Weird Fish

Strange magic
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paulr@sfbg.com

The fishing-out of the oceans, like all disasters, has produced its share of odd delights. Fish that were considered junk a generation ago — monkfish, grouper, skate — suddenly didn't look so shabby when cod and bluefin tuna became scarce. Today's weird fish is tomorrow's lovable fish, mostly because it's still there. But these little discoveries of necessity tend to end up amplifying the problem, as species go from being overlooked to sought after and thus overfished. Skate: one of nature's most fabulous fish to eat, and a no-no.

At Weird Fish, a distinctly Mission-style seafood joint that opened late last year, you aren't going to find much in the way of weird fish on the menu. You will find, in a host of guises, tilapia and catfish, a pair of river species (the former native to the Nile) that have become favorites of aquaculture. Farmed versions produce filets of mild white flesh that, like chicken, lends itself to sassy preparations and accompaniments, which the kitchen at Weird Fish ably supplies. But you aren't stuck with them; in the evening the menu opens out to include such interesting, though far from weird, specimens as trout and ahi.

The restaurant's physical setting is striking, despite the ordinariness of the storefront space: a deep, high-ceilinged, and narrow shoebox with a single aisle, as on a cramped airliner. The interior design includes swatches of blue-green paint and mirrors that look like portholes, but the overall effect doesn't say "seafood house" so much as "Mission hipster café." If you're in any doubt, the loud, bad music should clear it up. Here is yet another restaurant that does not need to be adding decibels beyond the ample number provided by the clientele. We did like the tabletops of pressed-tin ceiling remnants under glass.

Seafood takes far better to spicy handling than conventional wisdom — with its delicate sauces of butter, shallots, and white wine — seems to understand, and Weird Fish isn't afraid of laying it on. A catfish po'boy ($7) wouldn't be much without its bayou-style rémoulade, just a slab of breaded, deep-fried fish filet on soft bread. But the sweet heat of the sauce, essentially a mayonnaise reinforced with mustard and cayenne, provided enough voltage to power the sandwich. For an extra $2.50 you can get a side of fries — a blend of potato and yam sticks — but, given the scale of the handsomely bronzed stack, sharing is a thought to consider. Salting up is another. In this connection, the vegetarian black-bean chili ($3 for a cup) deserves a mention; it was dotted with corn niblets and was excellent in a mild-mannered way once a few good licks from the saltshaker had been applied. A few good licks of chipotle pepper would have been nice too, but I didn't see that shaker.

Not everything on the menu is strongly seasoned. A sandwich of grilled tilapia ($7), for instance, was quite tasty despite an absence of any condiment other than coleslaw, but then, grill smoke is basically a spice. And a split-pea soup ($3.50 for a cup) was hearty and textural and didn't seem to miss a powerful organizing flavor. But another soup, the ballyhooed tortilla (also $3.50) — almost like a thick salsa decorated with chunks of avocado and a blob of sour cream, with thin strips of crisped tortilla arranged around the edge of the bowl like a rib cage — delivered a forceful wallop of capsicum heat that would have done the black-bean chili proud.

We found the Jamaican-style catfish ($7) to be on the docile side despite a thick smear of jerk sauce spooned over the top of the poached filet. The jerk tended toward sweetness rather than menace; it was like a defensive fortification, a blanket draped over some weak-kneed (though firm and moist) fish, rather than a swaggering man-o'-war presence. But a daily-special starter, ahi tuna tartare ($10), did swagger.

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