Captain Jim's might well have burned down years ago.
"Once we got in here and opened up the ceiling, I was surprised it never caught fire," says David Garcia, who took over the iconic North Miami restaurant early this year. "The place was a dump. It was so dirty I wouldn't let anybody I didn't
Garcia is a member of a family that owns one of the city's most iconic restaurants, Garcia's, on the Miami River. The 40-year-old, tall with a trimmed week-old beard and shaggy amber hair, also owns Little Havana's long-standing La Camaronera. But his greatest challenge to date might be restoring Captain Jim's Seafood Market & Restaurant (12950 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami; 305-892-2812; captainjimsmiami.com) to its former glory. So far, he's spent nearly a year and more than $300,000 doing so.
If you've lived north of Flagler Street for a while, you've likely visited the place. It started as a distribution center in 1996 and for decades served ridiculously fresh seafood, both to eat there and take home. The founder, Jim Hanson, who is 54, grew up on his father's commercial fishing boat. By age 19, he'd saved up enough money to buy his own and began running it out of Key Largo. Fishing was simpler — no licenses or moratoriums on certain species. "We could go out and catch and sell the fish we wanted," Hanson recalls.
The North Miami restaurant just sort of evolved after he realized he could cut out the middleman and sell directly to restaurants. He installed a small display in the front of a warehouse he was using on West Dixie Highway. Soon lines stretched out the door for fresh fish and a simple menu that included conch fritters, conch salad, fried fish, and shrimp.
"Pretty soon we noticed people were sitting down to eat at the little waiting chairs, so we put five tables in there," Hanson says. In 1999, it became a bona fide place to eat. "I never planned to be in the restaurant business; the customers insisted on it," he says. When hurricanes crashed into Florida during the mid-2000s, Hanson's business took a plunge and he divorced. He made a clean break, handing over the building to his ex and heading back down to the Keys, where he now runs four fishing boats based in Little Torch Key.
The restaurant changed hands before Garcia bought it. He closed it for quite a while and upgraded the structure and inner workings. But other than removing some nautical bric-a-brac and about half of the seafood display cases, he left much of the interior intact. When Garcia quietly reopened in early August, longtime customers rushed back with joy and a hint of apprehension. But the consensus is that he's stayed the course, preserving the restaurant's simple glory and ensuring its existence for years to come.
"When they were closed, I searched all over Dade County for a decent conch fritter and couldn't find one," says Allyson Warren, a paralegal and community activist who's used the restaurant as an ad hoc workspace for more than two decades. "David got them perfectly. They're full of conch, they're crunchy, and they're not greasy. He didn't change a thing."
Nearly all of the other menu items were also retained. Conch salad ($13.99) boasts large, meaty hunks of mollusk tossed in a spicy tomato marinade with precisely cubed bits of red and green pepper. The meat in the conch chowder ($4.99 for a cup, $7.99 for a bowl) is just as plentiful and tender, cloaked in a rich tomato broth filled with large pieces of celery, onion, carrot, and potato. Forget churros and chocolate — this is what you want the next time the weather turns cold.
Upon entering, diners are greeted by a case full of gleaming yellowtail snapper of various sizes — and it's a mistake not to get one grilled, fried, or blackened. The fish, caught in the Keys, boasts crisp skin and moist flesh. Both whole fish and fillets come with a single side. Garcia could have opted to include yuca or tostones among the offerings. Instead, he directed the kitchen to continue with perfect options such as creamed spinach, crisp sweet potato fries, and addictively sweet hush puppies.
Traditional entrées such as shrimp and grits ($18.99) are equally delightful. In this case, a craggy heap of creamy grits is crowned with a rich cream sauce, something like a béchamel, and served with tender Gulf shrimp sautéed with bacon and green onions. The
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It's important to note that some items, such as New England seafood dishes with lobster or Ipswich clams, have been rightly removed from the menu, and there might be more changes afoot. But Garcia is in no hurry to alter things. He still sells, for instance, the Captain's Combo ($23.99), which on a recent day offered a heaping pile of fried conch, Florida shrimp, and buttery yellowtail fillets.
"Part of me not putting this place under my name was because I'm Hispanic and I felt like that might change its perception," Garcia says. "I also felt like there was history here and it was worth continuing."
Though the neighborhood has seen huge growth in its Haitian population, that community hasn't gravitated toward Captain Jim's, so Garcia plans to add some "Caribbean flair" to the menu. The idea is to draw a crowd similar to the one at La Camaronera in Little Havana, where disparate communities for decades have met to eat snapper sandwiches.
"At one point, it seemed most of the people who came here were Anglo, which was pretty shocking," Garcia says. "We want to cater to everybody, not just one demographic."