul's fried oysters ($9.95) are excellent, with a sharp and crispy exterior crust and a juicy and briny inside. They're infinitely better then potato chips and just about as addictive, and everyone I'm related to seems to be able to go through immense quantities of them with little to no trouble (including me.) I also like the fried smelts ($6.95), though be forewarned: these pungent and oily little fish might make a tasty appetizer, but plowing through an entire plate of these as a main course is...daunting. Share.
Finally, the Greek-style squid ($8.50) is incredible - a big, sizzling plate full of lightly fried squid parts, peppers, onions, and olives and feta cheese. It's pungent, delicious, and deeply Greek - you must try this.
What's for dessert? You can always have baklava, but we prefer a pound of Paul's signature dish: boiled shrimp ($13.95.) Big, plump, and shell on,they're boiled in some mysterious combination of Greek herbs and spices, doused in lemon, and served on a plate - and they are good, cooked just long enough to become tender but not mushy. Slap on some tangy cocktail sauce and you have entered shellfish heaven, at least by my estimation.
Paul's is a wonderful specimen of the Tampa fish house - it's a must-visit if you're in Tarpon Springs and can tear yourself away from the many other fine Greek establishments that dot that magnificent, touristy row. Eat fried oysters until you experience gastric pain then come back for more.