All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
The beer mug emerges caked with frost. It lands on a coaster, breath coming off the glass. In the far corner of the bar, near the entrance, a small piece of art on the wall reads “el rincon de los borrachos” — the corner of drunks. As you belly up to the bar at St. Pete’s, a glacial mug in hand, Prince’s “Purple Rain” sizzling in the air and replicas of marlins hanging from damn near everywhere, a jolt of emotion runs down your neck: This is a Deep Ellum family bar. St. Pete’s, in a groove on Commerce and Crowdus streets, embodies what it means to do what the sign reads: to corner-dwell in the old-fashioned bar.
St. Pete’s may be one of the few places left in Dallas that you can get beer, of whatever the source, in an iced mug. It’s not a concept; it’s just a simple thing, but it nearly feels like nostalgia in the age of the cocktail bar. The honesty of it hits so close to home that a lump will form in your throat.
“If you don’t have cold beer, then, man, hang it up,” says Pete Zotos, owner of St. Pete’s. “It’s a beautiful thing to go into a bar a watch a guy spend five minutes making you a drink, but hey, just bring me my Budweiser and a shot of Bushmills and I’ll be fine.”
Zotos has been feeling the pressure of the cocktail. The change has been rippling up Deep Ellum’s spine: There are dozens of new joints in Deep Ellum, like Dot’s and Stirr, that are glowing bright with trend. He’s nearly melancholy as he talks about being pushed into adding a cocktail menu.
“My business is not way up like everyone else. I’m kind of down,” he says. “Everyone keeps talking about the rebirth of Deep Ellum. ... It hasn’t hit me yet. It’s coming.”
The bar was born in 1994 after a split with the folks behind Angry Dog. Zotos' joint is far more interesting than he lets on: His experience as a fisherman and his Greek background have influenced the place entirely; the marlin replicas hanging from the ceiling are modeled after fish that he's caught. Last year, Zotos nabbed and released 89 sailfish in Guatemala in one day.
The bar’s name even references the patron saint of fishermen.
“Dancing marlin is what we like to see on the end of our line,” Zotos says with excitement.
Pete’s Dancing Tuna sandwich, a seemingly innocuous option, is a simple wonder. A sushi-grade steak is marinated in cilantro, green chiles, olive and garlic and cooked with a perfect char. Get it rare and dip it in the “marlin sauce” — whipped cilantro and olive oil, maybe an onion or a scoop of tartar sauce. Seldom is the tuna sandwich a cornerstone dish, but this one is an all-timer. It started as a more basic offering that Zotos upgraded. He charged a little bit more, and it hasn’t changed for more than 20 years.
There are crab cakes, calamari and vegetables tossed in “angel tears” (as the bartender calls it) of garlic, butter and herbs that taste like you're sitting in a sea breeze. There’s pasta, of course, inspired by Zotos' family fare, including the popular Diablo: shrimp, red and green bell peppers and salami tossed in tomato sauce.
Steak fingers are a sleeper hit. (Does anyone else serve steak fingers in Dallas besides Dairy Queen?) They're soaked in buttermilk, salt, pepper and egg, double dipped and fried with a house gravy, which is made with “bacon grease and a little love," Zotos says.
“I like going to a place where they know my name and they know what I like to eat, where they remember your idiosyncrasies,” he says, responding to the changes around him.
Zotos isn’t planning many changes beyond reluctantly adding a cocktail menu sometime in the future, but he seems ready to adapt. He hints at a top-secret idea: a drive-thru chicken-fried steak operation, limited hours, that will serve folks right outside on Crowdus.
At the bar, I finish half of the tuna steak — which has perfect charred edges — adding rounds of onion. A bar neighbor, sitting with me in the corner of drunkards, tells me about his off-and-on patronage to St. Pete’s and points out a few regulars. It’s a place where stranger-chatting feels as natural as it should be while chowing down.
And my beer is still frosty.
St. Pete's Dancing Marlin, 2730 Commerce St.