Desert Fish – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Fish, a seafood oasis on Central Avenue

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).

The swanky interior at Desert Fish

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.

Mojito Ceviche:  Rock cod thinly sliced and marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint. Served with fresh made blue corn chips.

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.

Fresh Oysters: Kumamoto, Snow Creek, Penn Cove, Kushi and Miyagi with three dipping sauces: Clover honey and Tabasco, Raspberry and Champagne

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.

Cioppino: Hearty fish stew with shrimp, Dungeness crab, salmon, clams and mussels in a savory tomato broth with our own Desert Fish spice. Served with grilled bread.

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?

Whole Dungeness Crab: Succulent steamed crab served with corn on the cob and choice of fries.

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.


Truffle Fries, Sweet Potato Fries and House Fries

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.

Milk and cookies

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 totem pole at Desert Fish. Check out the Seattle Seahawks helmet on top

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.

Desert Fish
4214 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fresh Oysters, Chioppino, Dungeness Crab, Mojito Ceviche, Fries, Milk and Cookies

15 thoughts on “Desert Fish – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

  1. As time went by I found the quality of food at Desert Fish to be rapidly declining and made fewer and fewer visits. The only really good dish remaining was the Cioppino. When that disappeared from the menu we completely disappeared as customers.

  2. DF is gone.
    I agree with the folks who stayed away in droves.
    Mediocre is the word that comes to mind.
    There are far better fish dishes on any number of Albuquerque eateries menus.
    Better oyster shuckers, better specials.
    One must wonder how long DF was able to keep unsold fish fresh.
    I’m just saying………..

  3. I guess I’m not surprised. On our last visit (an early Sunday evening) there was only one other table occupied, the bar choices were very limited, and many of the menu items were “unavailable due to bad weather in the Pacific.” Shame – it was a nice place to eat.

  4. I am so sad. It is closed now. We got their email yesterday. It was not just the best place but the only place to get good seafood in Albuquerque. All others are sooo bad. I guess there are not enough people here who know what good seafood is to enjoy it and were willing to pay the price for it.

  5. Had a fantastic evening – not often that I do a 2 1/2 hour meal with friends. All of us agreed our entrees were great, attentive service and warm ambiance.

  6. Groupon continues to piss me off with their “come to us and your customers will love you!” pitch to small businesses. This is a perfect example of a Groupon gone wrong, and unfortunately the example is the norm. Nearly ALL small businesses lose money on Groupons, and have their online ratings tank as the frosting on the cake.


  7. Desert Fish, a good idea gone wrong.
    I’m 0 for 2 at the restaurant.
    Mangled oysters, $54 worth.
    A so so fish taco.
    So so fish and chips.
    Red Lobster is a better value for fish, shell fish, etc.
    And at much better prices.
    I’ll stick to the fish dishes served at better restaurants and leave it at that.
    Or buy the exceptional fish at Nantucket Shoals and cook my own.

  8. Had read early reviews and was very excited to experience Desert Fish. We had invited our best friends to join us to explore desert fish. As luck (or not) would have it there was a Groupon offering $150 value for $75. We made reservations and looked forward to an exceptional seafood culinary night. We expect a fine dining experience for four to be pricey. A tab of $150 to $200 for a FABULOUS dinner for four, is not unusual for us. Perhaps all tHe hype for Desert Fish was just that “hype”. Menu looked amazing, but things went down hill from there. I do not know if the service and food was because we presented the Groupon, but the service and food was certainly not what one would expect of fine dining. After perusing the wonderful menu we began placing our orders. Sorry, we are out of calamari, no we are out of that. Gee, not sue that we have enough scallops to complete your order. Our reservations were for
    7:00 pm, so what are they already out of food when the place was not even full? WAS IT THE GROUPON? We received our “well drinks” and then waited and waited. The entrees were then brought out, but what about the appetizers? OOPS sorry, we forgot all about your appetizer order. Also, forgot the second drink order for one member of our party. Entrees were mediocre. My entree was a special for the night. I ordered one of the nightly specials and Paid $32 for 5 grilled shrimp, two scallops (which they initially said they we out of) a couple of fingerling potatoes and a jicama slaw. We entered with great hope and left giving it a 5 out of 10 for flavor and a 1 out 10 for value. Oh well, back to the search for a great seafood fine dining experience in Abq. In the mean time, we will import seafood from Seattle and party at home for a third of the price.

  9. Hi Gil,
    My husband and I have been twice and agree, this is one of the best seafood places in the city. Although there are a lack of local choices for well cooked fresh seafood, we were pleasantly surprised and plan to go back! Would recommend the oysters or crab, and for lunch the fish sandwich and tacos are quite tasty.

    Thanks Gil!

  10. I went to Desert Fish last night and had a pleasant meal. The Mojito Ceviche was delicious as Gil described, although just a little too sweet for my taste. Fortunately, it was fine without the Blue Corn chips, again in keeping with Gil’s review. I only say fortunately, because the chips served were not made from Blue corn and did not look like those pictured in Gil’s review at all. They were a combination of vivid Blue, and fiery red colored chips, which seemed to be made out of corn, but clearly not “Blue corn” chips in texture or flavor. With that quibble aside, the food was very good. Also, as a refugee from the rainy Pacific Northwest (since 1980), I note that the Wild (not farmed) Salmon is beginning to come into season now. Although I didn’t try that dish last night, it should be better now and in the near future than it has been this winter . Some other food blogs (such as urbanspoon) have presented mixed opinions on the Salmon at Desert Fish, and I believe that out of season Wild Salmon is to blame for that.

  11. I don’t know why it took so long but I finally made it to Desert Fish this past weekend. What a great addition to the area.
    Our group of 4 shared crab cakes, shrimp cocktail and clam chowder appetizers. Our entree’s included the grilled halibut, cedar plank salmon and one of the specials of the night – sturgeon. I so enjoyed the hallibut – I was not too eager when it came time to share a sample with my companions.
    They reciprocated and I must say my first experience with sturgeon was a delight and the salmon was delicious.
    The service was timely, helpful and attentive.
    All in all it was an excellent dining experience and one I hope to repeat as often as I can.
    Desert Fish has definitely raised the bar in Albuquerque and my expectations will no longer be the same when it comes to locally prepared seafood.

  12. Aha. Larry intrigued me with his reference to the bisque. I used to drive out of Vegas to one of the casinos in Primm/State Line just to get it’s delicious lobster bisque hovered over/insured by the most congenial Maitre d’, a former tailor from Lebanon…while the filets/service/ambiance/prices were great, it was almost secondary. To me, the DF’s is on a different tier, but only because it has a bit of a nice bite. With a nouveau design of a creme floated on top as Y’all might find with your Latte, I’ll certainly give a straight up with my soup spoon.

    Great job of upscaling the setting; indeed cloth napkins and covered tables soften any too moderne starkness. Staff appear attentive/knowledgeable.

    Briefly, had a good margarita and the Seafood Salad: Warm Dungeness crab meat, grilled prawns and scallops, with chilled asparagus, red pepper slivers and grilled onions on a bed of mesclun greens, citrus vinaigrette. Very good, albeit I’d like a tad more zip in the vinaigrette and a little less grill time for the tasty prawns.

    Am looking forward to a follow up visit for other taste treats. (Going East thru Nob Hill, drive past DF to take right on Graceland, then a right through the alley to park. Going West, go south on Graceland just past O’Neill’s Pub.)

  13. We went by here last night because I am so unimpressed with most (maybe all) local seafood restaurants. A word of warning is to make reservations if you are coming on Friday night-they are on Open Table. We walked in but those without reservations were sent packing. I am pretty sure that the location is the original Goodies in Albuquerque but all employees are too young to have ever heard of the place.

    I had the Dungeness Crab and it was the best in all of New Mexico though a little dry (overcooked). I would go back for this. I also had the Truffle Fries which I found terribly disappointing-limp and lukewarm with little to no truffle flavor. The corn on the cob is under praised as absolutely wonderful. My ever unadventurous child bride and her Italian friend ordered fish and chips-probably because they were the cheapest thing on the menu. I almost always pass on such things dripping of grease. I even avoid Pappadeaux because, even though most seem to love it, I regard it as being the world’s most expensive fish and chips house. The bride said that the fish was not as good as she used to make in her little short lived seafood house. There is probably a mental block as she does not remember how she made it.

    I will be back many times.

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