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Just for the Halibut 

by Ann M. Colford & r & Sometimes lunch is more than lunch. Sometimes it's a glimpse into the human drama. That's what happened when I dropped in at the Salty Dog in Deer Park, where the Quonset hut exterior belies a warm, wood-paneled sports bar inside, the fried fish is some of the best I've had - and I felt I had walked onto the set of Twin Peaks, somewhere around page four of the script.


We stepped into a comfortable space filled with the sounds of the latest PGA tournament. A couple of patrons sat near the back, but otherwise the place was empty. No one at the bar, no one behind the bar, no sign of any staff. I inched forward, trying to gain the attention of - somebody, anybody. The television announcer said Tiger Woods was having a tough round. A woman dining solo glanced up but then went back to her meal. I walked to the end of the bar and peered into the kitchen. Empty. As I wandered back toward the entrance, a young man emerged from a door behind the bar. He seemed surprised and not all that happy to see us. "Do we just sit anywhere?" I asked. "Yeah," he answered in a tone that hinted we should have figured that out for ourselves.


We picked a table and opened up the menu with the cute seafaring pooch on the cover. It's a straightforward pub menu - fish and chips, popcorn shrimp, burgers, steaks - but with some extra care and attention to detail. They use fresh halibut during fishing season (March to November; it's frozen the rest of the year), hand-cut and dipped in a light batter and served with tartar sauce made fresh on the premises. The burgers are hand-formed with extra lean ground beef from Eggers Meats.


The young man took our order for drinks. When I chose iced tea and my companion picked the hot version, he fixed his gaze on the wall and repeated, "Tea," then turned and walked back to the bar. I sensed that we had somehow disappointed him.


He returned a few moments later with our drinks, took our food order - no reaction - and then went to the kitchen and commenced cooking our meal. A couple of other patrons had come in - they seemed to know the procedure - so our server/cook/bartender was now fulfilling each role, as well as that of cashier. I began to understand why he might be grumpy.


Our meals came in baskets with the traditional red-and-white checkered paper liner. My two-piece halibut meal ($10) offered a choice of waffle fries or a salad, so I opted for the greenery. Each generous chunk of fish broke open easily, with the firm-yet-flaky fish steaming within a thin, perfectly-crisped coating. Now, I'm a seafood snob, and I've just had my snobbery renewed back in New England, but let me tell you, this stuff was good. The house-made tartar had a nice vinegary bite that complimented the halibut. The salad came in a small stainless steel bowl to keep it separate from the hot fish; it had a pre-assembled quality, but with a packet of Litehouse Ranch it adequately satisfied my need for vegetables.


My companion's hamburger ($6) arrived topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, along with some mustard and ketchup, and a pile of waffle fries, which came lightly spiced. The burger was tasty, although the sample I tried was a tad dry and overcooked for my taste. Still, it gets high points for presentation - in a bar-food kind of way - and quality of the meat.


As we ate, I wondered what had happened just before we walked in. Had a co-worker stomped off in a huff, leaving our server to run the whole show? Maybe he brought it on himself by being too grumpy to work with, or maybe he just got jilted. Could a miserly boss have trimmed the staffing budget to the bone? I concocted all sorts of David Lynchian scenes in my head, scenes filled with murder and intrigue and bodies in the ladies' room. (There weren't any; I checked.)


Just before we left, a young woman arrived and sat at the bar fixing her makeup and visiting with our server. His mood lifted. Overhead, at the golf tournament, the sun broke through and Tiger scored a birdie. (OK, I made that up.) I walked away satisfied with the thrills of my imagination, not to mention some of the best fried fish around.

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