By Emily Codik
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Oddly enough, good Cajun restaurants have been few and far between in Miami. Say maque choux to someone here, and they think you're cursing them in Creole. It's a shame, because there's more to the cuisine than dousing foodstuffs with a finely ground combination of black, white, and cayenne peppers - a form of culinary malpractice that nipped the Cajun trend in the bud here.
But one restaurant is doing its part to revive that trend. Though the food at Big City Fish, tucked amid the hubbub of CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, is not exclusively Cajun, the spirit is there - and it's blended with that of the Old South plus a few eclectic turns on Caribbean, Southwestern, and even Texas barbecue.
The ambiance is warehouse cool, with lots of corrugated aluminum, exposed ductwork, and steel floors. The cluttered, overly chatty menu, which even hawks the restaurant's T-shirts and baseball caps, needs an overhaul, during which silly headings such as B-B-Q-Belt, Fishin' Hole Favorites, Shrimp Bait & Tackle, et al., should be eliminated. Goofy gimmicks aside, the place does have its merits: its look, its kitchen, and a young staff with a joie de vivre that rises above all the fuss.
I skimmed the special $5-a-pop drink menu, stumbled over such godawful-sounding creations as Louisiana Lightning (a libation consisting of rum, Grand Marnier, banana liqueur, apple juice, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice), and zeroed in on the brews, which included Dixie long-necks, Dixie amber light, and Dixie blackened voodoo lager ($3.50 to $4 a bottle), plus Abita brews from Abita Springs, Louisiana; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from Chico, California; Red Horse Malt Liquor from the Philippines, and Texas Light, a non-alcoholic beer from San Antonio, Texas. And if you're in the mood for wine, there's a selection of domestic and imported whites, blushes, reds, and champagne.
As I studied the menu, I sipped a Dixie and enjoyed a complimentary array of crackers with two dips, one of which appeared to be nothing more than mayonnaise stepped up with a few jalapeno tidbits, the other a delicious grouper spread spiced with pureed anchovies. The five specials listed were all seafood entrees reasonably priced between $11.35 and $14.55, including grilled dolphin, grilled tuna, baked cod, sauteed calamari, and pan-fried salmon. On the two-page regular menu, Big City Fish features just about every fruit of the sea: swordfish, snapper, salmon, fish and chips, conch salad, conch fritters, oysters (fried or baked on the half-shell), clams, crab salad, crab cakes, and shrimp of every persuasion - Creole, coconut, popcorn, hurricane (broiled in cane sugar, fresh herbs, and pepper marinade), peel-and-eat, cocktail, and fried. In a tip of the hat to the Southwest, there's even a shrimp quesadilla. Though meats take a back seat to fish here, you can get your po-boys made with "Yankee blackened" chicken or grilled andouille. Barbecue items and a 20-ounce rib steak are also available, along with sides of hush puppies, jambalaya, baked beans, potato pancakes, corn-on-the-cob, cole slaw, red beans and rice, French fries, and fresh house vegetables.
I began my feast with a sampler of the restaurant's three soups ($6.45), a crab-and-corn chowder, a Louisiana seafood gumbo, and a Key West-style conch chowder, which was served with a basket of rather dry corn biscuits. The crab-and-corn chowder was thick with fresh-off-the-cob corn and potatoes, and though the shreds of crab were difficult to discern, their flavor was present. The gumbo was a winner, too, with its distinctive taste of sassafras and just enough okra to give the mixture pizzazz without making it bitter. The conch chowder was the weakest of the trio, but no worse than any other rendition served in restaurants around Miami.
Next I ordered the pan-fried snapper, which arrived at my table piping hot and golden in color, surrounded by a light, flaky tempura-batter coating. A mist of soy-ginger glaze added flavor without detracting from the crispness of the tempura. The snapper inside was sweet, flaky, and moist, and even the mixed vegetables served alongside were exceptionally good. The slightly crunchy melange included zucchini, carrots, celery, corn, green pepper, sweet red pepper, and onion, and had also been embellished with the soy-ginger sauce.
If your dish of whatever is not spicy enough - an unlikely turn of events at this restaurant - you can play Paul Prudhomme yourself. Wire baskets on the tables contained condiments such as Pickapeppa, Cajun Power Garlic Sauce, McIlhenny Tabasco, Melinda's, Crystal, and Panola Cajun Jalapeno Sauce.
Desserts at Big City Fish range in price from $2.25 for vanilla bean ice cream or Jack Daniel's Bourbon ice cream to $6.50 for a rich chocolate cake with cream-cheese-and-pecan icing. Other sweet endings include praline cheesecake, key lime pie, sweet-potato-and-pecan pie, and caramel apple pie.
While there was no way I could have squeezed one more bite down my gullet, I took the last swig of Dixie in my bottle and reflected on my trip to Big City Fish. Yes, it's a little bit Disney, and, yes, it's a little bit southern rock - but the food rises above the funk.