Groupers have giant heads, which combined with neatly pressed white napkins and tasteful interiors, explain why a good piece of fish comes at a high price.
Great seafood in South Florida is as ubiquitous as bad driving, and some of the best can be had at prices as low as a few bucks. Keeping it cheap, more than anything, is about lowering overheard, developing and maintaining relationships with fisherman and not selling a species just because it's en vogue.
"When I tell people here in South Florida I'm offering yellow jack or mackerel, they look at me weird," said Sam Gorenstein, a partner at My Ceviche. "People tend to think yellow jack or mackerel are garbage fish."
Gorenstein left his job running BLT Steak in the Betsy Hotel to open a restaurant with Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel. When that fell through, Gorenstein partnered with Roger Duarte, of George's Stone Crab, to open the no-frills seafood spot on Washington Avenue.
Instead going after the 'garbage' fishermen, who make their money on volume, he went after pricier species like grouper and snapper. The reason a fish like grouper costs more, Gorenstein said, is because "grouper has a big head. You're not going to get a big yield and that's why it's more expensive."
Grouper will come off the boat costing $3.50 to $4 a pound, but that includes the head, guts and everything else that will see only the garbage can. A mackerel or kingfish, which has a smaller head and a higher yield per pound, will be bought for about $2 per pound.
And let's not forget about the role marketing plays in what we like to eat.
"Go to Whole Foods and you'll see Chilean Sea Bass," Gorenstein added. "It's an endangered species, it comes in frozen, and it doesn't taste like anything."
David Garcia, who along with his family runs the Flagler Street landmark La Camaronera, said his location is part of the reason they can dish out a bigger-than-the-plate fish fillet for $12. The other half is the relationship with a fleet of fisherman.
"We're not on Lincoln Road, we're in the middle of Little Havana," he said. "We have three boats for fish and three boats for lobster out of the Keys.
"They're independent and some of them we've been working with for 20-plus years," Garcia added, noting that those long-term relationships give him more buying power.
The same for Gorenstein: "The guys I buy my fish form are the same guys for eight or nine years. Obviously, they will sell much less expensive to me than they would to someone else."
At La Camaronera their trademark pan con minuta sandwich features a tail-on yellowtail fillet. Garcia said he also works with Corvina and that snapper is often his go-to species.
"Red snapper, lane snapper, hog snapper, those are my top selling fish," he said.
Snapper is often caught locally, but imported from Central and South America as well. The key to finding the best stuff is looking for the parts you're going to throw away.
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"You'll know if it's local or not if it has the head or the guts," Gorenstein said. "The first thing they take to save on shipping cost is the guts."
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