A Simple Feast
When dinner hour approaches at Captain Jim's, a friendly fish market that's also an informal (five Formica tables) restaurant, everybody eats in, even if they've just come for take-out. That's because while the crowd waits for orders or service, the personnel behind the fish counter (who remain friendly even when frenzied) hand out free samples of homemade conch salad to anyone who wants it. And you'd be a fool not to. The samples aren't those little plastic spoonfuls gourmet stores give out; they're servings of a size more formal restaurants would consider a five-buck appetizer. And it's good stuff: the conch tender, onions and bell peppers fresh and crunchy, hot pepper spicing assertive enough to send any lurking flu germs racing for cover.
While Captain Jim's primarily is a fish store (the bright-eyed and firm-fleshed local fish are brought in fresh every morning by the fishing boats of Miami native Jim Hanson and other local fisherfolks), most prepared food on the roughly dozen-item restaurant menu is absolutely terrific.
Required eating as a starter is an order of conch fritters, six big beautiful balls, which will not be enough: These are state-of-the-art conch fritters. While one needs a magnifying glass to locate the seafood in most conch fritters, these are positively packed with sizable pieces of conch, onion, and green pepper. And the light enclosing batter, similar in texture to a Spanish churro (or Italian zeppole, or French cruller) is so well seasoned with chili and citrus that one could easily forget to use the accompanying dipping sauce -- though one shouldn't. This hot and sassy remouladelike concoction puts the "tart" back in tartar sauce. A choice of seafood (grouper, snapper, dolphin, or conch) and preparation (fried or grilled) is offered for fish sandwiches. The bun encloses a generous seafood serving -- two big fillets, as well as lettuce, tomato, and onion -- and with the tartar sauce piled on, the sandwich is terrifically tasty. It's accompanied, like most entrées, by coleslaw plus a side of fries, hush puppies, or rice and beans. The last two are good. But the crisp coleslaw is outstanding -- you may be tempted to double up on it and skip the other sides.
All deep-fried items are done well, but Key West shrimp are particularly impressive, since seconds of overcooking can turn shrimp tough as rubber bands. The six jumbo pink shrimp come totally tender, their light breading almost greaseless.
Most eateries as humble as Captain Jim's usually have no problem with the fried stuff but invariably fail when it comes to more complex preparations; "above all, avoid sauces" is the rule. To which Captain Jim's scampi is the exception. The dish's seven medium-size broiled shrimp are even more moist and tender than the fried jumbos, and with its "secret mouth-watering garlic sauce"(which contains melted butter, lots of diced garlic, salt, and several seasonings I can't figure), served on a bed of plain white rice, is simple and simply perfect.
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