Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Weird Fish - San Francisco, Ca

Why do we fetishize inexpensiveness, particularly in dining? When most people have a decent sit-down meal of competently prepared food and get out the door for less than $20 it's not enough to go "Well, that was pleasant," but they actually try to assert some gustatory transcendence over their experience that is immeasurably enhanced because they saved a few bucks.

The Chronicle's "Bargain Bites" is full of lots of pleasant unremarkable restaurants of little interest to me. Of the many that I have eaten at, I'll definitely give Vik's Chaat Corner some respect, and I've had a couple rather excellent meals at Udupi Palace, even if I did feel like I sitting on a chair made entirely of staphylococcus bacteria. Zand's is decidedly mediocre--including serving reconstituted hummus. I've seen the boxes. Why Sophia, one of my personal favorite inexpensive spots, never makes this list I don't know. Cactus Taqueria makes me want to kill people, but that's primarily because of the poorly behaved and even more poorly parented children splashing around in the fountain while I'm trying to eat. Saigon Sandwiches is tasty.

Best bargain bites in my book are Lanesplitter Pizza and Daimo's late-night dim sum. Royal Tofu House in Pleasanton is also excellent and wicked cheap. You won't find these on the Chronicle list.

A few nights ago I found myself at one of the Chronicle's new "bargain bites," Weird Fish.

I'd heard nothing but phenomenal things about this fish and vegan restaurant in the Mission. Excellent sides, great fresh fish, really cheap, etc.

After dining there I was left thinking, hm that was pleasant. Although my entree was quite terrible. But we'll get to that.

The restaurant is small and mostly two-tops so our party of five had a while to wait. This place was freakin' packed on a Wednesday night.

Weird Fish's wine list was tiny--a half-dozen each whites and reds--but they were all fairly fun and eclectic selections. Not the usual grocery-store selections that places like this often have. We had an excellent kabinett riesling and a Languedoc rose.

We kicked off with a round of fried appetizers--pickles, "buffalo wings," and green beans.
The pickles were pretty great, crunchy on the outside and salty crisp on the inside. I was even more impressed by the buffalo wings--fried fingers of catfish tossed in a slightly spicy buffalo sauce. That was pretty fun. The green beans had good flavor but were a bit over-battered and soggy at times.

Entree round. Everything I tried from others' plates was tasty. Cornmeal-crusted trout was quite good. Sauteed spinach with dates was great, as was yams mashed with coconut milk. French fries (potato and yam) were pleasant. The fish taco was excellent, but impossible to eat as a taco.

My entree, however, was god-awful. I opted for the "suspicious fish dish," which is a secret special each night. The server will not disclose what it is or much about it in general. Sounded fun.

The dish ended up being sort of a Mediterranean tilapia ensemble. The only pleasant part was the spinach and date side. The fish was crusted in pungent (and stale-tasting) lemon pepper and then buried in an even more tart lemon sauce with salty-salty black olives. It just tasted like tart and salt. Oh and there was a giant mound of white rice in the middle. Yay. Compared to the other entree options on the menu, this was pretty damn boring, ill-thought, and poorly executed. They'll need to step this up if they're going to be known for their "suspicious fish dish" as the Weird Fish website proclaims.

Desserts were a highlight. The chocolate pecan pie was one of the finest examples of that genre that I've had, and the fried bananas were retarded good.

So Weird Fish had pretty decent food and the overall experience was pleasant. It definitely wasn't remarkably cheap--we ended up spending about $40 a person out the door. Plus. the ingredients that they use are very very inexpensive. Weird Fish's fish are trout, tilapia, and catfish, as well as oysters and squid. With the exception of oysters, those are four of the cheapest fish you can buy. Seriously--we're talking $3-$4 a pound tops (and that's retail) and Weird Fish serves about six ounces or so in their entrees (a pretty standard portion). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Catfish is one of my favorite fish. My point is merely that Weird Fish's inexpensiveness can be largely attributed to the minimal cost of their ingredients. We're not talking $20+ a pound sustainable wild salmon or halibut. Additionally, the produce relies heavily on tubers, spinach, plantains, and green beans, all of which are cheap even in their most rarefied organic incarnations.

So my ultimate criticism? Weird Fish is charging money for something that I can readily do at home for dirt cheap. Trout, cornmeal, and plantains be cheap, yo. Crusting and pan-frying fish is one of the easiest ways to make a tasty dinner. Saute some spinach and mash up a couple yams with some coconut milk and you have a Weird Fish entree.

Unlike going out to a more expensive place and spending $25 on an entree that would cost me pretty close to that to prepare at home once I tracked down the hard-to-find ingredients and made up for the fact that I'd have to buy more than I actually needed, I'm spending $12 at Weird Fish for a meal I can prepare quickly with ingredients that'd cost me $5 at Trader Joe's or Safeway. Does that save me money? Is that really a bargain?

And isn't that what most "bargain bites" provide? Simple food for cheap that you can prepare even more cheaply at home if you had the time and inclination. That's it folks. It's nothing magical. Every now and then you will find that family diner or hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant that is offering something a bit more insightful, but that's rare.

So enjoy your neighborhood spots. It's always nice to have places to go to have a nice tasty dinner that doesn't break the bank. But let's be realistic folks, it's nothing more than that.

Weird Fish
2193 Mission St.
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Reservations: None

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