There's no way anyone who lives in Miami doesn't know this rustic whitewashed wooden fish house with the knotty-pine-paneled interior. It's everyone's neighborhood joint, even for those who don't live in the neighborhood. Because, besides being on a busy Biscayne corner, it has that look, the one that somehow speaks to the most comforting moments of everyone's past: It says, "You're home," no matter where home originally was. To Southerners the building instantly evokes an old cracker fish camp; to Cuban Americans, harborside homemade ceviche; to New Englanders, a down-shore clambake shack. And so on.
When I moved down here in 1993, the place was the Fish Peddler. Now, after several changes of hands, it's Café Del Mar. And while signs in the windows touting the current specialties did not exactly scream "reassuringly old-fashioned" (since said specialties seemed to be the former fish, plus barbecue and sushi), they did scream "reassuringly weird," which proved perfectly true. The advertisement for barbecue is actually a leftover from some interim owners (in other words, there's none now), but there is indeed an extensive sushi selection on a menu otherwise as old-time fish house as ever. And the New England clam chowder currently is served up, surrounded by the same stuffed-fish/fishnet décor, by a French fellow from Toulouse. How much more traditionally melting-pot American can ya get?
Lovers of local seafood will especially appreciate seasonal specials featuring certain sorts of fish frequently caught here but seldom seen on menus, such as sweet, delicate pompano. But one also finds the usual suspects like grouper and mahi-mahi, both available for lunch as one of the freshest -- and most formidably sized -- fish sandwiches in town. For hungry carnivorous lunchers, there's an equally stuffed sandwich of homemade turkey.
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SHOW ME HOW
Caf Del Mar
8699 Biscayne Blvd.
305-759-1100. Open Sunday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and Saturday 4:00 p.m. to midnight.
Admittedly some timeworn standards are now offered with a new soupçon of French flair. Peel-and-eat shrimp -- spectacularly red-striped specimens -- come with aioli, though classic cocktail sauce is there, too. Mixed-seafood ceviche also is done a bit differently: fish, shrimp, and calamari bits in a citrus marinade spiced with French fine herbs rather than more typically Latin flavors, and less searingly hot than most in Miami -- a kinder, gentler intro for ceviche novices.
As for the sushi, it's available at dinner only, though raw-fish-loving midday diners will find other options, including salmon tartar dotted with shallots and dressed with an extra-virgin olive oil and lemon-cilantro vinaigrette. Diners who feel dubious about ordering such exotic raw-fish dishes at an old-time fish house, fearing that the sushi might be as old-timey as the mounted sailfish on the walls, need only step next door to the same management's Biscayne Fish Market to appraise their dinner. It will appear so sparkling-eyed fresh (none of the milky-eyed look typical of too-long-dead fish), they will swear it is appraising them back.