Restaurant Reviews

Fast Fish

Northwest Seventeenth Avenue in Liberty City is not exactly a "restaurant row" tourist track. It's not even a volatile developing destination-dining road (like Biscayne Boulevard in the past few years) for car-cruising foodies. It's more of a reasonably speedy alternative to Biscayne, simply a way to zip north/south faster than would be possible in a mall parking lot, while the ripped-up boulevard continues to undergo its seemingly eternal renovations.

For lovers of deep-fried seafood, however, the decidedly downscale (some would say downright dicey) avenue is a mini mecca. Look left and right as you navigate this grungy byway and you'll notice numerous holes-in-the-wall with signs reading, "You buy, we fry!" Roll down the windows and you'll catch passing powerful waves of the odor that signifies the most succulent Southern fish-camp-style cooking: grease. But good grease, the kind that says high quality and vigorous sales, not the rancid, scorched smell of fat that has been overheated and cooled repeatedly for days as the occasional customer straggles in.

Business has been brisk since Snappers opened about nine months ago, in part probably because its setting is a step up from its neighboring soul-snack joints. Though not close to snazzy, the small corner spot has the well-lit look of standard chain eateries. It also has a drive-through window that's open till 2:00 a.m. or so, even on nights the indoor dinette closes earlier, making late-night food runs feel reassuringly fast, safe, and easy. There's also a sign comforting deep-fried fish fans with the knowledge that their arteries are about to be clogged with 100 percent pure vegetable oil, not mystery cholesterol.

None of the above is to say that Snappers is the fish joint of your dreams. That fantasy would definitely star fresh fish, just pulled from local waters. Snappers' seafood comes from a Sysco truck. Still, along with the grouper et al. are choices absent from most Miami menus, humble but tasty traditional soul food favorites like catfish, ocean perch, and jack salmon (a fish of many definitions, depending mostly on region; here it's not salmon at all, but whiting).

Best is that breading varies according to what's suited to the seafood. Perch, a moist fish, had no problem standing up to a classic cornbread coating; sprinkled liberally with Snappers' ultrasnappy vinegared hot sauce and tucked between slices of regular white bread that comes with all dinners, the three fillets in a small dinner made a most satisfying sandwich-and-a-half. (Dinners come in two sizes, and even the little guy is generous.) In contrast, jumbo shrimp, which would have been overwhelmed by cornmeal's gritty heft, came lightly dusted with flour. Good call.

Don't waste your bucks on fried conch. Rendered dry to the point of mummification by freezer burn, the chunks were also shoe-leather tough because of insufficient tenderizing. Management needs to buy a mallet — and use it, strenuously.

Sides are a mixed bag. Coleslaw delivers the right crunch. Onion rings, lightly battered real onions, are also keepers. Conch fritters pack jalapeño heat and tasty batter but the same petrified conch. Fried okra come crisp but with heavy, insufficiently salted breading. Corn nuggets are pleasantly creamy but no better than Church's. Hush puppies are, well, hush puppies — fried cornmeal blobs originally intended to distract fish camp dogs from the main course. Red velvet cake had tooth-achingly sugary frosting but sufficient buttermilk/vinegar/cocoa bitterness to counter it.

I admit, though, that on one midnight munch-run down Seventeenth Avenue, a doubtless well-meaning cop pulled my car over and advised us, for our own safety, to roll up the windows. As if. Snappers isn't the best fried-fish source in town, but after a tough night of gallery walking in the nearby Design District/Wynwood areas, it sure beats Denny's — and the lowbrow smell of good grease, blocks away, is at least half the pleasure.

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Pamela Robin Brandt