As diners enter Heads or Tails Seafood, they are greeted by a smoky fish-fry aroma and the scent of raw fish emanating from the retail market located immediately to the right. Some pause and peer at the fishmongers furiously filleting sundry snappers, groupers, and other carcasses of the sea before they are arrayed in a display case. A few patrons walk right through the restaurant and settle into one of the outdoor seats in back. Most, though, concentrate on securing a stool at the counters that line both sides of the long, rectangular room. Parts of the place's well-worn walls are marked with seaside murals, the rest sponged blue in a crude mimicry of the ocean. The menu, printed on a paper place mat and set in front of each seat, translates into: fish, fish, and more fish, either griddled or fried. Flip a coin to decide if you must, but it doesn't really matter which way it falls. At Heads Or Tails, you can't lose.
The only full-size hot appetizer is a plate of fried calamari, which almost everyone seems to order. It is an enviable version, the rings lightly dusted with flour and crisply flash-fried. Add a few squeezes of lemon (bowls of wedges sit on the counter) and you're set. Other warm selections are dominated by a fried assortment of fritters and croquettes ranging in price from $.80 to $1.25 per piece. The former feature small balls of conch or bacalao. Although they are crunchy on the outside and bound with savory breading within, the abundance of filler and seasoning made it difficult to tell the two apart. I preferred the log-shape lobster croquettes, the interiors being creamier, the breaded crusts softer and more lightly fried. Empanadas also impress, the half-moons of flaky pastry enveloping minced crabmeat that is moistened with a peppery red shellfish sauce.
Heads or Tails' everyday soup is a weak fish broth stocked mostly with mushy rice. Go instead with the daily-changing cream-based choice. Monday's cream of seafood soup delivered a smooth, rust-color chowder with a rich crab-flavor base. Saltines are served on the side.
Heads or Tails Seafood
3621 NW 54th St, Miami; 305-634-2581.
Open Monday through Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Chilled shrimp, oyster, or octopus with cocktail sauce makes for a refreshing starter, as does the conch or mixed seafood salad, both soaked in a ceviche-style citrus marinade. What was billed as octopus "ceviche" turned out to be big chewy chunks of pulpo so imbued with vinegar as to be practically pickled. Pass on this one.
By now you've likely guessed this is not the place for delicate epicurean etiquette. You've probably also correctly assumed waiters don't follow formal rules of service meaning if you get up to use the restroom, you won't find your napkin neatly folded like a pope's hat upon return. But as is usually the case at more informal joints, all front-of-house functions are performed by a veteran staff in the sort of efficient, no-nonsense manner we wish our finer dining venues would emulate.
Main courses are accompanied by varying choices of red or black beans, French fries, plantains, tostones, salad, and white or yellow rice, the last gussied up with snippets of seafood. The salad is generously portioned and graced with ripe red tomato slices, although none of the sides is anything special. But when you're paying between $6.99 and $8.99 for a sizable seafood meal, it doesn't matter.
Great prices only partially explain why most of the stools here remain occupied from noon through closing at 6:00 p.m. Heads or Tails' popularity also rests on the unquestionable freshness and consistently adept preparation of its catch. Whole snapper and a half-dozen jumbo breaded shrimp are neatly fried and moist within. Thick wedges of dolphin and, even better, steak cuts of full-flavor kingfish (mackerel) are assertively seasoned and crisply griddled on a sheet pan that's placed over high heat (referred to on the menu as grilled). Even shrimp creole, which requires more culinary finesse than the other dishes, is inordinately tasty, the juicy crustaceans ribboned with onions and green peppers in a spirited garlic-and-bay-leaf-laden sauce.
Grilled or fried fillets of tilapia, grouper, dolphin, salmon, and an occasional specialty are also offered as entrées. You can likewise order any of the aforementioned fish fluffed onto a burger bun with lettuce and tomato at $4.99, one of the savviest sandwich deals in town. Add an ice-cold bottle of beer, and lunch begins looking mighty fine. The only thing Heads or Tails lacks is an ocean view. Then again, there is take-out.
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