It's Better in the Bahama's

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to eat less red meat, you're probably already planning to explore more seafood restaurants. If another of your goals for 1992 is to keep a tighter rein on the old purse strings, you're in luck. Bahama's Fish Market & Restaurant, nestled in one of those small, cluttered shopping strips garishly hawking their wares along Southwest Eighth Street, is a diamond in the rough.

The place looks like a fish market, which, in part, it is. Except for a giant sea-turtle shell flanked by some fake fish mounted on the wall above the retail display case, the two-room restaurant is so no-frills that we were surprised the dishes and silverware were not paper or plastic.

If the "fish market and restaurant" part of the name is on target, the "Bahama" part is a bit of a misnomer. Despite the name, they do not offer such Caribbean signature dishes as coconut-studded johnnycakes, ackee and salt fish, or curried fish and pigeon peas. With the possible exception of escabeche, a dish of Spanish origin, which we tried and found heavenly, the menu is Cuban, Cuban, and more Cuban. For example, shrimp and scallops are fried either plain or batter-dipped, or stewed in a Creole sauce, or sauteed with lots of garlic. Bahama's will, however, broil just about anything for the customer. And as a Cuban-style seafood place, Bahama's stands proud.

The escabeche alone is worth the trip. At $4.95, the extravaganza of chilled, pickled kingfish is the highest-priced starter on the list, but the portion is large enough to share, which my dining companion and I did. A deceptively complex dish, the fish had been marinated in lime juice, vinegar, onions, sweet red pepper, seasonings, and a hint of a habanero, the hot pepper called a "Scotch bonnet" in the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean. The secret of the dish's unique texture relies on quick-frying the fish to keep the batter crisp and the juices sealed in. At Bahama's, the chef handled this precision work expertly: the inch-thick, white fish was as moist as morning dew, and yet the breading was not soggy from the marinade. Even the presentation was special. A colorful dish, it was served over a bed of lettuce atop a white-porcelain platter. And, as is oddly customary in Cuban restaurants, a minuscule number of peas crashed the party. Mystified as to how just one or two peas managed to sneak into a dish, my dining companion, a pea-hater, asked indignantly of me: "How did those peas get in there?"

Most of the starters are astoundingly inexpensive. Where else in town can you order frituras de malanga by the piece (20 cents each), conch fritters (30 cents each), fish or crab croquettes (60 cents each), a cup of fish soup for 95 cents, or a fresh fish sandwich for $1.50? Even such meals-in-a-bowl as crab salad, shrimp salad, and shrimp cocktail are only $3.75 each; ceviche is $3.25, and a half-dozen oysters on the half shell are $2.99.

In addition to the shrimp and scallops cooked a variety of ways for $7.50 and the aforementioned, lower-priced daily specials, the list of entrees includes whole lobster, lobster tails, and red snapper, plus grouper steaks and snapper fillets, all priced by the pound. On the night we visited, lobster was going for $9.45 per pound, stone crabs for $9.75 per pound.

Because I was so full from the escabeche, I passed up a slew of stone crabs and other formidable crustaceans in favor of a lobster tail. Served in the shell, the tail was cut into four easy-to-pick pieces. That's the good news. The bad news is that it was smothered in a sauce of its own juices fortified with red peppers, and - you guessed it - peas. The tail was perfectly cooked and succulent, but the sauce added little to the taste. I would have preferred simple drawn butter, but then we are in a decade of raising our health and nutrition consciousness. My meal also included a large mound of plain white rice, which was moist and steaming.

As for my dining companion's harina con jaiba, he scraped the bowl clean. In fact, he announced that at $2.99 - that's no typo, the restaurant offers two to three specials daily at less than $5.95 - the meal was one of the best and most filling he's had anywhere. His selection was presented in a large soup bowl brimming with a thick, cornmeal mush studded with chunks of crab and one claw sticking up in the center. The mush was less grainy than its American cousin, and whole-kernel corn had been mixed into the meal. I found the dish to be on the bland side, but my dining companion - who has conquered a salt-and-seasoning addiction while I have not - found it delightful, a homey, belly-warming concoction perfect for a chilly evening. (Specials usually revolve around seafood-and-rice dishes, but a couple of the more ambitious specials are Wednesday's arroz con calamares, squid with rice, which costs $2.99, and paella, a Sunday special at $5.95.)

Beer and wine are available, and the fact that a restaurant so modest in looks and menu has a wine list was a pleasant surprise. And the list contains more than just sangria and Riunite (although both are offered, for $11 per liter and $10 per bottle, respectively), but also a thoughtful selection ranging from liebfraumilch from Germany ($12) to Chablis vintages from France ($24) to Pouilly Fuisse ($34).

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