I never thought Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant & Oyster Bar would qualify for a column dedicated to eating cheaply. My family went to there a lot when I was in high school — my father loved the restaurant's smoked salmon spread and my mother always happily munched on a pile of fried shrimp. But over time, we started going less and less, and when I finally paid a long-overdue visit a couple years ago, I felt disappointed.
I couldn't deny the beauty of the location, with big windows offering pristine views of a glassy Phillippi Creek, but the fish and oysters tasted bland, and the whole affair seemed wildly overpriced.
But then I started hearing things, chatter that grew after chef Pedro Flores reopened The Table on the other side of the parking lot. Flores upgraded the Phillippi Creek menu last year, without throwing out the fish shack classics that drew folks in the first place, and one recent addition caught my frugal eye: summer lunch specials and combos.
Judi Gallagher, a friend and local food celebrity (seriously, try going out to eat with her — everyone in the place wants a minute of her time) who does P.R. for the restaurant invited me and my son to lunch a couple months back to give the specials a whirl, and I came away impressed. For $8.95, you can get one of three fish sandwiches accompanied by the soup of the day, fish and chips, or a crispy shrimp taco salad.
Was the food and service so good because I was there with Judi? I felt I needed an incognito experience, so I decided to pay it forward and invited another friend — M.C., a local author — to lunch at Phillippi Creek last week.
To make my dad proud, I started off with an order of the smoked salmon spread ($7.95). I can see why Pop liked it. It's smoky (duh), but also sweet, with bits of crunch from raw onions. Spread smoothly across a saltine, it makes a great appetizer. M.C. and I chat about everything from Milan Kundera and Jonathan Franzen to the perils and pleasures of the freelance life, while I steadily down cracker after cracker loaded with the pink whipped stuff.
But it's those lunch specials I came for. I pick the mahi mahi sandwich, which, to use a cliché, is what it is. I've noticed a disturbing trend in fish sandwichery, which has restaurants loading them up with all sorts of extraneous junk, like bizarre slaws and overpowering crusts. My theory is that restaurants think eaters don't actually like the taste of fish. (Another piece of evidence to support my theory: the way servers rush to reassure you that the fish you selected doesn't taste "fishy." Then why the hell am I eating it?)
So I applaud Phillippi Creek's dedication to keeping it simple. The mahi mahi sandwich is literally just a hunk of fish flesh on a bun, with a dose of tartar sauce on the side. Is it mind-blowing? No. But it's a super-affordable seafood lunch option — a surprising rarity in these parts. The soup that comes on the side is of the stick-to-your-ribs variety. Today's version contains chickpeas, potatoes and tomato, a dose of veggies that offers something a bit more imaginative (not to mention nutritious) than fries.
M.C. gives the conch fritters ($7.95) a try. They come in a festive martini glass, but M.C. says they're on the heavy side. "Satisfyingly dense (the fritters, not the company), but the taste could have been a tad lighter," she emails me after lunch. Bummer.
The experience is still a significant upgrade from the last time I visited, and as M.C. notes, you really can't beat that view. I'm glad the summer lunch specials (available 11 a.m.-4 p.m. through the end of September) gave me an excuse to go back.
Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant & Oyster Bar
5353 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
925-4444 or creekseafood.com
This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature on Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.