By David Minsky
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The tenuous timeline of a restaurant's trendiness was inadvertently epitomized long ago by — who else? — Yogi Berra. It happened when a teammate suggested they dine at a New York hot spot. "Nah, nobody eats there anymore," the baseball bard said dismissively. "It's too crowded."
Nelson and Mayneth Sanchez, owners of the nearly two-year-old Fifi's Place, needn't concern themselves with what's au courant; Fifi's is about fish, not froufrou. Nelson, a Cuban-American bred in New York and Miami, works the front of the house in an amiable and accommodating manner. His wife, Mayneth, from Venezuela, leads the cooking crew in the kitchen; she is better known as Fifi. They started this modest mom-and-pop operation after concluding their North Beach neighborhood was full of edifying ethnic eateries but short on exceptional ones. Fifi's doesn't meet that bar, but the seafood served here is exceptionally fresh.
The restaurant is split in two. Diners enter a room that is smaller (about 20 seats) and more hectic. It houses storage areas, service stations, and ice coolers of fresh fish in a passageway across from the kitchen. The quieter and roomier 50-seat adjacent space is soothingly lit and handsomely adorned with artwork and white linen tablecloths. Nature lovers who opt for outdoor tables on Collins Avenue can watch Mustangs, Jaguars, and Broncos charge by.
Diners start with a plate of biscuit-like rolls similar to the Pillsbury, bake-at-home kind. We were not impressed. For fish-phobic folks, the menu offers two steaks (Delmonico and New York strip) and three chicken treatments (grilled breast, grilled breast over yellow rice, and fried "chunks"), but the rule at Fifi's is — and I don't mean to sound rude here — it's the seafood, stupid. In particular, fresh selections of the day such as black grouper and hog or mutton snapper. Customers choose whole or filleted and then decide among grilled, steamed, or fried. We tried grilled whole hog snapper, whose mild white flakes are slightly sweeter than that of mutton. The hog is weighed and priced ($24.99 per pound; the mutton is $21.99 per pound); ours came to $16. The fish was not so much grilled as griddled, but the texture was delicate and the taste pristine. Bites of the fried version, to no surprise, boasted more flavor.
Fussier treatments are offered as well, such as Dover sole in mushroom sauce and black cod in miso sauce, the latter flaking into its customary moist, translucent, mirin-and-sugar-sweetened meat; a gloppy and sweeter miso sauce on the side proved superfluous. Excepting a few such Asian dishes, the cuisine here leans Latin.
A septet of seafood — shrimp, squid, scallops, lobster, fish, mussels, and clams — comes prepared four ways: over spaghetti or in a light soup (each $24.99), as grilled parillada items, and in paella ($45.99 for two). Paella is most popular with patrons — Fifi's rendition proving reputable if not riveting. There is certainly no shortage of shellfish shot through the yellow rice; the platter is plush with shrimp, calamari, mussels, scallops, and a halved whole Florida lobster tail.
Prices have risen over the past year and aren't as low as one might expect at so humble an establishment. Yet there are still items for $16 and less, including shrimp in garlic sauce or over yellow rice, and a fillet of grilled or fried Pacific swai (also called iridescent shark, but actually part of the catfish family); the catch of the day generally works out to less than $20. All entrées include a salad of sliced avocado and tomato over greens plus choice of passable mashed potatoes or rice and black beans (the latter lamentably laced with a load of garlic). These are also proffered à la carte, as are yuca fries and plantain chips. Vegetables are in scarce supply.
As with main courses, starters slide along a wide price scale. On the high end are Florida lobster in "creamy spicy sauce" ($25.99) and stone crabs with mustard dipping sauce ($19.99 for seven medium, $39.99 for three jumbo, or $45.99 for two colossal; presumably, had they been able to come up with an adjective connoting larger than colossal, they would have raised the price for one to $59.99). More affordable apps ($7.99 to $15.99) include Malpec oysters, fried calamari, seafood cocktail (shrimp, scallops, and calamari), and "Tai miso": tender, thinly shaved slices of hog snapper pooled in soy-ponzu sauce and contrasted with fried crisps of elephant garlic. Our waitress tried to sway us from choosing this, telling us how "small" it was. It turned out to be the best starter we tried.
Lobster bisque is best bypassed. The texture is gummy, the taste garlicky, and there's very little lobster for $9.99. A trio of Kobe beef sliders is also on hand; that a neighborhood seafood joint is proffering this dish strongly suggests the pampered Wagyu cow has officially jumped the shark or over the moon or whatever.
Nelson and Mayneth are still learning: A review posted on the wall posits that a plate of pricey rock shrimp swathed in spicy sauce comes free of charge; now it's on the menu for $12.99. Some patrons were overheard questioning why they were billed for it in light of that writeup. The waiter explained that only first-timers get it gratis — and, presumably, you have to mention it. We did just that. ("When you come to a fork in the road," as Yogi once said, "take it.") As a freebie, it sufficed, but the mayonnaise-based sauce made the fried shrimp soggy; worse, the flavor was cloying and greasy. This sauce also smothers a lobster dish and Nova Scotia scallops — indicative of less-than-multidimensional cooks.