Nothin' but Net

The dessert line is baited with only two items: a root beer float and cafeteria-quality peach cobbler. I can't imagine either one luring diners. Our waitress told us the proprietors are considering bringing a pastry chef on board. If they want to hook anyone for dessert and coffee, they'd better.

Don't expect to be dining off bone china, drinking from handblown stemware or wielding silver-plated cutlery here. Steamed Blues has one word for keeping down costs: plastic--plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic cutlery. But if that's what it takes to get an affordable crab dinner in this town, I'm all for it.

Seafood Central, 6990 East Shea, Scottsdale, 922-3474. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

The operators of Seafood Central, a South Florida minichain branching out into the desert Southwest, seem to have all the right instincts, even if they have set up shop in a location that has buried two restaurants in the last 18 months.

Why will things be different this time? Because Seafood Central is about the only spot I can think of in the tony northeast Valley that offers tasty fish dinners for not much more than the price of a movie ticket. While most restaurants live for the Friday and Saturday, let's-make-a-night-of-it crowd, Seafood Central is the kind of place that will appeal to the too-pooped-to-cook folks, weary nine-to-fivers looking for something cheap, family-friendly and reasonably nutritious during the week.

The sterile, boxy, warehouse setting, brightly lighted and somewhat garishly colored, isn't high on charm. The thumpa-thumpa rock music is annoying, but I suppose it's part of the high-volume plan to turn tables. The walls are stenciled with cutesy messages that are grammatically fishy: "Seafood at it's best"; "Cowboy's do eat fish."

Fortunately, the proprietors know more about seafood than they do about apostrophes. A marker board lists what's fresh each day. Ahi tuna, trout, mahimahi, salmon, snapper and swordfish all show up regularly. Market-priced Maine lobster and three kinds of crab are also available, if you're into spending bigger bucks.

But that makes no financial sense. The fish is quite good, marinated and expertly grilled. Whatever you order will be juicy, flaky, ample, and priced to please. The trout is particularly wonderful--it tastes like it just jumped out of a stream.

Grilled fish isn't the only thing that makes Seafood Central stand out. Most everything here is fashioned with an eye toward quality.

Take the bread. It's way better than it has to be, a fresh, crusty, sesame-studded loaf. Even on a Sunday night, when most weekend restaurant bread has already hardened into stone, the bread here was still in the prime of life.

The two soups are nicely done. Conch chowder doesn't appear on too many Valley menus, and there's generally no reason to lament its absence. That's because this tropical mollusk can be unbelievably chewy. But Seafood Central minces its conch into such tiny pieces that you don't need the jaws of a wolf to work on them. Then the conch is tossed into a peppery broth stocked with veggies. The clam chowder, meanwhile, may not be as buttery as the town's best versions, but no one will complain about a shortage of clams.

Oysters are probably the best value here. I haven't seen a dozen oysters on the half-shell for $1.99 since I retired my Nehru jacket. Conch fritters aren't quite as satisfactory a starter, five deep-fried balls that don't have anything special going for them, including the $4 tag.

Seafood Central knows that not everyone wants a grilled piece of fresh fish. So it provides clam strips, fried shrimp and battered catfish. If battered and fried is your preferred mode of preparation, consider trying it on the grouper, a white-fleshed Caribbean species that does well bubbled in oil.

You can also team shellfish with pasta. Spaghetti with clams, which features a briny, parsley-flecked sauce and lots of minced clams, hits the right buttons. The side dishes are simple, but effective. Most dinners come with boiled red potatoes or surprisingly good seasoned rice, a welcome change of pace from fries. A bit of salad greenery shows up, as well.

Like Steamed Blues, Seafood Central hasn't invested heavily in restaurant equipment. Fresh fish is served on plastic dishware; fried fish arrives in wax-paper-lined baskets. Salads come in a paper tray. You'll have to ask for water, and drink it out of a plastic cup. And you'll wipe your face with paper napkins.

On the other hand, this kind of corner-cutting permits two people to get seafood dinners and change back from a twenty. From that perspective, plastic and paper don't look "cheap." I'd call them "cost-effective."

Steamed Blues:
Steamed shrimp
Shrimp Norfolk
Soft-shell crab
Steamed blue crabs
(half dozen)

Seafood Central:
Conch chowder $1.79
Fried grouper
Grilled trout
Clam pasta

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