Many years ago I found myself sitting on the outdoor patio at Joe's Seafood Restaurant a photogenic vista of the Miami River on the horizon, a piece of depressingly overdressed fish on the plate. It was agonizing to think, as I slowly poked at the sorry specimen with my fork, that right next door, at Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market, people were enjoying the same view but with much better food. I could literally hear their happy chatter floating through the air from the quietude of my seat. I never went back to Joe's.
Recently I found myself sitting on the same outdoor patio, at Casablanca's on the River (formerly Joe's) a photogenic vista of the Miami River on the horizon. On the plate was a piece of fried grouper sided by French fries so pale and limp they appeared to have been cooked by heat lamp. It was agonizing to think that right next door well, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it was like déjà view all over again.
It should have been apparent that something was fishy as soon as I noticed the "Joe's" signage still in place outside Casablanca's has been open for three months now. In fact Joe remains the owner, and Casablanca has taken over management. The drab interior décor hasn't changed. One wall hosts an old, blue-tile mural of the sea; the other side of the rectangular room is taken up by a full-service bar, display case of seafood, and long counter behind which a lineup of workers cooks fish. The dingy space is dimly lit at night, so most prefer dining on the long outside patio, which contains about three-quarters of the 160 total seats.
Casablanca's on the River
404 NW North River Dr, Miami; 305-371-4107
Open for lunch and dinner daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Diners are started off with saltines and mahi-mahi fish dip a Garcia's/ Joe's/now Casablanca's signature. Our starter of crisp fried calamari followed soon enough, accompanied by a plastic cup each of cocktail sauce and inedibly cheap tartar sauce. A ceviche of snapper with big chunks of lime-soaked fish highlighted with red onions and diced peppers proved more popular. The rest of the appetizer choices are conch fritters, fried shrimp, shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell, and Florida stone crabs, the last offered in sizes such as large, jumbo, super jumbo, and colossal. An order of super jumbo claws were "market priced" at two for $45, and one single colossal cost a whopping $69. There used to be a time when you could take your whole family to dinner at a place like this for less than that.
Back in such a time, I was working behind a delicatessen counter in Boulder, Colorado, and Tom Waits swaggered in for a bite to eat. "You got a grill?" he inquired in his inimitably gruff voice. When told no, just a griddle, he grumbled, "Ain't got a grill, ain't got a thrill." Casablanca's ain't got a grill either, but still the restaurant offers its lineup of fish and shellfish "broiled, fried, or grilled." Not until I was served a griddled snapper did it become clear there would be no thrills here, no tantalizing touch of charcoal smoke upon the steaks of fish.
At least the snapper was snappy-fresh "from the boats to your table," as Casablanca's motto goes. You can see some fillets lined up in the somewhat shabby display case, and many other jewels of the sea showcased more seductively next door at Casablanca Fish Market still arguably the best place to purchase fresh fish. Product this pristine needs only a squeeze of citrus, which is a nice way of dismissing the array of side sauces offered: "creole, garlic, green, butter, lemon, or wine." None noticeably improved the natural flavor of the seafood, which encompasses red snapper, grouper, yellow tail, mahi-mahi, salmon, shrimp, scallops, and lobster. For truly overwrought preparations, try "chef specialty" items such as salmon smeared with honey mustard, grouper chunks gunked with garlic, and fish of the day soused with mushroom sauce or baked and caked with almond crust. I often think that a chef who makes food like this would, if Angelina Jolie walked into his bedroom naked, be struck with an urge to dress her.
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Most meals range from $14.95 to $17.95 and include a salad or grouper chowder, the latter a thin, tasty broth with carrots and shrivels of fish. New England clam chowder, which must be ordered separately, brought little bits of bacon and clam mingling with potatoes in an overly thick cream base. Dinners come with a side dish, too, such as black beans, yellow rice with chunks of fish, or three big, starchy disks of fried plantains.
Lunch is a little better. The river backdrop exudes a Kodachrome brightness, the crowd is larger and livelier, and there are extra waiters on deck, increasing your odds of getting someone's attention if you require water, the check, whatever. (The waiters here are nice kids but do not deliver particularly sharp service.) Most of the dinner entrées are available for a reduced price (fillets $10 to $12, or $15 per pound for whole fish), but sandwiches are the way to go. A griddled plank of dolphin plunked into a puffy white roll with lettuce, tomato, and red onion slices would have constituted an almost perfect sandwich, but, not content to leave well enough alone, the kitchen crew drowned the poor dolphin in Russian dressing which isn't mentioned on the menu. Request your Russian on the side (which is how it should be served to begin with). Accompanied by fries, the dolphin sandwich is just $7.95; snapper and grouper cost a bit more.
Key lime pie hit the spot with tart and creamy custard, a soft graham crust, and a small squiggle of whipped cream lacing the side. Chocolate mousse, mango mousse, tres leches, and flan fill out the rest of what seems a rather listless list of sweets. I'd rather finish up with a bottle of beer and watch the river roll by, just like time, and daydream that one day a truly great seafood house shall be spawned on this spot. With daily catches chalked on a blackboard. Freshly baked biscuits. Homemade sauces, seasonal vegetables, a scintillating wine list. And, for goodness' sake, a grill!
In the meantime, I suppose there is always Garcia's.