If you were entertaining a visitor from Seattle or Portland, would you take them to Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s or even Pelican’s to show them how the seafood in land-locked Albuquerque measures up to the seafood in those two bastions of fresh, succulent seafood? Not likely! You’d probably want to take them to a restaurant which showcases New Mexico’s red and green chile. For some reason, however, during business trips to Seattle and Portland, my well-intentioned colleagues insist on taking me to Mexican restaurants. Perhaps they assume that with my Spanish surname and place of residence, I would want to try their Mexican food. That makes as much sense as expecting me to stay at La Quinta and drive a Ford Fiesta rental car.
As a consequence of such faulty (albeit well-meaning) assumptions, I’ve been subjected to such chains as Chevy’s and other restaurants of that ilk where instead of “red or green,” a gloppy brown “sauce” absolutely reeking of the accursed demon spice cumin is ladled on liberally over the overly cheesy entrees. Perhaps discerning my disdain for chains, my colleagues have also entertained me at such independent, but no less offensive Americanized Mexican restaurants as Macheezmo Mouse (you read that correctly).
Admittedly two or three days into a business trip, I start to crave New Mexican food, but not so much that I’ll visit a pitiful pretender. My friend and colleague Steve Caine did that and will forever rue the day. Upon returning from Portland, he asked me to help him with his expense report. His itemized report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market. I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when our boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.
When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closest facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or the aforementioned Macheezmo Mouse. Most business traveler from New Mexico have probably been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in the trip where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.
Peter Martin can certainly relate to that type of craving. The Seattle native and owner of the Desert Fish restaurant has been marooned on a land-locked desert isle of a sort, having moved to New Mexico shortly after a friend bought the Tesuque Village Market outside of Santa Fe. Youthful in exuberance and chronology, Peter has been working in nightclubs and restaurants for more than two decades, but it wasn’t as much an entrepreneurial spirit that prompted his venturing into the restaurant ownership business as it was just how much he missed seafood. No matter how much New Mexico’s restaurants may think they’re serving good seafood, they’re not serving the type of seafood with which Peter was raised.
That would be seafood prepared as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest by seafood houses whose idea of freshness is off-the-boat and where catch of the day means this morning. It’s seafood the type of which you find at the world-famous Pike’s Place Market where fishmongers toss fish at one another to the delight of visitors. It’s wild-caught fish which are healthier and are more palatable in texture, aroma and flavor than their farm-raised brethren. It’s an oyster bar serving a variety of oysters with a sweet oceanic flavor. It’s Dungeness crab, a delicately flavored, slightly sweet West Coast delicacy. Peter has made all of this available in Albuquerque.
The aptly named Desert Fish was launched on December 10th, 2010 at the former site of Sonny’s Bar and Grill on Route 66 in the Nob Hill District. Gone are the pool tables, dartboards and numerous televisions usually tuned to sporting events. The bandstand was retained, its stage to be graced by local music acts, their tunes piped in through a sound system reputed to be one of the best in town. The ambiance is refined, like a true Northwestern seafood emporium and not a stereotypical nautical themed template.
While rich, dark woods imbue a room with masculinity, Desert Fish’s more gender-neutral light, but no less rich, woods give it character. The bar’s paneled wainscoting extends to the smooth hewn planks on the ceiling. Exposed industrial-style ductwork adds a touch of modernity while a twelve-foot totem pole, reminiscent of those carved by the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, provides a bit of whimsy. On the day of our inaugural visit, the topmost figure on the totem pole sported a Seattle Seahawks helmet.
The restaurant has two main dining areas. As you enter (through a door on the edifice’s west side, not through Central Avenue as you might think) to the right there’s an intimate dining room with about a dozen tables. More commodious is the main dining room where your interior views are of the stage, bar and oyster bar while your exterior views through large picture windows are of Central Avenue. You’ll want to appreciate those views later; first you’ll want to peruse the menu which is not so much a compendium of all great seafood, but a carefully selected assemblage of incomparable seafood.
There are seven appetizers on the menu including a couple (French fries and kabobs) which are decidedly not seafood. A soup of the day and clam chowder as well as a number of salads provide delicious alternatives to starters to be sampled during future visits (and there will be many), but it’s the “bar menu” which will command most of your attention. Price points are surprisingly comparable to what you might pay at a restaurant in Portland or Seattle and there’s no compromise in quality here. Seafood is flown in fresh every two or three days. A grilled rib eye steak au poivre is the only landlubber’s entree on the menu, but then you didn’t come here for meat, did you?
You came to Desert Fish for the seafood, the quality of which my foodie friend Larry McGoldrick describes as “superior.” On his Urbanspoon page, Larry assures readers that “Desert Fish has become a polished eatery and imbibery in the three short weeks that it has been open.” You can trust the good professor of oceanography. He lived on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay before moving to New Mexico. Larry’s recommendations in mind, we wanted to try everything he had but opted instead to try a few different items so readers can get two perspectives on the menu’s delicious offerings.
As we do at most mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants, we had to have ceviche. At Desert Fish that means Mojito Ceviche, thinly-sliced rock cod marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint. The ceviche is served with fresh made blue corn chips and in the fashion of tostadas de ceviche, the combination of light, delicate fish and crispy corn is hard to beat, not that the chips were necessary in the least. This is ceviche reminiscent of ceviche you might find at a Peruvian restaurant meaning it’s incomparably fresh and wholly imbued with flavors which are both complementary and contrasting. The infusion of fresh citrus juices and rum, in particular, impart an almost Tropical feel.
Seafood connoisseurs recognize that no other seafood offering tastes as much like the sea as oysters, renown nearly as much for their aphrodisiac properties as for their flavor. It’s a flavor attributable to terroir, the specific environment in which they grow. Desert Fish offers a variety of oysters from a variety of locales. Order at least one from each and discern the nuanced flavors. The Kumamoto, considered by many as the perfect oyster, is sweet and “fruity” in an oceanic way. Snow Creek oysters, raised in the deep waters of the Puget Sound, have a hint of iron in a sweet-salty flavor profile. Penn Cove, perhaps the most “beautiful” of all oysters, are about medium in brininess while retaining a sea-saltiness. Kushi (Japanese for “precious”) oysters have a clean flavor and are small in size. Miyagi oysters are full-flavored and robust.
Though I prefer the unfettered flavor of oysters in all their native deliciousness, Desert Fish serves their oysters with three dipping sauces: clover honey and Tabasco, raspberry and champagne. Each imparts its own complementary flavor ameliorating qualities to the oysters. Unlike most oyster “shooters” which are tangy and piquant, these sauces are sophisticated and delicious. The champagne resonated most with me with its characteristically dry and sweet flavors. Neither the raspberry or clover honey and Tabasco sauces are as sweet as their names might suggest.
During all my visits to San Francisco, one of America’s truly great culinary hotbeds, the one dish I absolutely have to partake of is cioppino, a fish stew whose genesis is indeed the City by the Bay. No one does this Portuguese-Italian dish better than the seafood houses by the piers. Traditionally made from the catch of the day–usually Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, fish and clams–in a savory broth of fresh tomatoes and a dry white wine sauce, it is a hearty, delicious comfort soup. Though several restaurants in Albuquerque have tried their hand at cioppino, they all fall woefully short. Cioppino is a very nuanced dish with distinct seasonings which bring out the flavor of their seafood constituents. Desert Fish’s rendition includes a beautifully pink grilled salmon, Dungeness crab, clams and mussels and is served with grilled bread. It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino.
Another San Francisco treat popular throughout the Pacific Northwest is Dungeness crab, sweeter and more tender than lobster with more meat than the vaunted blue crabs of Larry McGoldrick’s former stomping grounds. The legs and body are engorged with sweet, succulent meat that’s easier to extricate than the meat of Alaskan king crab. At Desert Fish, a whole Dungeness crab is served with sweet corn-on-the-cob and your choice of fries. Ask the accommodating wait staff to bring you a sampler of all three fries: sweet potato, truffle fries and house fries, all of which are so reminiscent of the fries served at seaside stands. The corn-on-the-cob is grilled and unseasonably sweet. Best of all, it’s a whole ear of corn, not a half-sized piece that will have you longing for more.
The dessert menu includes several surprises including milk and fresh-baked cookies. While milk and cookies may sound a bit quaint outside the child’s menu, these cookies are very good–two chocolate cookies with chocolate chips and pecans. Milk, of course, is the perfect accompaniment to cookies of any kind. This is a combination that might take you back to your childhood.
Desert Fish is the real deal–a Pacific Northwest seafood house in the desert southwest. From its look and feel to the fantastic flavors of the fish and more, it is a welcome respite for expatriates from either coast. It’s the type of seafood restaurant to which I wish my colleagues would have taken me all those times I suffered through Mexican food as mediocre as any you’d get on a frozen dinner.
4214 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Fresh Oysters, Chioppino, Dungeness Crab, Mojito Ceviche, Fries, Milk and Cookies