It was a warm Sunday afternoon, and Brickell's high-rises loomed on the hazy horizon beyond the nearby Miami River. Quaint fishing boats bobbed on the water's rippling surface, and rays of sunlight glimmered upon the soft waves.
But a few steps from these quiet waters, dozens of shoppers elbowed each other to get to a fishmonger. They huddled about glass display cases and pointed at icy piles of whole mackerel, mutton snapper, yellowtail, and red grouper. Questions like "What else do we need for the asopao?" were audible above the humming chatter of Spanglish. The setting was loud, and it reeked of the sea.
A stunning blond Russian model wearing a silk scarf as a flimsy shirt pushed through the crowd. Balanced on six-inch stilettos and clutching an ivory Louis Vuitton handbag, she demanded ten pounds of wild-caught shrimp, fresh lobster tails, and bay scallops.
She quickly received her catch, dropped some cash on the counter, and pushed through the throng at Casablanca Seafood Market while lugging plastic bags full of ice and fresh fish.
"¡Propina buena!" an employee howled. A good tip!
Despite Miami's coastal location, markets with fresh local seafood are hard to come by. Grocery stores carry an abundance of frozen, subpar product. At specialty places, offerings include farmed salmon and catfish. In locally owned fish markets, consumers can purchase both overfished Chilean sea bass and wild Gulf Coast shrimp.
I recently visited four of the county's most acclaimed fish markets — Captain's Tavern in Pinecrest, Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market in downtown Miami, Captain Jim's Seafood in North Miami, and Casablanca Seafood Fish Market, a neighbor of Garcia's — and ranked them according to their characteristics. On my visits, some markets stocked whole local fish — for Miamians who appreciate locally caught fresh snapper, grouper, or mackerel. But other places offered flavorless tilapia and deveined Asian-farmed shrimp. According to a 2012 Bloomberg report, Asian seafood is not only often farmed in unsustainable and unsanitary conditions, but also sometimes raised on antibiotics and pig feces.
Also, many consumers don't know that fishermen remove guts usually within a day of fishing because they are among the first parts to spoil. Heads must be cut off within a few days. After a week, the fish must be turned into a fillet. At this point, it can remain unspoiled for another couple of days. That means you could be buying days-old fish.
Although these four markets offer similar catches, qualities such as service, inventory, and turnover rates distinguished the champion from the rest. All are far better than the grocery store and worth a visit.
4. Captain's Tavern
When the fishmonger at Captain's Tavern, a Pinecrest seafood market adjacent to its eponymous restaurant, spotted me taking notes, he asked, "You working on a project or something?" He seemed bored, and there was no one else in the narrow shop until an 80-something woman walked in. Her voice was raspy, probably from too many cigarettes. She skipped the glossy fillets of yellowtail snapper ($16.99 a pound) and the shell-on Key West pink shrimp ($14.99) before opting for Chilean sea bass and cleaned Asian farmed shrimp. "This'll make my husband happy," she said with a grin.
The store's shelves were loaded with wines, Maldon sea salt, and Old Bay seasoning. But refrigerators were lacking one thing: whole fish. There were frozen lobsters and fillets of grouper, tilapia, tuna, halibut, and sea bass — but no whole fish.
The sea bass looked dry and dull, which indicated it had likely not been filleted that day. The grouper and snapper, however, glistened.
Captain's Tavern offers a variety of seafood, and its refrigerators are stocked with fillets because, according to a representative at the market, it's simply what consumers want. (Although not on display, some fish is occasionally available whole, the rep said.) When it comes to ranking markets, a varied inventory of whole fish always makes for a better option.
3. Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market
Garcia's, a family-owned Miami staple since 1966, has many notable attributes. It has a rickety wooden deck by the river. Staffers supply patrons with copious amounts of complimentary seafood dip and saltines. Its waterfront environs encourage the drinking of booze — particularly many, many Presidente beers — as well as the excessive consumption of crisply fried fish.
But "fish market" is probably a misnomer. The refrigerator is located a few steps from the kitchen. It stands alone, seemingly out of place at the restaurant's entrance. Inside, yellowtail snappers ($7.99 a pound), with clear eyes and intact guts, are stacked next to a small compartment of medium, large, and colossal stone crabs. A blackboard lists specialties such as fresh Florida lobster and Apalachicola oysters, as well as local catches like mahi-mahi ($11.99), swordfish, conch steaks, and grouper.
At Garcia's, timing is everything. When I stepped in during the lunch rush with a hankering to grill mahi-mahi at home, I had to flag down an employee, persuade him to stop bussing tables, and fillet me some fish from the walk-in. When the restaurant is busy, it's best to arrive with time and patience.
Although Garcia's has a small inventory of fresh, high-quality seafood, it is first and foremost a restaurant. When the kitchen is slammed — and it almost always is — staff members hesitate and struggle to supply you with fish. Better, more efficient service could have garnered this North River Drive institution a higher spot on the list.
2. Captain Jim's Seafood
Mid-morning on a Monday, the skins on Spanish mackerel and yellowtail snapper were shimmering at Captain Jim's Seafood in North Miami. The shop on West Dixie Highway had just opened its doors for the day. The market was quiet and empty. A single employee loaded an expansive rectangular container with ice. He flung whole fish atop one another and scattered them across the cooler.
A neighboring refrigerator held fillets of yellowfin tuna, dolphin, Chilean sea bass, wild salmon, farmed salmon, and basa — a type of catfish native to Vietnam. The dolphin and tuna had vibrant scarlet blood lines, an indication of a good, fresh fillet.
The selection was small, and offerings like whole yellowtail snapper, at $8.99 a pound, were a dollar or two above other markets' prices. But Captain Jim's has something that some fisheries lack: guts. That weekday at the market, many whole fish were still loaded with their innards.
Because guts are an indicator of freshness, and because this fish market also carries a solid selection of whole catches, Captain Jim's earns a spot as the number two fish market in town.
1. Casablanca Seafood Fish Market
On a recent Sunday there were six or seven employees cleaning and filleting whole fish behind a counter at Casablanca Seafood Fish Market. And on weekends the place bustles with so many customers it's hard to believe that any seafood sits around icy containers for more than a few days.
Yet there are whole fish like branzino — Mediterranean sea bass — that surely weren't caught yesterday or the day before. There's a section devoted to fillets of tilapia and farmed salmon. But there are also loads of local fish, such as yellowfin tuna and red grouper. And most important, prices are among the best around — including whole yellowtail snapper for only $6.99 a pound.
Whether Casablanca is on par with markets in other coastal cities is debatable. By many standards, it's a small place. But for its extensive inventory, cleanliness, high turnover, and all-around rowdiness, Casablanca is the champion of fresh local fish in Miami.